Clothing as a sign system: a Semiotic aproach to fashion

This is an essay I wrote for NZ Film class while I was at uni, looking at costume through ‘semiotics‘. Semiotics is the study of ‘signs’ Or, to quote the ubiquitous Wikipedia page, “In linguistics, semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols“.

I’m sure that clarified it all for you nicely ;p

Now, if you’re not familiar with Semiotics and the like, some of the terminology may go over your head a bit, but the gist is still interesting I think. So here it is, essentially unedited at this stage, sorry if it reads a bit like a stunned quire boy’s history essay ;D This may be a bit boring and long-winded for most of you, but if you’re interested in costume/fashion/psychology and the like, you may find it worth a look.

I shall discuss semiotics in film with particular attention to its use/presence in ‘costume’. I will look at costume through semiotics (and in turn use costume to explore semiotics) because, in my view, clothing in film is to the character what an establishing ‘long-shot’ is to scenery. Used correctly it can very quickly communicate much about a character’s persona and ‘places’ them into the scene and the world of the film. Clothing/’personal adornment’ is one of mankind’s dominant forms of expression because it allows us to change the way our body is perceived. It gives us the choice and ‘tools’ to assert individuality. In this light I see clothes as being highly charged with ‘meaning’, a language in it’s own right, being very much a statement about who the wearer is (or wants to be perceived as). Clothing (or perhaps, more correctly, the body) provides a canvas for connotative expression and meaning (defined by convention) and communication, ranging from concepts of the possession of clothing as a commodity and value (and therefore ‘status’) to more visual symbolic and associative signs such as colour and shape/silhouette. A semiotic approach therefore seems perfectly suited to such a study, dealing as it does with ‘signs’ and meaning; allowing us to look at the ways in which meaning is ‘invested’, in this case into clothing, and what effects the ‘reading’ of this meaning.

Clothing used as an external (symbolic) expression of internal emotion and personal change can be seen in The Piano (Campion, 1993). We see this particularly in the clothing of Ada who undergoes the most change in the film which can be seen as being reflected in her clothing. Clothing and its handling (and removal) signals degrees of restriction and freedom (Martin & Edwards, 1997, P171, ¶6.) At the beginning of the film, when she arrives in NZ, her dress is formal, very prim and enclosing, echoing her silence. The dress and jacket are dark and close fitting, doing up high around the neck. While this suggests conventional Victorian modesty it would also appear to convey a message, symbolically to the audience, that she is entrapped and repressed. Her bonnet encloses her face, hiding her. With its black exterior and white lining (like petals or pearl), it is like a shell from which she stares defiantly out. Her dress gives nothing away; Ada is silent, even in her clothing, and yet this absence says much about her withdrawal from society and it’s social communicative conventions.


Alternatively, the severity of Ada’s dress could be read as having a de-feminising effect, helping to convey a strength normally associated with men in dark suits. Like a man’s suit there is very little frivolity about her attire. The negative values used in the costume: the lack of colour; the simplicity, creates an almost featureless emptiness which is filled by her strength of presence. Paradoxically, although her dress encloses and entraps her; hides her, it also acts as a vehicle to impose her strength of will upon the screen through it’s sharp, silhouette-like darkness. The costume designer could have chosen, for example, lighter ‘warmer’ greys or earthy brown hues, changing the reading of her appearance. We may then see her as dull, mute and submissive, diminutive and ineffectual rather than having a wilful strength and a certain mystique. Instead, she is clothed in a strong block of subdued (nearly black) colour, unadorned except for the bold black trim of almost military horizontal bands across the jacket front for the button closure (and additional plain trim around the edges). It conveys the message that this is no ‘wilting violet’ but a woman of strong character and, though silent, enormous presence. The juxtaposition of this clothing sign, with the apparently incongruous image of Ada, pale and diminutive in an overwhelming landscape in difficult circumstances, sets up a conflict of messages. The tension imparts yet a further meaning: this small, darkly dressed woman is mysterious; she is aldritch; there is an almost otherworldly, witch-like quality to her. In this way we view Ada’s clothing as both an extension of her silence and a symbol of her mysterious, enigmatic, yet strong personality. The audience is given these signs or cues which they can interpret in relation to other codes present within the context and complementary co-existent signs; her body language; framing; lighting and so on. Her poise, the tilt of her head; the strength of her gaze, for example, aid in showing us that she is not crippled by her circumstances and instead is strong and self-possessed.


As the film progresses her clothing changes and she is literally stripped of her protective outer layers. She emerges from her ‘shell’ as she begins to trust and fall in love with Baines. Ada loses her jacket, revealing her bare arms, perhaps indexicle of all her skin; her naked body. This effect is intensified when Baines discovers the hole in her stocking which may stand as an even stronger index of her skin; her bare legs. At the end of the movie, having lost her finger, she is given a new one, made for her by Baines. With the knowledge we have from the film of the importance of her hands as her mode of communication (sign language and playing the piano) we might read this as a symbol of her new voice and a new beginning in the life that Baines has given her. We now see her for the first time in a new, freer form of costume. While retaining the period shape, much lighter fabrics are now used, with an ornate floral pattern set against a much lighter, more hopeful shade of grey. There is lace, evident at her collar and cuffs which we may read as indicative of femininity but perhaps also prosperity, the ‘masculine’ severity has gone. We see here clothing (parallel to visual signs present in the setting, white painted weather boards etc.) acting as an index of economic standing and ‘civilisation’. For the first time there seems to be true enjoyment in her dress, a sense of personal care and relaxation. She has lost much of her severity and taken on a feminine sweetness. We are left in no doubt that Ada has changed in her self and that her life has changed; her clothing corresponding to her new found freedom. Not only are her clothes appropriate for her new life with Baines, they also signify this new chapter.


If we look at another period ‘costume drama’, Desperate Remedies (Wells & Main, 1993), and the way it frames it’s women, we see period costumes used in quite a different way. Despite being set specifically in the 1860s (Martin & Edwards, 1997, p.167) the film takes a more stylistic approach, foregoing strict authenticity in favour of theatrical effect and visual impact with intense signification value. When we first see the protagonist, Dorothea, she is clad from head to toe in fiery, passionate red with accents of strong glittering black. Her clothes, like Ada’s, are restrained in their detail, not over zealous in Victorian feminine frill. While giving the impression and general silhouette of the era with tight bodice and full skirt, her garments are simplified and concentrated into the pure essence of her determined being. Like Ada’s black dress, there is a certain duality to her costume. On the one hand it is constraining and correct; entrapping her in acceptable conventionality, yet with it’s mesh insert allowing us to glimpse her body underneath but still caging her true nature; desires; and ambitions. At the same time however it is like impenetrable armour protecting her body, complete with gauntlets with sharply glittering black stones.


Dorothea’s attire, unlike Ada’s dress, has a sensuous, seductive quality. This is achieved in part by her exotic veil, hinting at mystery: that which is hidden holding allure. The mesh yoke in her bodice, which, like the veil, is both revealing and concealing, offering an almost voyeuristic view of her skin, continues this effect. Finally, she wears red suede boots that disappear under her full skirt. With their close fit and laces, they act like corsets for the legs, indexical reference to her legs and body which is hidden, perhaps even taking on the roll of fetish. The whole image is tied together by the very ‘redness’ of it all. In colour scheme she is far removed from Ada’s dark frigid lack of colour. We (from a western standpoint certainly) associate red with fire and passion; perhaps with blood and so with life (but also danger). An almost ‘rude’ colour, it speaks of a refusal to be tamed. The ‘signs’ all point to a woman who, while respectable and professionally successful, refuses to be confined by the conventional roles of women. Unlike Ada’s stiff bonnet, framing her face like the angelic image of the perfect little woman, Dorothea’s flowing veil has a sense of freedom and life to it, indicative of the freedom she strives for.


On another layer of meaning, we might think of her as a warrior or soldier for women’s freedom. The red of her clothes parallels the ‘iconic’ red uniforms of soldiers (and flags as well perhaps) throughout the ages, from Persians and Romans to the British ‘Red Coats’. Indeed, this image of Dorothea as a fiery warrior may be invoked as we first see her, riding a chariot, like Bodicea (Wells, [DVD Audio commentary], 1993/n.d.), on a quest to over-come the oppression of gender conventions. We might call her the ‘Warrior woman’; the antithesis of the ‘Sissy Warrior’ spoken of by Davis (2001) referring to the Lion in The Wizard of Oz. This theme of gender politics is also clearly introduced with the supporting character, Megs, a young ‘tomboy’; a girl dressed in boy’s/men’s clothes, she offers her services to Dorothea as a ‘manservant’ (Wells, [DVD Audio commentary], 1993/n.d.), cleverly indicative of the strive for mutability of traditional roles.


It is also interesting to note the way in which Dorothea and her ‘companion’, Ann, seem often to echo or visually balance each other’s clothing throughout the film with some subtle opposition. At times this opposition is in the colour they wear: red and blue; or perhaps the design, for example Dorothea wearing ornate lace with a high neck and long sleeves while Ann wears a quite plain sleeveless dress. At times they also wear garments that add a suggestion of masculinity such as waistcoats over their dresses (more or less correct for the period, and yet the effect remains). Their complimentary unity of costume suggests that they experience life together, whether balancing each other or united in mood and in their purpose: it serves as a symbol of their dynamic relationship and the different (perhaps changing) roles they play within that relationship.


We can see how clothes may act as a tool by which others impose their desires or beliefs upon the wearer in Gaylene Preston’s film Perfect Strangers (2003). Regardless of whether it is a feminist film (or just a film made by a feminist film maker), it could be thought of as looking at the way women may be portrayed and the way they might see themselves as dictated by society, particularly by men. The clothing in the film plays an important part in our reading of this, especially in shaping a picture of male dominance over the female image, the female as an object in fact. We see the protagonist Melanie’s transition from her own slightly ‘tarty’ image (engineered we suppose to entice men so as to fill some gap in her life, albeit short-lived) to a picturesque image of refined femininity that ‘the stranger’ creates with the clothes he gives her. In this white dress she appears the way he wants her to be, which could perhaps be seen as imposing/’projecting’ his ‘anima’ on her (Jung, mentioned by Frances, 2004). In his eyes she is pure and cleansed; saved from her previous debase life; transformed into what he imagines a woman should be. In this way we see the function of clothing in shaping our perception of people. The image of the white evening dress combines with music from the ‘tragic’ opera Madame Butterfly to create an image of classic old film romance just before everything falls to pieces (Frances, 2004). The clothing seems to transform and represent the characters to each other and to us. The signs within the clothing also change the way we view the situation by seeking to ‘normalise’ what is happening, serving an almost ritual purpose by dressing Melanie ‘appropriately’ for a romantic dinner; the gown fulfilling the conventions we associate with such an occasion. Somehow the clothing (in conjunction with other sign systems) dispels the bizarre and frightening situation: a girl kidnapped, by changing the setting into an elegant ‘romantic’ candle-lit dinner. We are bombarded with conflicting signs, starkly reminding us that what we see is not always ‘true’. The sign systems (clothing; music; and lighting etc.) ‘collaborate’ to suggest the possibility of a perfect romance, regardless of our doubts (and those of the heroine herself), which inevitably proves too good to be true. The signs are disassembled by new information as the scene progresses, like the initial portrayal of the stranger, which is gradually undermined by his actions.


The use of clothing in the film also points most clearly to the way in which clothing functions, like any sign system, by being a ‘system of difference’; it defines not so much by being one thing but by not being another. We see how clothing at times plays the interesting role of signifying ‘exoticness’; of being excitingly ‘not from around here’; or dangerously (often exciting in itself) ‘foreign’ (different). We see the allure of apparent sophistication in comparison to our, at times, angst-ridden parochialism. The character Melanie is charmed by a handsome stranger who appears somewhat out of place in the bar where they meet, so suave in comparison to the almost caricatured kiwi bushmen and other assorted ‘blokes’. We are, it seems, slapped hardest with cultural cringe when we (the audience and Melanie) discover he got his shoes in Italy, since isn’t that the pinnacle of sophistication and style? To quote one review: ‘With his Italian shoes and “cultured” background he is a romantic, tempting opposite to her, far from her conscious inner and outer experience of life and the rough, tough blokes of the coast who hunt, shoot, fish and fart in bed.’ (Frances, 2004).

We see this idea of ‘difference’, and the signifiers to point it out, again in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994). Throughout the film Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme are portrayed quite differently: Pauline appears like a child whereas Juliet has the air of a young woman about her, perhaps most evident in their underwear and swimwear. On one hand, Pauline is plain and ‘working class’, her clothes are functional and ‘homely’, they do not aspire to be fashionable; these are simply clothes which the family can afford. Juliet in comparison nearly always wears clothes that signify her family’s comparative wealth (as well as an English refinement), giving her a sophistication and certain elegance. From sun dresses and ‘going out’ clothes to bathing suits and even underwear, all indicate this difference between them and their families.


The only middle ground that Pauline and Juliet share, clothing wise, is their school uniform. Uniform is interesting since it’s purpose is, to state the obvious, to impose uniformity. Therefore, it has a wonderful levelling factor, cutting through class and style. However, there is the undeniable fact that we perceive some people as just looking better in a uniform than others. It seems to me that Juliet somehow makes the uniform almost glamorous (in comparison to poor Pauline) which points to the effect of other sign systems on our reading of the garment. It would seem that it is not so much what one wears but how it is worn. Confidence, seen through body language and vocal patterns (codes or sub-codes in their own right), combines with other considerations such as ‘fit’; ‘tidiness’; and personal grooming (hair and makeup/complexion) to dramatically influence our decision as to whether what we see is ‘pleasing’.


In conclusion, clothing/costume is used in film (as in life, like it or not) as a language of conventional (and for the most part arbitrary) signs to economically convey information about the character/s using (assumed) shared knowledge and understanding without the need for prolonged and tedious exposition.


For Unitec SPASA NZFilm Assignment

Reference List:

Davis, R. (2001) What WOZ: Lost Objects, Repeat Viewings, and the Sissy Warrior. Film Quarterly, 55(2), 2–13. Retrieved November 9, 2008, from CALIBER archives: [PDF/’PDFplus’]


Frances, H (2004) Reflections on Perfect Strangers Illusions Magazine, 36. Retrieved on 9-Nov-08 from:


Martin, H. & Edwards, S. (1997). New Zealand Film: 1912 – 1996. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press New Zealand.


Wells, P. (Directors/Writers), & Wallace, J. H. (Producer) (1993). Audio Commentary with Peter Wells, Desperate Remedies [DVD n.d.]. New Zealand: James Wallace Productions LTD.


Other Resources (not cited):

Balet, C. (2006). Identity (1st Edition). Göttingen, Germany: Steidl Publishers.


Barthes, R. (Writer) (1967) & Ward, M & Howard, R. (Trans.). The Fashion System (1990). Berkley/Los Angeles, USA: University of California Press.


Blum, S. (Ed.) (1974). Victorian Fashions & Costumes from Harper’s Bazar: 1867-1898. New York, USA: Dover Publications, Inc.


Cairns, B. & Martin, H. (1994). Shaddows on the Wall: A study of seven New Zealand Feature Films. Auckland, New Zealand: Longman Paul Ltd.


Calefato, P. (Writer) (2004), Adams, L. (Trans.) The Clothed Body (English Edition). Oxford (England)/New York (US): Berg Publishers (Oxford International Publishers Ltd).


Chandler, 2006 Semiotics for Beginners: Signs. Retrieved on October 27, 2008 from: [Also given as reading for course: ‘NZ Film’ on Black Board in folder: CP: NZ FILM (NZF) > COURSE DOCUMENTS > CLASS TWO: SEMIOTICS ONE: SIGNS AND MEANING. > SEMIOTICS] [Link]


Conrich, I. & Murray, S. (Eds.) (2007). New Zealand Filmmakers. Detroit (USA): Wayne State University Press.


Dennis, J. & Bieringa, J. (Eds). (1996). Film in Aotearoa New Zealand (2nd Edition). Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press.


Jackson, H. & Amvela, E. Z. (2000) Words, Meaning and Vocabulary: An Introduction to Modern English Lexicology, Great Britain, Continuum International Publishing Group. Retrieved from Google Book Search on 8-Nov-08:


McManus, B. F. (1999) ANIMA/ANIMUS: the archetype of contrasexuality. Retrieved on November 12, 2008 from:


Shepard, D. (2000). Reframing Women: A History of New Zealand Film. Auckland, New Zealand: HarperCollins Publishers (New Zealand) Limited.


Verhoeven, D. (Ed.) (1999). Twin Peaks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films. Melbourne, Australia: Australian Catalogue Company Ltd. trading as Damned Publishing.


Welch, P. J. (2008) Chinese Art: A guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, Tuttle Publishing, Singapore. Retrieved from Google Book Search on 8-Nov-08:


Wikipedia (n.d.) Anima and animus. Retrieved on 15-Nov-08 from Wikipedia



Campion, J. (Director/Writer), & Chapman, J. (Producer) (1993). The Piano [DVD]. New Zealand/Australia /France: Jan Chapman Productions & CIBY 2000 (France)


Jackson, P. (Director/Co-Writer), & Booth, J. (Producer) (1994) Heavenly Creatures [DVD]. New Zealand: Wingnut Films


Preston, G. (Director/ Producer/ Writer), & Lang, R. (Producer) (2003/4) Perfect Strangers [DVD New Zealand/Australia: Gaylene Preston Productions (NZ) & Huntaway Films (NZ/Australia)


Wells, P. & Main, S. (Directors/Writers), & Wallace, J. H. (Producer) (1993). Desperate Remedies [DVD]. New Zealand: James Wallace Productions LTD.


Copyright 2010 Tobias ‘Lockhart’


About tobias 'lockhart'

Hello there, I’m Tobias. I’m male; in my late 20s, straight and eccentric. I’m finally beginning to accept that I’m really not your typical bloke; but that’s probably alright. Although my interests are many and varied, my primary areas of said interest tend toward art; fashion and costume; and that which sits or sprawls somewhere between them. I have a Diploma in Performance Technology, Majoring in Wardrobe/Costume; and you might say a Doctorate in being indecisive with post graduate honors in being not entirely sure what I want to do. Welcome to my musings on life, fashion and other things. etc.
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