I owe a lot to Roland Barthes. My relationship with him is like H&M’s with Prada and the likes: I make a career of either quoting him (in pretty much every CSM essay) or poorly ripping off his style and ideas (my Overanalyzing series). Therefore writing anything negative about this book will mean biting the (however dead) hand that feeds me. But I’ll do it anyway, even though my consciousness hopes it’ll make me fat.
If you expect a book about the actual system of fashion – makers, buyers, shops, suppliers, that whole Babylon – keep looking. What Barthes analyses is the way in which clothes are described in women’s magazines. Or rather were described in 1959, when the written pieces in Vogue were as interesting and meaningful as David Cameron’s speeches. (Never mind that Cameron wasn’t even born at that time, you get the point.)
The Fashion System starts with a few non-nonsense concepts that will certainly look good in an essay. Without discourse there is no Fashion? Fair enough. The image-clothing? Sounds like a useful term – let me scribble it down and throw around, thinking I sound smart. Soon, however, it declines into a tedious ramble about shifters, signifiers, utterances and denotations.
The problem isn’t that the text is difficult to decode; it’s that there’s hardly a reason why you’d want to. After hours of trying to penetrate Husserl or Heidegger (not in that way! You little pervs), you might grasp 10% of what they say, and still feel enlightened. But after spending a few minutes over a page of The Fashion System, you’ll understand every sentence, word and comma, and the only question you’ll be asking is So what? Barthes never steps back to ponder why fashion magazines exist in the first place and what’s the use of being told that prints are winning the races. His work is incredibly dry and technical. Who cares if the word open (the variant) comes before or after collar – and whether collar acts as an object or a support in a cardigan with its collar open? An extreme case of a geek, I suppose.
That’s why I decided to rename my series from Fashion Must-Reads to Fashion Classics. Because while TFS is totally a classic, you might as well keep on living without forcing yourself through it. I’d recommend that you read the beginning, realize you’re falling asleep by the time you’ve reached the 5th chapter, skip to the Conclusion, and focus on the Appendixes. You can say that Ana Oppenheim read the rest for you – the way Jesus died for our sins, or whatever.