Closet Communication: Meaning through Style

In a new blog post on the CommsWomen platform, Kaitlyn Dinwiddie, a student at the University of Alabama, College of Communication and Information Sciences, analyses an article on fashion communication and culture by Malcolm Barnard published by Springer.

Rummaging through your closet and pondering which outfit to wear for the day ahead is a part of your daily routine. It is a task that often goes unnoticed. But what if your closet is actually communicating? Not in words, of course, but in meaning. Fashion is not a verbal language, it is a visual language in which individuals and groups communicate their affiliations, aspirations and identities. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people select clothing that aligns with their cultural contexts and personal beliefs.

Malcolm Barnard from Loughborough University supports this idea and argues that fashion extends beyond mere clothing. In his chapter, “Fashion Statements: Communication and Culture,” Barnard explores how internal intentions and cultural ideas are made visible through garments, revealing that what we wear communicates far more than just aesthetics. By delving deeper into our fashion choices, Barnard allows the audience to uncover ways our clothing communicates. 

Barnard writes, “Both fashion itself and the communicative function of fashion are perceived as being unproblematic and well-understood in modern Western cultures.” An easy way to describe the concept of the clothes’ “communicative function” is that clothes are selected for the meaning we believe them to have, or the messages we believe them to send. At its core, what we wear can convey far more than we realize. Consider the scenario of a job interview. You aim to appear professional, and each garment chosen can communicate subtle messages about you. Opting for a well-tailored suit may convey confidence and attention to detail. In comparison, a choice of a bold color could signify a distraction or assertiveness.

Fashion can serve as a mirror, reflecting the culture of a society. This principle has held true for centuries. Take the fashion trends of Victorian women. Their attire was both elaborate and restrictive, reflecting the prevailing attitudes towards gender, class and propriety. Similarly, the expensive detailed dresses worn by upper-class Victorian women in contrast to the plainer attire of servants illustrated the distinction of their economic status.

Arguably one of the most compelling aspects of Barnard’s article is its academic comparison using the popular show “Sex and the City.” A show centered around four dynamic women in New York, it is famous for its iconic fashion moments. From Carrie Bradshaw’s vibrant trend-setting outfits to Miranda Hobbes’ power suits, each character’s wardrobe serves as a visual representation of their individual personalities and lifestyles. The show suggests that clothing is an intentional choice, serving as a medium to communicate. The characters’ fashion choices offer more insight into their personalities while highlighting the trends of the time, social status and cultural norms, illustrating how fashion functions as a symbolic language.

Bernard’s article makes it clear how fashion holds great significance. Although there is no universal agreement on the meanings and communication in different fashion looks, it can be assumed that they convey messages. Through understanding the deeper meanings behind our fashion choices, we can gain a greater appreciation for the pivotal role of communicating through fashion.

The full chapter can be read using this link.


Barnard, M. (2010). Fashion Statements: Communication and Culture. In – Scapp, R., Seitz, B. (eds) Fashion Statements. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

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