The Fashion System by Roland Barthes (Translated by Matthew Ward & Richard Howard) - review by Mary Furness

Mary Furness

On the Go & In the Know

The Fashion System


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The existence of Fashion depends on people buying more clothes than they wear out. If a garment is replaced only when it is worn out there is no Fashion, if it is worn beyond its natural replacement time there is ‘pauperization’, and ‘the more the rhythm of purchase exceeds the rhythm of dilapidation, the stronger the submission to Fashion’.

It is part of Roland Barthes’s thesis in The Fashion System that Fashion relies for its dissemination in fashion magazines primarily on words and he undertakes to examine the relationship between the garments (or photographs of them), and the words describing them, believing that Fashion utterances, as it were, are to be found more in ‘written clothing’ than in pictures of clothing. He has taken as the basis for his study two popular women’s fashion magazines – Elle and Le Jardin des Modes – between June 1958 and June 1959.

To see that Barthes is right about the fundamental importance of the description of the garment in words one need only imagine fashion magazines consisting of nothing but photographs. A general ‘look’ might be conveyed but the finer points of how that ‘look’ is achieved would be lost, nor would there be any opportunity to describe features of the garment that are not visible in the photograph.

Barthes points out that an image involves several levels of perception, that the reader of images has a certain amount of freedom in how he or she reads the image; and that the meaning of an image is never certain. Language (in this case the description of the garment) eliminates

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