When the French theorist Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the Author, he was specifically proclaiming the death of the Authoritarian Author: the one who polices and privatises meaning. Here the word ‘Author’ is not innocently written with a capital letter, since it emerges from the idea of authority and, in standard usage, all names that embody authority are traditionally capitalized: God, Nation, Law/ Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Ann Demeulemeester.
“It is important for fashion analysis to inquire about the logic of production of the clothes’ value and meaning.”
For Michel Foucault, a first step towards understanding what is implied when we speak about the Author is to examine its function within discourse. He proposes the idea that ‘its presence is functional in that it serves as a means of classification’ (Foucault 1987:123). The Author guides the process of decoding images, and serves to facilitate understanding.
Each big name in fashion, once we see it, activates a particular set of associations in our own minds. Chanel equates to a Bourgeoisie idea of ‘elegance’; Alexander McQueen reads as a conflation of fashion and art; Louis Vuitton and logomania drives associations with consumerism today — regardless of the house’s interaction with art, working with artists like Yayoi Kumsama and Stephen Sprouse. The latter two, with their connections to art bring up a recurring question: does the fashion object, that being a bag graffed with a Sprouse-style ‘Vuitton’, have value in itself as an expensive good with elaborate construction? Or does the ‘Author’, in this case collaborators Sprouse and Marc Jacobs, imbue a sense of value by elevating the status of the bag from accessory to valuable objet d’art?
I’d argue that the Author is a device that operates within fashion, controlling our understanding of who a designer or brand is, and what they produce, establishing and securing the stability of their considered ‘value’ over time. For instance, that those clothes produced under the name of Dior are indubitably more likely to conserve and maintain value over the years, regardless of whether they were produced similarly to those without a label. Stability in the symbolic worth of goods seems especially pertinent — and a luxury in itself — today in a world that operates on mass-production.
You probably hold the opinion that those means of production and consumption have killed the ‘Author’ in the theoretical sense. Nothing new there. The democratisation of fashion, or perhaps more appropriate, the ‘accessibility’ of fast-changing, ‘fashionable’ styles on the high-street, have definitely killed the Author in overriding its authority. The big houses are no longer the omnipotent arbiters of taste they once were, dictating the season’s key styles. Stores like Primark and Zara have certainly done away with the elitist rhetoric in ensuring that those on all rungs of the economic ladder have access to ‘fashionable’ clothing. We now have seemingly unlimited access to a range of styles with which to actively play and perform on the social stage. Fashion has been freed from the domain of the wealthy, and given the access we now have to clothing that recreates ‘high fashion’ looks, even a cheap dress from Topshop can have symbolic worth.
“As believers, we are still far from being released from the authority of the producers of desire.”
Clothes, as commodities that hold symbolic value, pertain to what Pierre Bourdieu called “symbolic goods”. It can’t be denied that we’re continuously “reading” the images projected by others — making judgements based on the way they look — and that in the process of decoding, their get-ups are fundamental communicators of meaning. So, drawing on Bourdieu’s writings on Cultural Production, here’s one suggestion: the value of clothes depends on the construction of social belief. That being the collaborative production of meaning and establishment of associations by the media- fashion journalists, critics, and consumers we look up to (celebrities and bloggers). So is fashion as democratic as we think, when in actual fact, our associations are still driven by a wealthier ‘elite’ who capitalise on dictating ‘taste’?
Did you ever wonder why Zara, Inditex, doesn’t advertise? — Clearly because the company knows very well that the production of images of desire occurs on the level of the Authors and the prestigious consumers who give value to the clothes. Moreover, Zara works as a parasite, echoing in its clothes the meanings constructed by the Authors, and selling products without Name to the mass-consumers who, after being educated by the “producers of belief”, are capable to recognise in Zara’s Clothes the concepts previously developed by the consecrated designers.
The idea of the democratization of fashion, or, to put it the other way round, the democratization of taste, carries certain illusion of autonomy in the consumers. But, as believers, we are still far from being released from the authority of the producers of desire. Plagiarism, persecuted and penalized in the Universities, is the order of the day in the market, and responds to the chain proliferation of images of desire. These representations survive without Author as far as they echo other images which are directly associated with power, beauty and success. On the other hand, the work of young designers “yet-without-Name” is being constantly swallowed both by brands Author-based and by companies of massive production. While in the former context the creative efforts of the young designer tend to “disappear” under the totalizing Name, in the latter the principle of anonymity converts the designer into a sort of slave at the service of capitalism and the imperative of frenetic offer-consumption. This accelerate mode of consumption doesn’t weigh up plagiarism while integrates the death of the Author to the benefit of the proliferation of an over stimulated mass-buyer.
However, it is to some extent up to the consumers to decide how we are going to invest, and in what we are going to believe. While it is true that a wide variety of images/objects of desire is being constantly created for building up our appetite, there is a way to retain certain independence. Situating ourselves in a position of critical distance shall allow us to comprehend the hidden worlds of meaning and the symbolic grammar of fashion.
Author (lol): Sara Torres
Image source: Snoop Dogg
Barthes, Roland. (1977). ‘The Death of the Author’ & ‘From Work to Text’ from Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana, pp. 142-148, 155-164
Bourdieu, Pierre. (1993). The Field of Cultural Production. New York: Columbia University Press.
Foucault, Michel. (1994). Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. Paris: Editions Gallimard.
— (1987). ‘What is an Author’. The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought. Ed. Paul Rabinow. London: Penguin Books.