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Barthe’s take on fashion and semiotics is truly fascinating when applied to the concept of fashion bloggers. Essentially, his take on fashion and fashion writing is rooted in the fashion industry’s ability to present combinations of fashion objects repeatedly, and while the combinations vary slightly year by year, they are essentially the same pieces but are accepted by the public automatically without any or much resistance as trends.
Although fashion bloggers may seem to have taken some of this authority away from fashion institutions, like Vogue or Women’s Wear Daily, by posting their own combinations of outfits, with the application of Barthe’s observations it is possible to see that this is not the case. Even these “independent” trendsetters inherently use pieces to which a previous entity has assigned meaning.
One of the top “serious” fashion bloggers in recent times, Leandra Medine, goes by the alias The Man Repeller on her fashion blog. The name is meant to signify how “serious” artistic fashion is not attractive to men, but create a fashion statement by those who dress in such a way. Medine even provides a definition of what a man repeller is:
outfitting oneself in a sartorially offensive mode that may result in repelling members of the opposite sex. Such garments include but are not limited to harem pants, boyfriend jeans, overalls (see: human repelling), shoulder pads, full length jumpsuits, jewelry that resembles violent weaponry and clogs.”
This establishment of self translates into a kind of self-advertising of independent fashion expertise because Medine coins a phrase and proceeds to call herself as such. However, her writing follows Barthe’s breakdown of how fashion is verbally presented to readers: “(indicated thus‘*’) and equivalences (indicated thus‘≡’).”
In this case, the fashion blogger is stating that she is a man repeller and the equivalence of a man repeller is someone who wears clothes they think are captivating but members of the opposite sex do not. Therefore, this is the equivalence of being exuding an independent take on fashion without influences of trends. However as noted in her various blog entries, Medine steers toward high end, established brand names of clothing to make these statements and depends on them to create this man-repelling image, demonstrating how the sign and the significance of a brand are still completely relevant in demonstrating a certain style or characteristic in clothing, regardless of whether they are man-repelling or not. Despite creating a seemingly unique fashion persona, she is still feeding into the Barthes idea of fashion being presented in an authoritative manner by a small industry, since there is no other reason for why names like Prada and Louis Vuitton carry as much “weight” as they do with fashion lovers.
Additionally, by presenting her fashion authority in such a way, Medine is demonstrates the notion of “elements of culture being able to serve both as text and as rules” since she is committing a fashion taboo by using fashion to dress conventionally unattractively. As described by Yuri Lotman, “taboos which are a component of the general system of a given culture can, on one hand, be examined as elements (signs) of the text reflecting moral experience of the community and on the other hand, be regarded as an aggregate of magical rules prescribing specific behavior.”
By wearing something like the photo above, The Man Repeller is actually commenting on how a cultural system exists for “normal” ways for women to dress that prescribe a set of rules against the outfit she is wearing, but being the rule breaker that she is, styling these clothes in such a way actually makes her behavior a comment on those rules.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies, “Myth Today” (excerpt from Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, 1984, pp. 107-45
Graham Allen, excerpt from Roland Barthes (Routledge Critical Thinkers Series), on Semiology. New York: Routledge, 2003, 33-53.
Yuri Lotman, “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture”