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Text and Culture Mediate Communication and Meaning Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Sep 11th, 2021


In the 1957 essay, Barthes constantly has in mind the manner in which linguistics had confronted and, as far as he was concerned, resolved a similar set of problems to those he was encountering in his research into clothing. The integration of the ideas of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure into the social sciences has become so familiar that it is often overlooked as to why, and how, this move appeared to promise so much intellectual renewal. At the heart of this intellectual revolution was the conviction that language, and its study through the methods of structural linguistics, could provide a model for explaining much about human activity over and above the strictly linguistic. Clothing seems to resemble language in a number of ways. Like language, clothing was pre-eminently a collective activity.

Core Theses

Clothing, however it is defined, seems to have a universal cultural presence, and while it is not as deeply embedded as language, it could be argued that wearing ‘clothes’ is one of the defining characteristics of being human. Again, like language, clothing is an ‘authorless system’ and not contingent in its operations on the conscious will, or intention, of the individual. Like language, we ‘wear’ within a set of forms and norms and just as we do not ‘just talk’, nor do we ‘just dress’. Finally, clothing seems to resemble language in that it displays a synchronic density, but at the same time also has a diachronic dimension – a history – so that it (clothing) exhibits the dual aspects of system and process, structure and becoming.

There is little evidence in the 1957 essay that Barthes was much taken with this signaling theory of clothing. It is the second element, signification that appears to interest him the most. Generally, signification refers to the quality of significance; the fact that elements in, and of, the world have both meaning and value for human beings. Specifically, Barthes describes it as: signification can be conceived as a process; it is the act, which binds the signifier and the signified, an act whose product is the sign. (Barthes, p.9)

More about the implications of this redefinition of the garment as a sign later, but note that what Barthes wants to establish is that clothes are a meaning within a specific group, as well as a shaped physical mass. The last, and most complex, element in Barthes’s notion of communication is that of exchange. Clothes are not simply ‘transmitters’ of social meanings, they are also key elements in the business of symbolic exchange. There are undoubted traces of the Maussian thesis in the 1957 essay and they form an important part of Barthes’s redefinition of clothes as signs.

To declare that clothes are ‘signs saying something about their wearers …’, or that ‘we communicate with our clothes …’ has become such a commonplace that it would be easy to assume that Barthes’s use of Saussurean semiotics is just his version of clothing as a sort of vestimentary semaphore. While this communicative dimension is present in what Barthes has to say in the 1957 essay, his move toward Saussure has more to do with clarifying the nature of significance, or systematized meaning, in relationship to clothing than with communication. Saussure’s division of the linguistic sign into the signifier and the signified stresses that the meaning of a sign does not inhere in the signifier, but is the product of a process of signification, of ‘meaning-making’. Similarly, the meaning of clothes does not inhere in the physical forms of the stuff out of which they are made; rather, they circulate among the members of that particular clothing dialect. (Hollander, p.743) Barthes repeatedly insists that a distinction must be made between the study of the signifier and the study of the signified. For clothes this means making a distinction between a clothing form, ‘the signifier’ and the garment’s meaning, ‘the signified’.

Clothes are always a combination of a specific signifier and a general signified that is external to it (epoch, country, social class); without being sensitive to this the historian will always tend to write the history of the signified … there are two histories, that of the signifier and that of the signified and they are not the same. (Julian, p.31).

The absence of this distinction between signifier and signified in Flügel and Laver lead them to a rather blunted view of how the meaning of clothing forms operated among their wearers. The perceivers and wearers of clothes were a bit like passive receptacles into which dropped the messages ‘beamed out’ by clothes. The top hat is industrialism. A shortened female skirt is sexual and economic liberation. Meaning and form seem to be cut from the same cloth, and so long as the analyst is studying a geographically bounded social order – for example, the upper classes of the countries of Western Europe – this illusion of unity between a thing and its meaning can continue.

Barthes describes the relevance of Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole to clothing in the following way:

It would appear to be extremely useful to make a similar distinction in clothing; there is an institutional component which is profoundly social and is independent of the individual; this takes the form of a systematic and normative reservoir and does not draw upon any external elements to guarantee its operations. We propose to call this dimension, which corresponds to Saussure’s langue, le costume. The domain proper to the actions of the individual we will call habillement’. This is where the individual makes the institutional personal. Costume becomes a personal garment. Costume and clothing constitute a totality that we propose to call ‘vêtement’. (Terence, P.125).

We can see why this distinction holds a particular fascination for Barthes because it provides him with a way of seeing how the unsystematic fragments of vestimentary behavior are absorbed into the normative structure of a clothing langue and so become available for a clothing group to use. We saw earlier that Barthes speculates on how an ‘acte de pure protection’ became transformed into a collective clothing style with the example of the penule. The dimension of clothing speech is, argues Barthes, a matter of individual expression and therefore not a ‘true’ sociological object of study. He gives, as an example of this gradual formalization, the act of wearing a coat on the shoulders with the sleeves hanging loose. This may start out as a singular vestimentary gesture on the part of an individual and this it will remain so as long as there are no moves to break down the gesture’s singularity. If this style of wearing a coat starts to become distinctive of a particular group, if it begins to achieve a quasi-compulsory status, it has then begun the process of absorption into a system and is well on the way to becoming a gesture with a collective semantic value. (Davis, 3-18).

Barthes introduces a high level of theoretical reflexivity into the discussion of clothing and fashion. His aims are to describe the discrete components of the fashion system; to recast the object of study – clothing – into its proper analytical dimensions and then to propose a set of appropriate methodological procedures through which it may be studied. What gives his revisions such conviction is that each of the moves being proposed draws upon a number of densely formulated intellectual traditions. We have already seen how Marxism provided the general framework for his formulation of the fashion system. Sociology, Barthes consigns to the study of the use and users of clothing, while the key area of ‘collective representations’ is to be analyzed using semiology. What is important here is not the validity of each of these intellectual choices, although it is remarkable how closely those who came later followed the same route, but the fact that Barthes has a framework that could account for why these choices were being made in this instance. Structuralism helped to make analysts conscious of their presuppositions and insisted on the necessity of their being made explicit at every stage. This degree of methodological sophistication, once established in dress and fashion studies, never diminished.

The spectral quality of the Phantasmagoria and the realism of Pepper’s Ghost are elements that come together in another nineteen-century optical medium, photography. Even more than the Phantasmagoria, photography was perceived as being a scientific and objective process. Jennifer Tucker has shown that “from the time of photography’s invention, Victorians identified it as a certain type of human: a ‘witness,’ a ‘detective,’ and a ‘discoverer’”. While the Victorians did not unconditionally accept the photograph as evidence, it was adopted for scientific and policing purposes because of its seeming ability to record events or objects realistically and accurately. (Gunning, 22-26).


Tom Gunning, however, counters this view by suggesting that although photography did appear to be steeped in scientific authority, it was equally perceived in this period, like the Phantasmagoria before it, as an uncanny process. Its ability to create a spectral double of the object being photographed seemed to undermine the unique identity of objects and people” and served to create “(Gunning, 42-71) a parallel world of phantasmatic doubles alongside the concrete world of the senses verified by positivism.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology, trans. A. Lavers and C. Smith, New York: Hill and Wang, 1968, p. 9).

Barthes, Roland. The Rhetoric of the Image’, in Roland Barthes: Image – Music – Text, ed. Stephen Heath, London: Fontana, 1977, p. 38). 13 Davis, F. Fashion, Culture and Identity, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 3–18.

Gunning, Tom. “An Unseen Energy Swallows Space: The Space in Early Film and Its Relation to American Avant-Garde Film.” Film Before Griffith. Ed. John Fell. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983. 22-26.

Gunning, Tom. “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theatre, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny.” Fugitive Images from Photography to Video. Ed. Petro Patrice. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995. 42–71.

Hollander, Anne Seeing Through Clothes, New York, Avon, 1980. See pp. 365–90. 30 Barthes, Oeuvres Complètes, vol. 1, p. 743.

Julian Pefanis, Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard and Lyotard, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1991, p. 31.

Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics, London: Methuen, 1977, p. 125.

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