Fashion as Speech           Previous Page  1 2 3 4
Having and demonstrating taste in dress communicates what Bourdieu calls cultural capital. Cultural capital is a non-financial social asset that promotes social mobility. 'Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed' (Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, 1984)'
Watch the film about cultural capital and ask yourself how it relates to taste in dress. How does one benefit from demonstrating knowledge in dress? On the next page, there is a case-study about this.

In the early 18th century, Lord Chesterfield had reason to write letters to his young son who was abroad acquiring an education. Some letters were on the subject of the son's expenditure on clothes ... that it was not enough! : 'Good God! how I should be shocked if you came into my room for the first time with two left legs, presenting yourself with all the graces and dignity of a Tailor, and your clothes hanging  upon you like those in Monmouth Street, upon tenter-hooks! whereas I expect, nay, require to see you present yourself with the easy and genteel air of a Man of Fashion who has kept good company. I expect you not only well dressed, but very well dressed' (Lord Chesterfield: Letters Written to His Son).

The Sneakers Bible is full of a bewildering array of sports shoes. Making the right choice is not simply a matter of one’s taste, yet in choosing a pair, ones’ taste is demonstrated for all to see. 
Taste, like knowledge of dress, requires learned social skills. For the very young, the wrong trainer sends negative messages to peers and can therefore become a matter of negative self image.  

One way to demonstrate taste is through what Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) calls conspicuous consumption, the application of resources to a public manifestation of social power and prestige. Although Veblen used the term to address the nouveau riche of the Second Industrial Revolution, the term has been redeployed to make sense of contemporary spending behaviour.
In an attempt to understand the spending of the bohemian bourgeois, rich business people with left leanings, I wrote about how the 'Bobo' spent money on adventure and sports clothes in preference to expensive-looking suits. The point isn't that the adventure clothes are cheap, they aren't, but they don't shout money, they say I take risks and I have taste. Here is a sample: ‘Bobo spending patterns reveal the new shopper to be on a mission to avoid becoming Thorstein Veblen's 'conspicuous consumer'. Hence a 'sports utility vehicle' (read Range Rover) meets the need to demonstrate practicality; a vintage Bentley does not. A top of the range kitchen is virtuous; a top of the range media centre vulgar. The key phrase is 'gear up'. It is perfectly acceptable to throw money at 'tools' - gardens and kitchens are particularly venerated as money pits, the watchwords being 'durable', 'connoisseur', 'craftsmanship' and 'gourmet' - but flashy jewellery sends out the wrong signal. The semiotics work like this: a simple dinner service means we are unaffected people, faded denim indicates our rejection of the Modernist principal 'always new', spending $500 on a toxic-purifying baby buggy means we are doting parents'.

It is important to distinguish fashion from clothing. Fashion can relate to cars, hair, even political attitudes. A car, like an outfit, is an extension of the owner’s body.  The study of ‘fashion’ is not truly, therefore, the study of objects or products but the meaning(s) of objects and the processes by which that meaning is produced, disseminated and consumed.
Ask yourself where is the fashion in the Clarks advert? And where is the product? The advert is clearly for shoes, yet the shoes are a tiny part of the image. The advert is making a link between shoes and fashion (the new woman) which is less tangible. The fashion is the cachet behind and around the product.
Clearly there is a strong relationship between fashion (process) and clothes (object) since the latter provides the material from which the former is formed. In other words, fashion frequently materialises in clothes.
Fashion is an ideology – a ‘set of beliefs’ and requires the complicity of those who partake in it. But who decides what’s in fashion or even what fashion is? Is it designers, magazine editors ... consumers?

Watch the following film.
How many of the theories and debates discussed above can you marshal in producing a critique of the dress on display? Identify the most useful terms and write a 100-word review of what you believe the clothes are saying. 

Now, how do you feel about the identities and activity being performed in the film? Where are your ideas and feelings coming from? This will form part of the subject of the next interactive essay.

How to reference this essay: October, Dene. 2013. Fashion as Speech: We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes off.
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link to original article pending clearance
Dene October. The New Hedonists. London: Viewpoint






IMAGE Clarks 1900 – 1940 'The New Woman'