It is widely agreed that clothing is a language, but a very ambiguous one. Its vocabulary changes or evolves, and can express different meanings at different times according to the wearer and the observer.We might say that clothing is a dynamic language open to endless resetting. Some adhere to the view that fashion follows a ‘trickle down process’7 whereby innovative ideas are transmitted from the elite top layers of the social pyramid to the bottom.
Others consider it mainly a matter of points of view, where each style creates an anti-style that defines it, and stimulates further change.8 In reality, it is difficult to frame the rules by which creative thought gives a shape to fashion and its changes, although it appears that a good many can be linked in some way to technological innovations in textiles, and there seem to be recurrent patterns such as the relaunch of historic items in different contexts.
For as long as it has existed, fashion, being a language, has always been used as a means of communication. This very peculiar kind of communication takes place on two levels: an open one, and a hidden one. There is in fact an underlying reading we might call a creative value left to each individual, which allows the transmission of ambiguous and equivocal messages; think of the eroticism of neglected lace, the hardness of riding boots or the provocativeness of some metal details.
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If we agree that fashion is a language we should emphasize that it is a very sophisticated one and in a way complementary, a tool for articulating and supporting words rather than substituting them. And if we agree that fashion is distinct from style, we must admit that its acknowledged codes are variable. These changes can occur at different levels mainly, but not only, visually, often revamping outdated meanings.
The system of constantly shifting meanings, codes and values is in fact fundamental to fashion as we understand it in our culture. Designers know this well and they are the first to perceive signs of instability, the trends pervading society. The instabilities, ambiguities and ambivalences, described by Fred Davis in his excellent book on the subject drive creativity to and fro between opposites such as young/ old, male/female, work/play, simplicity/complexity, revelation/concealment, freedom/constraint, conformism/rebellion, eroticism/chastity, discretion/ overstatement and so on.9 The field where the game of change is played is framed within couples of constantly recurring antithetic meanings.
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Fashion delights us by playing on the tensions between these couples – we derive a frisson from the contradictions they suggest. We may tire of a look but whenever one of these themes returns, its freshness is restored; our fascination with them seems endless. James Carse, a professor of philosophy at New York University, and a friend of mine, in one of his books divides the world of human relations into ‘finite and infinite games’.
What is the difference? In the former case the goal of the game is to select a winner, in the latter it is to play the game forever. Incidentally, the latter is typical of the games of children, which were in fact the author’s chief source of inspiration. Without doubt, fashion is an infinite game, since nobody is interested in starting the ultimate trend, the final one.
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