Europeana Fashion
The Editor's Column: Symbols
4 July, 2017
  • fashion
  • fashion

What is a fashion object? What is in a fashion object? The answers to these questions are far more complex than ‘an item of clothing.’ Together with the materiality of the object comes a whole constellation of other characteristics, which may be less tangible but surely not less meaningful. In being complex agglomerates of material and metaphoric features, fashion objects become signs, symbols of our position in the world.

Fashion show of Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, spring/summer 1979 women's ready-to-wear collection, Courtesy Paul Van Riel, All Rights Reserved

Since fashion is something that gets meaning when worn, fashion has been exploiting the power of symbols in order to reach a higher level of meaning. The inclusion of recognisable symbols on clothes and accessories allowed, and keeps allowing people to wear their beliefs, and to campaign for them through their bodies.

Silk handkerchief commemorating victories signed by the engraver Robert Spofforth, England, 1707, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY

Clothes and accessories have also the power to become symbols of the time in which they are produced and become popular, because they develop a direct link with the people who use them in their life performance. Objects can sometimes be produces in order to celebrate or commemorate a moment, turning them into the material remain of something as ephemeral as a memory. The possibility to turn fashion objects into props for the everyday performance of living is fundamental when considering how fashion has been used in order to define social groups and differentiate individuals.

Mini-dress of wool and nylon jersey, designed by Mary Quant for Ginger Group, London, 1967, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY

The very objects sometimes become symbols by themselves, transcending the ‘present’ in which they originate. This is the case of those objects whose status of ‘timeless icons’ makes them desirable - therefore significant - no matter the time or space.

In a global world where information travel so fast and virtually there are no boundaries for the communication, symbols, because of their visual strength, are at their most powerful: they can build communities, represent a cause or a belief in the most different part of the world, signal the interconnection between the most different social groups and cultural affiliations. Diving into these matters will be this month’s task for us, and we are thrilled to present how the holdings in the European Fashion archive can contribute to the understanding of the symbolic power of fashion.