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Is fashion a language ?

Fashion as a language? The McCracken's point of view.
Picture of Grant McCracken
© Institut Français de la Mode

Canadian anthropologist, particularly famous for his books Culture and Consumption published in 1988, and Culture and Consumption II in 2005, Grant McCracken expands at length on the relationship between language and clothing in “Clothing as Language. An Object Lesson in the Study of the Expressive Properties of Material Culture”, from Culture and Consumption. Starting with a commentary of an article in which New Zealand anthropologist Roger Neich studied Papuan costumes using structural linguistics, McCracken then defended the thesis that clothing could not be considered a language.

The mathematical model of communication

First of all, let us briefly focus on the structural linguistic model on which McCracken is based. This one, first taken from the “mathematical model of communication”, proposed in 1948 by Claude Shannon, is based on the following diagram:

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According to this linear scheme, also called “E-C-R” and influenced by the telegraph metaphor, a transmitter would therefore send a “coded” message to a receiver, which would then receive and decode the message.
Jakobson will add two principles corresponding to the encoding and decoding phases, namely a “paradigmatic” principle, i. e. a choice within a “vertical” repertoire of terms (the dog or the cat), and a “syntagmatic” or horizontal principle referring to the way these terms will be arranged in the sentence (the man has a cat). For McCracken, these are the two principles that allow language to be “a collective and systematic means of communication” and “an instrument of endlessly various expressive potential”.

Fashion and linguistic code

From these two models, McCracken wonders to what extent clothing is comparable to language, and more precisely to the linguistic code. To do this, he decides to conduct an experiment with a panel of participants, consisting of measuring how they perceive “communication” in the face of slides featuring clothing. He observes three types of responses, including a certain, uncertain, or totally impossible interpretation.

  1. The first type of reaction refers to a certain and instantaneous interpretation of the clothing message, ultimately corresponding to certain social types. Here, the outfits are identified as “businessman”, “housewife”, or “hippie” outfits. While the transparency of the message has the merit of being clear, it is not enough for McCracken to describe the clothing message as “language”. Interpretation, sinning by its lack of linearity, of reading meaning, does not follow a syntagmatic logic, to simply consider the message as a “whole” comparable to a social type.
  2. McCracken also perceives another category of interpretations that we will call “uncertain”. In the presence of clothes with more incoherent appearances, participants no longer seem to justify a perfect reading of the message. They then seek to dissociate “body sentences”, but in a way that is quite different from their behavior with language.
  3. Faced with even less readable clothing, the author finally observes certain participants in a situation where it is impossible to read, as the clothing is definitely too far from pre-established dress standards.

This last category allows McCracken to come to the hypothesis that the more the clothing message imitates language and its combinatorial freedom, the less it will be understood. This is proof for him that clothing cannot constitute a language, but at most a “code” restricted by the absence of a combinatorial principle, in other words by the necessary prefabrication of a message similar to identified social types.

Vetements, Summer 2016

McCracken’s theory is particularly noticeable in new clothing. This is how some fashion outfits cannot be understood by the layman’s eye. Let’s imagine, for example, the opinion of a layman on the creation of Vetements. How could he then grasp the fact that the signifier of the garment worn may not at all refer to its usual signified content. This is the misadventure experienced by a buyer of the printed trench coat “Polizei” from the Spring-Summer 2016 Vetements collection, then arrested in Stuttgart by the German police for having put on a suit that could be similar to the police uniform.


McCracken, Grant, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities, Indiana University Press, 1988.

© Institut Français de la Mode
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