Fashion Theory: Analysing images

Part 2 of a 6-part series on aspects of fashion theory, specifically cultural studies and object analysis. Written partly to reassure myself that I do understand the concepts and partly to help clarify things for others, this post is based on notes I took during a lecture at London College of Fashion by Dr Agns Rocamora
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Structuralism focuses on understanding the structures in society which define and shape behaviour (e.g. class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, education etc). Roland Barthes was the first of the structuralist thinkers to look at popular culture, which others viewed as rather banal and ordinary. He looked at the way mass culture was used in France to manipulate the population. Barthes’ famous book Mythologies relates to contemporary myths, and the description on Amazon sums it up brilliantly, saying: “Barthes elegantly deciphers the symbols and signs embedded deep in familiar aspects of modern life, unmasking the hidden ideologies and meanings which implicitly affect our thought and behaviour.”

Barthes looked at semiology – the study of linguistic signs – and applied it to anything which could be ‘read’ or analysed. The basic concept of this is: Sign = Signifier + Signified. An example would be where the signified is the concept of a feline animal, and the signifier is the sound of the word “cat”. The connection is arbitrary – only if you have a shared cultural background does the sign makes sense. Barthes’ further split this idea into two levels: denotation and connotation. Denotation is descriptive, describing elements of an image precisely, without adding meaning (e.g. this is a picture of a rose). Connotation is a second meaning or implication, a vehicle for something else (e.g. love, beauty, femininity) which requires unpacking each element. There is a process of construction in so many aspects of modern life. For example, a perfume doesn’t smell cool, sophisticated or glamorous – the perfume is a sign and these are the signifiers.

Myths are created at the level of connotation. Semiologists unpack the myths of our society (i.e. men don’t cry, women are weak) which are full of arbitrary connections that we all make and apply. At the level of the myth, there is an ideology being created/defended. Dominant groups use ‘text’ (including images, film etc) to construct, convey and reproduce their dominant beliefs and values. For example, a perfume advert can convey consumerist, white, heterosexual and patriarchal ideologies simultaneously.

A useful tool in semiotic analysis of fashion images is to imagine that the model was a different race, gender or age and take note of how this changes the image. Remember that most of the associations you will automatically make are arbitrary (i.e. pink for femininity, white for weddings etc). It is important to unpack and question everyday banal images because that is often where political statements are being made. When analysing images, look at the ambivalence, the wider social context at the time the image was created, and the way social identities are constructed. I’m hoping to use some of this theory for an essay, so there may well be further posts on this and related topics.

Images via Landahlauts and Tom Spender‘s Flickr photostreams.

7 thoughts on “Fashion Theory: Analysing images

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  1. This is really interesting. I learnt alot about how much influence language can have with NLP but I never even consider how much is communicated through an image.

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