On language, literature and fashion


Fashion and literature are two creative fields which, superficially, appear quite disconnected. How are we to place together a quite visual and tactile manifestation of art (albeit one often accused of frivolity or shallowness) with something altogether much less so? Yet upon closer inspection, it is clear that there are a variety of ways in which the interplay between fashion and literature comes to the fore.


Roland Barthes’ Système de la mode is an early example of the application of linguistics to fashion, and from it we see clearly how literature and fashion may be linked. Barthes argues for a view of fashion as semiological, akin to language, with an underlying ‘grammar’. That is, fashion conveys meaning – the miniskirt is a sign which tells the society things about the person who chooses to wear it.  Barthes argues that clothes become ‘fashion’ when words are applied to them: in his view, right from the offset we can only consider ‘fashion’ as the interplay of clothing and language.


Naturally, much of the language applied to fashion is to be found in fashion magazines, and it is perhaps such texts to which Barthes primarily refers. However, literature too, insofar as it is a representation of human life, necessarily comprises fashion, including it both as ancillary and fundamental parts of narrative.


Literature can play three roles in fashion: first, it can function as a depiction of fashion. Through presentation of clothing in literature, an author might exploit Barthes’ semiotics of fashion to indicate aspects of a character which might otherwise go unsaid; or equally that the reader might, especially in the case of texts written in another era or place, learn about, and experience something of, the particular fashion(s) characteristic to them.


Secondly, literature may function as a means through which fashion is created: not only through application of words to clothing, but also through the creation of characters and worlds with which clothing becomes inextricably linked. Novels such as Vanity Fair and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, which include intricate depictions of clothing, may help – especially in a different era – to popularise fashion trends.


Lastly, literature, in a reverse process, serves as inspiration to fashion. In all areas of fashion production, literature can be seen to be present: from nods to the Lewis Carroll in Zac Posen (Pre-Fall 2010) and Miss Havisham-inspired dresses at Chanel (S/S 2013) to editorials of Gatsby-esque 20s couture (Paris, je t’aime, American Vogue September 2007) and a modernised Jane Eyre (Thornfield in Flame, Vogue Italia July 2013), fashion is heavily indebted to literature as a source of much inspiration.

Whilst fashion is sometimes disparaged as a lesser form of creative art, it too can be equally complex and convey meaning, albeit in a different and more particular manner as compared to literature. We must consider fashion and literature not separate but rather unmistakeably intertwined — the two art forms are in a state of fruitful and productive symbiosis.

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