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The particularities of the “fashion code”

How to define the "fashion code"?
© Institut Français de la Mode

Former student of H. Blumer and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of San Diego, Fred Davis published Fashion, Culture, and Identity in 1992. This book allows him to compare two models of fashion diffusion, namely what he calls the “populist model” based on the consumer and the “fashion system model” oscillating between Simmelian and Blumerian approaches. In addition, he focuses in Chapter 1 “Do clothes speak? What makes them fashion? ”on the recurrent parallel between fashion and language.

Sharing E. Sapir’s analyses of the difficult appreciation of fashion signs, and those of G. McCracken which we have just studied before, F. Davis proposes to study the “code” of dress, based on Umberto Eco’s reading. Thus, the dress code would be different from the code as used in cryptography or in a language, to refer instead to an “incipient” or even a “quasi-code” with certain reading ambiguities.

Fred Davis proposes to define three particularities of the fashion code, namely its strong dependence on context, the plurality of possible interpretations, and the necessary “undercoding” it implies:

  1. Depending on the wearer, the moment, the place, the meaning of the garment is intimately dependent on the context in which it works.
  2. The meaning of clothing depends on the receiver of the clothing message. The exaggeration of the shoulder proportions of the 1980s, for example, could be interpreted very differently depending on whether the observer perceives an appropriation of masculinity or, on the contrary, its parody.
  3. The variability of interpretations implies a “undercoding” operation on the part of the receiver, occurring “when in the absence of reliable interpretative rules persons presume or infer, often unwittingly, on the basis of such hard-to-specify cues as gesture, inflection, pace, facial expression, context, and setting, certain molar meanings in a text, score, performance, or other communication”. Thus, although the garment may call for a rather clear “undercoding”, as in the case of the uniform, it is nevertheless more generally an “aesthetic code” than the code applied to the “conventional sign codes” present in speech or writing (ambiguity vs. subtlety).

As part of an “aesthetic code”, the meaning of clothing can also differ according to its “qualities”, in other words according to the fabric, color or cut. In this sense, for Fred Davis, the meaning of clothing depends on its cultural context. However, he notes the propensity of wearers to often invoke the same images or associations. Thus, even if an actor deviates from the dominant meanings, the message will be globally captured. The sociologist takes here the example of hippie hair. Appearing as a sign of sexual liberation for her carrier, other passers-by may consider her a “perverse androgyny”.

But how to define the fashion phenomenon? Starting from the observation of the difficulties of traditional definitions in grasping fashion differently from simple dress practice in a given society, Fred Davis proposes to consider the phenomenon at the level of communication as “some alteration in the code of visual conventions by which we read meanings of whatever sort and variety into the clothes we and our contemporaries wear”, any change being perceived as “the introduction, the retrevial, or the different accenting” of “signifiers”.

Like McCracken, Fred Davis seems to defend the idea that clothing cannot be considered as a language, preferring to use the term of “code”.


Davis, Fred, Fashion, culture and identity, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

© Institut Français de la Mode
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