It may seem a platitude, but there are plain elements in a communication artifact which, although perceived at first glance by the observer as a matter of fact, are fundamental elements of analysis for the space/time definition of a narrated event or of a visually-sent message.

These elements, referring to the who, where and when of a given visual text, are defined as “discoursive structures” and, semiotically speaking, belong to the surface level of signification.

Discoursive structures define space, time and characters in an action and are divided into:
  • actors - narration is played by individuals possessing a given identity (defining the actant)
  • time - narrative transformations become temporized processes (defining when action is represented)
  • space - narrated events are placed in appropriate spaces (defining where action takes place).
Hence, the three discoursive structures, actors, time and space, interrelate to allow the receiver to grasp, albeit in the most superficial of ways, the gist of the message sent, its surface and less hidden meaning.

Those who need to visually express a concept must emphasize, as clearly as possible, where and when an action takes place, and the performer (or receiver), by using other essential elements in communication such as signs and codes.

In the particular case of fashion which, as mentioned earlier, is a system of hypo-codified codes that vary depending on who wears the clothing and where and when it is worn, it follows that the clear expression of discoursive structures is a crucial element.

Let’s start with time.

Vintage dress, with contemporary accessories, worn by a young, beautiful model on the catwalk of a collection named “transgression in the 1960s”, and the same dress worn today for shopping by a hard-up 70-year-old that had bought it in 1965 in her younger years, are two different things altogether. It is the same dress, but the perception greatly changes.

An example of vintage dress
Or, for instance, a news report on fashion in the 1980s depicting in a magazine the beauty and original features of a jacket with shoulder pads. The same garment, considered elegant 30 years ago, would be considered kitsch if worn today.

Another important element is space.

Dress is an element that needs to be presented within a certain environment or context to accentuate it and semanticize it. A fashion garment that is left alone, crumpled and dirty on a dusty chair in an old attic, although potentially a work of art, is, in actual fact, just an old and dirty garment left in a corner.

A light, flowery dress showcased on a catwalk in Paris absorbs the aura and basks in reflected glory, holding connotations of simple elegance and refined freshness. If worn on a beach, it would equate to an ordinary sun dress.

A fashion show in Paris
The truth also lies in the opposite: clothing semanticizes and accentuates the space, therefore the environment, in which it acts. Stylish, fluttering hats worn for a wedding make it a more sophisticated event.

A dinner occasion where gentlemen wear a dark suit and tie and ladies an evening dress is equated to a society event of the upper social class.

This category also encompasses the presentation and sale of clothing in stores and boutiques. Stores, the place where selling is organized, must be built according to specific communicational, proxemic and kinesic rules, with perfectly fitted settings to emphasize and enhance the items on display and to make the potential buyers feel at ease.

Finally, actors, or who wears what.

The combination also in this case is indissoluble: a fashion creation, however beautiful, original or refined, if not worn by an individual who enhances its characteristics, is doomed to disqualify itself.

If a fashion garment is worn at a fashion show by a young, tall, beautiful and slender woman striding confidently down the catwalk, the perception of the garment (if of course it is a true fashion item) will be one of a desirable, refined and sublime object.

The same garment, worn by a chubby 50-year-old, a face heavy with makeup, lips and breasts clearly enhanced by plastic surgery and a stride that’s anything but elegant, will undoubtedly appear gross.

Dress is, therefore, a sign (or rather, a system of signs producing a text) which, in order to be desirable by a target and become a vehicle to rapidly turn prospects into clients, needs to be actualized by a series of variables, primarily by the foregoing discoursive structures.

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