Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Old Man: On Trad Semiotics

(note: this is the result of over a year of thinking about this topic. I finally feel like it is the right time to post about it. It is basically an extension of my conversation with boatshoe in the comments after my last essay post, which frankly I think is more interesting than the post itself.)



Semiotics is the study of signs. It first gained recognition with Ferdinand de Saussure, in his seminal work "Course in General Linguistics." While most of the ideas in this work were anticipated by earlier linguists, it is renowned for the way in which he presented these ideas. The basic premise is that language is a system of signs, made up of signifiers and signifieds. So, for example, the letter "a" in English refers to the phonetic sound "ah." Most of the time. Because it could also refer to the article "a," the grade, or it could even be mistaken for an "o," or, in the case of the capital letter, "A," it could be an upside-down "V." And it goes on and on. The second basic premise is that this system of language is arbitrary. The signifier doesn't always correspond to a certain signified, and, worse and more confusingly, it doesn't always correspond to the signifier meant by the person doing the signifying. When I write a "C" on my cup at work, I want it to signify to my co-workers that it is my cup. But when my co-worker adds "oser" to the end of that, it means that my signifier "C" didn't signify "C" to that person, but it signified "L" to him. Hence the joke. This basic premise gave rise to many developments, including the maddening terrain of Jacques Derrida, deconstruction.

But this post isn't about deconstruction. It is about the semiotics of trad. You see, once people realized what Saussure was saying, they realized that semiotics could apply to many areas. There are many branches of semiotics, including musical semiotics, biosemiotics, and even fashion semiotics. Roland Barthes, one Derrida's early compatriots wrote a little about fashion semiology. But I've never read it. So this is mostly mine.

If clothing (starting broadly) is taken as a system of signs, we can begin to determine how our clothing choices signify things about ourselves to others. Because for a long time now, no-one has been able to say that they don't care about what they wear. Or that they don't think their clothing says something about them. If we build upon my previous post about costumes, we can start to sort this out.

Every person wears some sort of costume. It could be the everyman costume, the trad costume, or the workwear costume. These costumes say something about that person. That they want to fit in, that they like the 50's, or that they like the 20's (very broad generalizations). But regardless of the costumes they wear, everyone who chooses to wear clothes (and even those who choose not to wear clothes) chooses their clothes for a specific purpose. And to say that they choose them because they think it looks cool is a cop-out. Sure, I may think that patch tweed blazer Giuseppe passed on earlier was so cool, but the reason I think it is cool is really what I'm after here. I choose to wear trad clothes (tweed sacks, khakis, loafers, bowties, etc.) because I want to dress like a young adult dressed in the past. I think I also dress this way because there is a bit of rebellion in it, since almost no-one in college dresses this way now. So it is a way to stand out in a tasteful way. Also, my commitment to wearing quality new and used clothes represents a commitment to sustainable, repairable goods.

To me, the signifier-signified relationship between my clothes is: trad stuff is tasteful, respectful, but also has an edge that I like, and they represent quality and value. Sounds good right? To me it does.

But the problem is that almost anyone else who sees me wearing my trad rig is going to have a far different opinion. They might think I'm trying to look older to impress girls (like that would work), they might think I look stuffy and unapproachable, they might think I look like a world class douche, they might think I'm in a fraternity (really the same as that last one right?), or that I'm trying to fit in with the SC crowd.

The point being that I do not control what my clothes say to someone else. There is no one meaning that a tweed jacket conveys to everyone. The signifier/signified relationship is arbitrary.

Another example. I think a tweed or cord suit would be about the sweetest thing ever. One reason is that I think it gives of a cool professorial vibe that I like to give off. But, as everyone who has been on a college campus lately knows, no professor dresses like that. So who knows what people would think if they saw me in a tweed or cord suit.

Shoes are another example. I think tassel loafers are great. A perfect cross between the formal nature of oxfords and the casual nature of pennies. However, some people (looking at you Patrick) view the tassels as the worst kind of needless accessory. And apparently now in the DC area, tassel loafers go hand in hand with sneaky/sleazy lawyers (source: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/11/03/garden/the-politicization-of-tasseled-loafers.html ).

And recently on the Ivy Style blog, there was a post about raccoon fur coats. Many of those leaving comments raved about them and their desire for them. I happen to think it would be the height of idiocy to wear something like that in 2009. They are impractical, very ugly, and have too many negative connotations. But what the hell, right? I'm the guy who wants to wear a corduroy suit, so what do I know?

See? This is why it is impossible to say that one's clothes are not a costume. While you may sit pretty in your chosen costume and never imagine that it is anything other than good style and taste, almost anyone else is going to associate each part of your outfit with something different than you do. And to them it all adds up to a costume.

Remember earlier when I said that this post wasn't about deconstruction? Well I lied a little bit. Or rather I made myself to be a liar with what I wrote after that. Because really what this whole post is, is a deconstruction of trad. Feel free to deconstruct your own style.
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