Meaty Mags and Fleshy Films: Observing the Morphing Body of Text in Fashion Visual Culture

From Firenze University Press Journal: Fashion Highlight

University of Florence
5 min readFeb 15, 2024

Carolina Francesca Maria Davalli, Università degli Studi della Campania “Luigi Vanvitelli”

The notion of referring to a piece of written material as a body of text is familiar toall, as it is a common expression largely used to indicate the central parts of a publication, a book or other compositions of words and phrases. Therefore, text and the ever-changing crossbreeding of its cells — which are in fact the letters of the alphabet — are frequently, and often unknowingly, charged of bodily qualities and a corporeal dimension (Bacon, 1620). Starting from this assumption, the research unpacks the definition of text offered by Roland Bathes in the volume The Pleasure of Text (1973) and applies this theoretical framework to the realm of fashion visual culture, specifically though the study of fashion film. By observing both written material and moving image across the same complex of notions, the paper not only identifies a shared array of anatomical features, but also highlights mutual tensions and performative qualities, such as the drive towards desire, pleasure, and subversion (Barthes, 1973).If on one hand text could thence be analysed as a living and breathing system, onthe other, fashion almost inherently implies the idea of a body, featured for instance in its materiality (Emberley, 2007), representation (Smelik, 2006), projection (Eco, 1985) or absence (Jonkers, 2019). Even more so, fashion films necessarily entail the presence of a body of some sort and are considered as the ideal visual space in which the body can move freely, interact, and ultimately express its physicality though fashion (Amaducci & Manca, 2021). By considering both the corporeal properties of text and those implied by fashion films, the paper analyses three case studies illustrating different modalities in which the physical encounter between the body of text and that of moving image activate original cultural interpretations and, in doing so, inform fashion visual culture with unexpected points of view.

The Anatomy of Text

The Anatomy of Text One of the fist investigations that trace a clear and profound link between the intricate apparatus of text and that of fashion visual culture is the work of renowned semiologist Roland Barthes, whose seminal volume The Fashion System (1967) questions the relationships between written material and fashion imagery (Barthes, 1953), applying a theoretical approach on language to fields of study such as fashion communication and promotion.In his 1973 volume The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes pushes the research further, disclosing the bodily traits of text (pp. 11–12) and ultimately defining written discourse as a complex system characterized by a fluid, protean and cumulative nature. In the study, the semiologist in fact differentiates the “text of pleasure” from “the text of bliss” (p. 14), attributing different abilities and levels of access to each. The first, in fact, is described as an extension of the dominant culture and therefore is experienced by “a comfortable practice of reading” (p.14), while the second is characterised by its power to jeopardize systems and its faculty to “impose a state of loss, […] discomfort and unsettlement to the reader’s historical, cultural, and psychological assumptions” (p.14), ultimately generating upheaval though the practice of reading. According to Barthes, the goal of written text is therefore to transport the reader into the realm of pleasure and bliss, and to do so it must trigger the status quo by adopting the restlessness of language (p. 6). Thus, for Barthes, it is precisely the heterogeneous escamotages of language — be them narrative, lexical, or stylistic — that confer to the body of written text a more tangible, visible, and performing set of properties. In particular, the semiologist defines the tension that binds the body of the reader to that of written material as a carnal bliss, an orgasmic desire consumed through the fetishist observation of its various anatomical parts. According to the semiologist: “The text is a fetish object, and this fetish desires me. The text chooses me, by a whole disposition of invisible screens, selective baffles: vocabulary, references, readability, etc.; and, lost in the midst of a text (not behind it, like a deus ex machina) there is always the other, the author” (p. 27). The powerful bond between written discourse and the corporality of the reader is therefore described as varied and inconsistent. By establishing a performative and fragmentary relation expressed through appropriations, cross-references, narrative structures, lexical choices, homages, and virtuosity; the text feeds the reader’s desire following a syncopated, broken and, indeed, fragmentary rhythm. “Is it not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) it’s the intermittent […] which is erotic […] the staging of an appearance and disappearance” (pp. 9–10), Barthes concludes. In this light, the practice of reading emulates that of edging, through which the reader is kept constantly on its toes due to the ever-changing and sudden nature of written text. In the seminal book Cartamodello: Antologia di scrittori e scritture sulla moda (2000), the Italian writers Vittoria Caterina Caratozzolo and Paola Colaiacomo investigate fashion culture through written extracts and quotes of key theorists, also documenting a relationship of tension and inconstancy in the practice of reading. In the introduction of the volume, Colaiacomo describes the act of reading as “a schooling in the discipline of ellipsis. A training to bear the suspension of meaning, between one word and another, between one verse and another, between one chapter and another” (Colaiacomo, 2000, p. 14). Reading implies the desire to strive for completeness, which is however out of reach due to the polymorph and infinitely dense nature of the text. What the reader encounters is therefore a composite landscape (Deleuze, 1995), a panorama, a constellation of imaginaries that satisfy or not the search for pleasure in a fetishist and utterly physical way. Since written material — with its own set of references, appropriations, styles — is by nature lumpy and uneven, then also the practice of reading becomes a discipline to an unstable, perhaps even unattainable, kind of pleasure.


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