Even for a professional student of politics like me the current Democratic attempt to find an ‘electable’ candidate (isn’t that usually a predicate decided by the actual election?) to take on the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW here in D.C. is a bit of a slog. With 20+ candidates vying for support by debating, speechifying and eating something called ‘corndogs’ (one of the few Americana I have not yet familiarised myself with), the task to follow the debates, events and plans is a daunting one, even for someone as genuinely interested in American politics as I am.
So to make things a bit more interesting I decided to embark on a little research project (who knows, maybe it’ll turn into a big one someday soon…) that traces the Politics of Fashion in the current election campaign.
The following semiotic analysis builds on the method I develop and elaborate in a chapter for a forthcoming volume on ‘How to do Popular Culture’, edited by Mark Salter and Sandra Yao (provided that this book will really include the chapter; communications have been somewhat sketchy lately).
The method builds on Roland Barthes semiotic analysis in his often referenced but less often read The Fashion System and expands it to capture the visuality of fashion itself, something Barthes oddly chose to ignore.
The first level of the analysis focuses on the way ‘fashion experts’ write about fashion, what meaning they give it. In fact for Barthes, only the ‘written garment’ is relevant to his analysis. Written clothing has no other function than to convey a particular meaning that is ‘unencumbered by any parasitic [i.e., practical or aesthetic] function’. The written garment then provides vestiary signifiers that for Barthes correlate with either the ‘world’ or with ‘fashion’. These categories, Barthes suggests, define the exclusive set of possible signified. For example, “prints win at the races” relates “prints” as the vestiary signifier to “the races” as the worldly signified. A phrase such as “a halter buttoned down the back, its collar tied like a little scarf” is a sign in which the particular halter points to an implicit signified, i.e., fashion, as in “fashionable”.
For a political science analysis, clearly these two sets of signified do not suffice. For the present analysis, I shall keep the number and identifiers of the sets open; that is to say, what signified appears is a matter of empirical research. Secondly, the notion that only the written word, can convey meaning is too narrow a methodological commitment, clearly when it comes to fashion, the visual provides significant and relevant meaning. Barthes’ own work on images and their connotative content in fact supports this argument.
Drawing on his discussion of the semiotics of the photographic image, we can state that the garment, ‘in its connotation, is thus constituted by an architecture of signs drawn from a variable depth of lexicons’. Crucial here is the differentiation that Barthes introduces between denotation or a non-coded iconic message, and connotation or a coded iconic message. On the first level, a photo of a tomato signifies or denotes just that: a tomato. A photo therefore provides us with a ‘message without a code’; what one sees is what there is. On the second level, however, the image generates a set of connotations that, as noted above, resonate within different lexicons. Provided that the latter include tourism, food and Italy, the tomato, in conjunction with pasta, onions, a sachet of parmesan cheese all tumbling out of a shopping net, signifies what Barthes calls in his famous analysis of a Panzani advertisement “Italianicity.”
Any fashionista will instantly recognise this concept as relevant for describing the fashion of Dolce & Gabbana, a design house that frequently includes references to Italian culture and history in its clothes. Arguably then, the connotative level of fashion has to be included in any analysis, including those that pertain to political connotations.
So a while ago, I sprang for the June 2019 issue of VOGUE, the one with Zendaya on the cover and the famous article (including a full-page photo) about Pete Buttigieg inside. The 37-year old Buttigieg is an unlikely candidate by established standards: a young, gay mayor of a rust-belt town with no executive experience beyond its city limits, Harvard and Oxford educated, and a resumé that includes a Rhodes Scholarship, a stint as a Navy Reserve Officer, and a job on Wall Street. Liberal media have taken to him quite enthusiastically after some eloquent and knowledgeable performances on cable TV.
The VOGUE articles focuses on his personal life and presents his basic outlook on life, politics and religion. For the sake of this blogpost, the article’s photo, and the way it is interpreted is of more interest. I shall here focus on Robin Givhan’s interpretation in the 30 April edition of the Washington Post and the way she links the sartorial (in the widest sense) signifiers with signified.
|moisturized/pomaded||dashing young politician|
|pressed trousers/white shirt with barrel cuffs and somber tie||accessible familiarity/glamorous version of the cookie-cutter bureaucrat|
|bland public wardrobe||regular guy/manager who’s getting things done|
|jacketless look||‘rarin’-to-go youth’/focused energy|
|four-in-hand with narrow stripes||down-to-earth intellectual|
|VOGUE portrait of Buttigieg||accomplishment/confidence/capability, glamour|
This seems to amount to a rather ambivalent set of signs in which dynamic characteristics (dashing, raring-to-go) intersect with rather conservative ones (familiarity, bureaucrat, regular guy). Perhaps the title of Givhan’s piece already gives away her ambivalence: ‘Vogue can make anybody look glamorous, including Pete Buttigieg’. Alas, this only one article by one fashionista; further research is clearly required.
As noted above, Barthes also suggests that images produce connotations that refer to specific cultural lexicons. I would suggest that the Buttigieg image in VOGUE does just this. Its sartorial code is, as noted by Givhan, rather unremarkable, albeit refined: a white Ermenegildo Zegna shirt and trousers by the same house. At the centre of the sartorial display is interestingly the (brand-less) striped tie that Buttigieg is trying to turn into a four-in-hand, thereby raising his hands to his chest. Combined with his head turned dramatically to the right this makes for an interesting posture, reminiscent, I would contend, of one of the classics of Renaissance art: Michelangelo’s David.
The bland dress code therefore serves as a functional equivalent to Renaissance art’s nudity, with the tie taking on the function of the sling in Michelangelo’s statue. With that, the image stands for watchfulness and alertness, bravery and protection and the stern gaze is focused on what dangers might be looming (from the right, rather than David’s left).
If this is plausible, then it leads to an interesting question: how are the two interpretations, one based on the ‘vestiary code’ as produced by fashionistas, the other on the garment’s connotations with cultural lexicons, related? Whose hermeneutics are to take priority, the fashionistas’ or the analyst’s? When do they diverge, and when do they converge on the same lexicon? Is there an agreed-upon lexicon for female politicians’ wardrobe? More research seems to be required.