Clothing as an anthropological fact

Posted on: 30 janvier 2012

All humans are disposed to wear clothes. Indeed, the topic of clothing encapsulates many specific cultural and identity-related issues in that it reveals hidden features of social structures and symbols. More specifically, the way people dress is a means of both conforming to and deviating from a same code.

Lipovetsky goes so far as to throw into question Bourdieu’s concept of social distinction: « In the history of fashion, values and modern cultural meanings which elevate Novelty and the expression of individual human identity in particular have been the ones which exercised the greatest influence.”

Thus, the role of clothing as both signifier and signified is a highly relevant topic of inquiry in the field of intercultural and terminological studies, with social groups sometimes referring to themselves and one another using terms related to their clothing and their appearance (goths, punks, chavs, etc.).

Clothing: a signifier and signified for sociology

We are approaching clothing as a particular signifier of a general signified. It is an individual and collective expression of a cultural and social structure and atmosphere.
In so doing, we are appealing to Barthes’ remarkable work in History and Sociology of Clothing, a foundational text for our subject. We will start by clarifying the generic terms clothing and costume.
A semantic distinction is made between these two terms by attributing functional qualities to clothing and aesthetic qualities to costume. Barthes qualifies this dichotomy as a « psychological illusion » which consists in stating that clothing corresponds to the sum total of individual instincts. Sociology sets itself the task of transcending this illusory divide between functional and aesthetic qualities. The belief that there is a « tendency for any item covering the body to integrate an organised, normative, formal system enshrined by society » is particularly relevant to us.

Following this logic, we must conclude that costume deals in axioms which vary according to the culture in question, « both a system and a heritage, an individual act and a collective institution”.
This formulation of the problem is of special interest to linguists working on differences in editorial process as it is expressed with reference to the concept of language. Language and costume, as complete structures consisting of a network of norms and forms, are thus considered side by side, lending our subject a breadth and relevance ideal for the practice of culturally-specific information processing in graphical interfaces.

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