Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Language of Fashion Photography

by Djinane Alsuwayeh

Mario Testino, V magazine, 2006

See the history of fashion photography here
See recent fashion photography here.

Fashion and (the) Image
Fashion and the Image concerns fashion theory as it’s articulated via graphic design and photography. There are two senses of image and how fashion relates to those senses.

The first sense, in which image means likeness or picture. Photography and drawing are two techniques where likenesses and pictures can be reproduced. The second sense, in which image means identity or meaning. Where personal identity is the unique character of someone and brand identity is the visible image of a product. For example, someone’s image means a sense of identity and fashion and clothing are central.

Chanel Look Book, FW 2009

Companies since the 1980’s recognized that what they were producing and selling were not products but brands. What is consumed in post modernity is not commodity but the sign; the image or sign is what’s consumed. Images or identities may be constructed and communicated by wearing fashion, in photography, graphic design and illustration. The brand image is the core meaning of a company. Advertising is what is used to convey that meaning of the world. The image is linked to marketing and advertising and constructed in fashion photography to sell the cloths. The role of fashion photography is to sell cloths through seduction. It is used to create a likeness or picture, which in turn is used to construct an image. The image then is used to sell fashion cloths.

The brand visions above are entirely different as are the images to sell the brands. Below the photos of the Missoni family for the Missoni campaign, by Juergen Teller who has created a similar brand aesthetic for Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and YSL.

Photography, Semiology, and graphic design are disciplines that use these two senses. Photography provides likeness and pictures and also contributes to the identity or brand meaning of the fashion designer and companies. Semiology deals with both senses. And Graphic design uses photography to provide illustrations of fashion items as well as a more significant function in producing and communicating identities and meaning.

There is no definition of fashion though there is an implicit theory of fashion; it’s not about cut and cloth but about graphic design, packaging, and communication. The product itself takes a back seat in fashion and graphic designers play the role. For example the two white t-shirts one from CDG which attracts the architect and the Hugo Boss which attracts the businessman because the shirts no matter how similar or different, each shirt are constructed and communicated by graphic design.

Most of the things written about photography and graphic design have no relation to theory. It’s neither anecdotal nor technical. What is purely a technical concern with the equipment of photography like the film, lighting and the effects actually mask a wealth of cultural variables and thus a range of ways in which meanings can be created and manipulated. There is a cultural theory and a theory of meaning hidden in or behind the technical language used by these photographers.

Most photo analysis discusses technical differences such as the use of lighting below rather than the message communicated by the photos. Akris, 2010 & Opium, 2010.


Fashion Photography, Roland Barthes
Photographing the fashion signifier (garments) poses problems of method that where set aside. Yet fashion photographs, its signifiers and signified, are drawn from the world.

In fashion photography, the world is photographed as a theater. It is always an idea; a word, that varies through a series of examples. The theater of meaning suggests two things; poetic in association of ideas of substances for example knitwear. The signified here is autumn, and the country. But is diffused as a substance consisting of wool. With the associations of ideas become wordplay, which is the second idea that is humorous; where we find the main opposition in fashion between the serious winter/autumn and the gay spring/summer.

Guy Bourdin, 1978. In his essay on fashion photography, Roland Barthes explains that the world is a backdrop. The world can also be transformed into a particular stage for specific theater themes. The theater of meaning in fashion walks the line between serious and whimsical.

There are three different styles of experienced scenes, the objective, romantic and mockery. They are to make fashion’s signifieds unreal. By putting the signifieds in quotation marks fashion keeps its distance with regard to its own language, and by making the signified unreal fashion makes the signifier real. This is done by shifting the viewer from the signifying background towards the reality of the model.

Objective - Romantic - Mockery

Fashion affects that sort of shock to consciousness, which suddenly gives the reader signs of the mystery it deciphers. It also dissolves the myth of innocent signifieds at the same time it produces them, it attempts to substitute its artifice for example its culture. Fashion does not suppress meaning, it points to it with its finger.

Barthes describes fashion photography as an exorcism in which everything in the photo is made “outrageous” so that the garment alone seems real and convincing.

Only the shoes in this photo can be understood. Guy Bourdin for Charles Jourdan, 1978.

Fashion creates a disappointment of meaning because in its establishment of the mystery it has no resolution. It produces meaningful signs but does not rest on explanation.

Chris Von Wangenheim, Vogue, 1979


Gender and hegemony in Fashion Magazines; Woman’s interpretation of fashion Photographs By Diana Crane.
Fashion has been conceived as a form of hegemonic oppression exerting an obligation to conform that’s heavy on the female population. Fashion photographs generate dissatisfaction amounts women because they feed upon the unreal, which sets high expectations that, most woman cannot meet.

Mario Testino, V 59. The author points to a conflicted hegemony. Different images send different messages especially about women.


The effects of images on woman in the media; advertising, have been the subject of studies and debates for many years. Understanding these impacts requires the consideration of two things. The first being the concept of hegemony as it applies to texts created for woman. The second are theories of media reception and their conceptualization of women as the interpreters of media materials. Feminists argue that’s media images of woman are directed at men and those women are encouraged to look at themselves and other woman as men do. Gender advertisements identifies characteristic poses in advertisements that present woman as inferior to men, in the manner stereotypical images of the woman correspond to the ways woman’s roles are understood in American culture.

Mario Testino, V 59


Gender is primary in determining how individuals relate to one another in social interaction. Gender ambiguity is disturbing for many people and is argued that gender identification should be unambiguous.

Fashion as a form of media culture can also be interpreted in terms of conflicted hegemony. A fashion advertisement indicates an internally contradictory hegemonic process- an on going dialectic between dominant and oppositional forces. Advertisers have been forces to incorporate oppositional elements in order to attract the attention of sophisticated consumers. Fashion is described as a form of culture characterized by opposition between two countervailing historically established cultural discourses. One romanticizes fashion and the other trivializes it.

The conflicted hegemony also concerns the role that women play as desirable figure versus wife and mother.

Miles Aldrige, Vogue, Sep 2007


It is argued that postmodernist elements in contemporary fashion contribute to a conflicted hegemony. Women’s responses cannot be characterized entirely by either acceptance of or resistance to hegemonic values. There is a variation depending of the nature of text, age, social class, and ethnicity of the reader or viewer. Women from different social class and ethnic groups respond either negatively or positively to different aspects of material, depending upon its relevance and significance for their lives.

Fashionable clothing is meaningful to the consumer because it expresses ambivalences surrounding social identities for example young/age, work/play. Fashion continually redefines the tensions and embodies them in new styles, thus fashion photographs are subject to different interpretations because they present diverse and crosscutting identities.

JCrew 2009 and Terry Richardson 2009


Postmodernism in fashion is seen as liberating for woman. Because a variety of styles are fashionable at the same period of time, woman are able to construct personal styles that are meaningful to them, using specific elements of fashionable styles rather than merely following a new and well defined style. Women are expected to respond to fashion photographs and clothing advertisements that are likely to be postmodernist stylistically and conflicted in terms of their interpretations of woman’s roles.

Postmodernism, feminism and fashion magazines-
Fashion in fashion magazines has diverse contradictory social agendas. Fashion magazines please both advertisers and consumers. Fashion photographers have synchronized their themes and images with those that show youth cultures and that are circulated by the media.

Fashion photography has incorporated sexual poses as one showing woman in low status in animal like poses. And the other are woman are portrayed as empowered and androgynous capable of achieving goal and managing others by wearing business suits and other costumes derived from masculine attire.

Terry Richardson, Jimmy Choo, Cruise, 2009


Selection of photographs and questions for research-
The study was to examine responses and representations of gender in fashion photographs and clothing advertisements among young and middle aged women, about categories such as the frontal gaze and eye contact, androgyny and gender ambiguity, lesbianism, ritualization of subordination, withdrawal, sexuality and nudity.

Authority of fashion-
Based on the research and questionnaires there are several reliance’s on different types of sources of information about fashion. Those included their social milieu, media including fashion magazines, TV, and clothes worn by popular singers, and final local stores. The information suggested that the authority to transmit information about fashion today is widely diffused.

Some of the responses were; that fashion standards set in the magazines were impossible to achieve, that fashion photographs should be viewed as art and fantasy rather than representations of fashion, and African Americas did not attempt to follow fashion because to them fashionable styles were created for white woman.

The Fashion Magazine and its social agendas-
Several photographs present the woman in highly sexualized poses suggesting that woman’s roles are that of a sex object.

Terry Richardson, Jimmy Choo, Cruise, 2009


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