The Fashion Editorial As Historical Document

Fashion photography and editorial constitutes a historical document that offers us evidence of the practices and ideals of a given period. However, fashion photography and editorial is not merely a passive reflection of a period; it is also a vehicle for circulating new patterns of consumption tied to evolving notions of the self and the world (and these are of course not singular!).

At various points throughout the Barthes reading, I recognized certain rhetorical patterns that continue in fashion editorializing (both in magazines but also increasingly on television and new media), but also some that are changed as well. Here are some of the more significant themes he lists:

  1. Themes in trends: nature, geography (exotic locations), history (“which primarily provides models for entire ensembles” or lines), and art.
  2. The work of a detail to “permeate an entire outfit with the meaning of Fashion.” (243) Furthermore, “the detail consecrates a democracy of budgets while respecting an aristocracy of tastes.”
  3. The work of narrative in the “rhetoric of the signified” to create Fashion as an event (e.g., “jetsetter,” “red carpet,” and other scenarios on Project Runway or America’s Next Top Model).
  4. “The being of doing” – the aspirational or fantastical qualities of Fashion that do not assume the reality of “doing.” See the pages 252-253, to see how the fashion editorial transforms the activity of “doing the shopping.”
  5. “The woman of Fashion is a collection of tiny, separate essences rather analogous to the character parts played by actors in classical theater.” (254) “In Fashion, the individualization of the person depends on the number of elements in play and still better, if it is possible, on their opposition.” (255) E.g., “preppy but punky,” “demure but seductive.”
  6. “For Fashion, clothing is not play but the sign of play…the game of clothing is here no longer the game of being, the agonizing question of the tragic universe; it is simply a keyboard of signs from among which an eternal person chooses one day’s amusement.” (257) For instance, in the various trends of the last two years – Russian opulence (involving rich russet brocades), “African” fabric, the Mexican peasant blouse.
  7. Fashion also designates “the fashionable body.” (259)

Here, Barthes notes that “Fashion” produces “Woman” as an abstraction – “imperatively feminine, absolutely young, endowed with a strong identity and yet with a contradictory personality….” He further argues that “In this monster we obviously recognize the permanent compromise which marks the relation between mass culture and its consumers: the Woman of Fashion is simultaneously what the reader is and what she dreams of being.” (260-261) This relation –which is the relation of goods to consumers in general— is both historically specific but also ideologically continuous with capitalist culture.

Consider the above image from the August 2010 issue of Vogue Italia. Refinery 29 blogged:

There’s no denying that these images from the oil spill editorial in Vogue Italia ‘s August 2010 issue are beautiful. The 24 pages of Kristen McMenamy, shot by Steven Meisel, are realistic interpretations of images of injured, oiled animals that have inundated the news media since the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April. As beautiful and provocative as they are, we can’t help but feel uneasy. Creating beauty and glamour out of tragedy seems quite fucked up to us, not to mention wasteful and hypocritical, seeing as thousands of dollars of luxury clothing was flown in, and then subsequently ruined for the shoot. Glamorizing this recent ecological and social disaster for the sake of “fashion” reduces the tragic event to nothing more than attention-grabbing newsstand fodder. But that’s just us. Do you think this is appropriate commentary, or just tasteless?

What is continuous in this fashion editorial with Barthes’ analysis? What is distinctive about this fashion editorial that “speaks” a revised language in this historical moment? What other examples can you find?


One thought on “The Fashion Editorial As Historical Document

  1. In Barthes’ article “Rhetoric of the Signified: The World of Fashion,” one of his major points is that fashion designates “the fashionable body,” which correlates with the idea that body and context matter in determining whether something is fashionable or unfashionable (259). In class we gave examples of the functionality of a sign becoming fashionable like when Ashton Kutcher started wearing trucker hats or women could wear combat boots.

    Fashion magazines photograph models “in a situation” or tied to an event as a way of uniting the signs of that scene to that of the poses and gestures of the body, which give the overall photograph a particular meaning. Therefore, we see the best friends lounging at the beach in their new bathing suits for the summer issues of magazines or all bundled up on the snowy mountains for the winter issues. But the bodies of the models are not some abstract part of the magazine just like the event isn’t some abstract part. The fashion magazines’ photo spreads become a system of signs that regulate people’s life including their body image and duties in society. The cover girl bodies that are splashed across the pages of magazines are not just biological or physical, but an organism of culture. The cover girl body is established as a pure form of the body; therefore, this is a way in which the fashion magazines regulate beautify and fashionable. I pose to other students the question: what other examples of ways in which fashion magazines regulate the body? Does tension exist between high fashion beauty and the reality of what people on the streets dress and look like? How is this tension played out in society?

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