What’s in fashion anyway: An analysis of fashion writing in Art Goût Beauté

At the grocery store, any cursory glance at the magazine section is sure to have caught your attention at least once before. If it is a fashion magazine that persuaded you to make your way to the dedicated aisle, there are only two things that could have really drawn you over: the image of a bombshell cover star like the one of Rihanna, literally standing on water in a sequin dress, found on this month’s Vogue cover, or a carefully placed headline that reads something along the lines of “10 spring items you need NOW.” Either way, the latest monthly issue of said fashion magazine is now in your hands.

The images and words seem harmless enough, but according to the semiotic theories, set forth by French theorist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) in his book The Fashion System, published in 1967, the fashion magazine does more than just reiterate trends – it sets them. Through the careful use of words and images, it generates what is fashionable and what is not (Jobling 132).

courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives - Author's Photo

Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives – Author’s Photo

In Paris, throughout the 1920s, it is the French magazine Art Goût Beauté (AGB) that helped interpret what was fashionable for readers in over 35 countries (Ginsburg 11). First published in 1920 under the name Art Goût Bon Ton until November 1921, AGB issued over 152 numbers until it ceased publication in 1933 (Ginsburg 173). The monthly society magazine was published by the silk manufacturer Maison Albert Godde et Beddin. “AGB like all other fashion magazines was selling a dream of ultimate elegance, untroubled felicity, leisure and pleasure; all the inevitable consequence of wearing the right dress for the occasion.” (Ginsburg 11)

What really set AGB a part from other fashion magazines at the time was its colourful Art Deco inspired illustrations. The cover of its March 1925 issue – complete with dresses created by designer Paul Poiret and fashion house Drecoll – instantly caught my attention. The cover image portrays a sense of luxury that I was attracted to due to the chic dresses and ball-like setting complete with dancing, and live band. Though illustrations like the cover image described above helped provide what Condé Nast called “the mission, the service,” which conveyed “to the reader the sense and the appearance of an outfit,” (Ginsburg 21) it is fashion writing, according to Barthes’ approach, that translates the illustrated garments into fashion with terminological codes (Jobling 134). These terminological codes are basically words and archetypal phrases that communicate what is fashionable to readers. “Without discourse there is no total Fashion, no essential Fashion,” Barthes wrote (Barthes qtd. In Jobling 132). This highlights how important words are to the notion of fashion, in order to lend meaning to garments and accessories as items of fashion.

Considering AGB’s main mission was to promote French couture and the French textile industry, the magazine’s fashion reporting was not critical or dramatic (Ginsburg 176). The magazine instead clearly favours and promotes this industry, and especially the fabrics made by its publisher, Maison Albert Godde et Beddin: “The A.G.B crêpes are the most favoured, and this is quite understandable as their qualities, their softness, and their charming fancifulness are everywhere recognized,” one writer wrote in AGB’s 1925 March issue. Its fashion content was mainly produced by two fashion correspondents: Rosine who was introduced in March 1922 as a ‘recognised authority on fashion’ and Lucie Neumeyer-Hirigoyen who worked with the magazine until its closing (Ginsburg 176).

An analysis of an issue of AGB, published in March 1925, titled The height of fashion, reveals how its fashion writing promoted several trends, but also offered tips to readers on how to wear them. This specific issue contains a nine-page fashion feature by Rosine, separated by seven headings: Spring Materials; Russian Ballet fashion; Women and lace, lace and women; Styles and Décolletés; A new use of plaiting; A little of everything; and To be in fashion one must…

courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives - Author's photo

Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives – Author’s photo

Similar to today’s fashion system, the March issue of AGB was particularly concerned with Spring trends (see Vogue’s April 2016 editorial focused on Spring florals).

If I analyze this example of fashion writing with Barthes’ semiotic approach, several of Barthes’ concepts hold true. Barthes argues that the object, in this case a fashion object, is intersected by two definitions (Jobling 137). The first definition – taxonomic – classifies objects based on their production and consumption (Jobling 137). His definition of consumption embraces how and when a garment should be worn. In AGB, fashion writer Rosine embraces this convention put forth by Barthes on numerous occasions. For example, Rosine describes an outfit that would be appropriate to wear to race and sports meetings: “There is the practical costume with its suggestion of boyishness, in fancy woollen materials or thick crêpes, the top in a sort of chandail shirt fashion, bordered with silk and decked with pockets, the skirt much pleated in order to facilitate walking, a style popular at the present moment at all race and sports meetings” (The height of fashion).

In another instance, Rosine writes how practical wearing a tailor-made style under a jacket can be for more intimate occasions: “[…] nothing could be more pleasing and practical as well, for when the coat is taken off one is still well enough dressed either for luncheon or a cup of tea” (The height of fashion).

Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives - Author's photo

Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives – Author’s photo

In the case of production, Barthes argues that fashion writing is concerned with details like buttons and things like fabric weight and feel (Jobling 137). Rosine’s writing also proves varying examples of how clothing is classified based on production. For example, she describes how hats that season are made in ribbon, how they are soft and “hardly any heavier than a feather” (The height of fashion).

Barthes concept of production in fashion writing also lends meaning to another code. Author and women’s studies professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, Mary Lynn Stewart, analysed several fashion periodicals between 1919 and 1939,  and relates this description of materials to gender messages (Stewart 186). Though Barthes does not equate gender differences to the weight of fabric, his writing does show how these descriptions convey a subtle message: “Barthes contends that all fabrics are classified by weight and that people who wear lightweight fabrics are imbued with a light, fine, and frivolous identity, while those in heavyweight fabrics are imbued with a heavy, authoritative, and solemn identity,” (Stewart 186).

Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives - Author's photo

Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives – Author’s photo

Similarly, despite the fact that this example of fashion writing was published in 1925, a time where high fashion was adopting more masculine traits, Rosine seems eager to promote the feminine. For example, in this issue, Rosine promotes lace for the summer because Parisiennes cannot limit themselves to sports attire: “Her exquisite grace, her innate coquetry, her desire to please and to exercise her tyranny of attraction alienate her from the masculine harshness of the tailor-made and all similar styles” (The height of fashion).

Stewart explains that this type of fashion writing was a way to obscure masculine elements (Stewart 192). Stewart argues that some fashion writing, for example, caused activities like embroidering to become a stereotypically feminine activity during this period. By the nineteenth century, lace, which had historically been worn by both men and women also took on a feminine inflection (Stewart 192).

Based on Stewart’s analysis and my own much smaller analysis, I agree with her final remark: “Perhaps the interwar era should be regarded as on of experimentation in men’s and women’s clothing, not of women adopting elements of menswear or of ladies’ fashion undermining the gender order” (Stewart 199). The fashion writing I analyzed is still very concerned with gender roles and the way women should present themselves. Rosine tells readers to be trendy, but still undermines the adoption of menswear by women.

Another fascinating feature of this piece of fashion writing which has little to do with Barthes’ semiologic approach, is AGB’s fascination with the “Parisienne.” Though this particular issue that I analyzed was in English and an insert found inside the magazine reveals that it was produced in Toronto and backed by Canadian retailer The Robert Simpson Company (also known as Simpsons), the fashion writing continuously references Parisienne dress and the Parisienne woman. Examples of what the Parisienne woman would wear, but also her personality traits are revealed: “the Parisienne is too feminine to limit herself to clothes of this character,” Rosine writes (The height of fashion).

The distinction between Parisienne styles and other national styles are also asserted. In this text, the Russian ballet fashion trend, deemed more exotic, is attributed to “the Russian invasion of French fashion” (The height of fashion). But the comment that followed of a “more sober” look “thus more French,” (The height of fashion) suggests that the more exotic look, though in style, is not right for the Parisienne.

Stewart’s own analysis reveals that the years following the first World War, other internationally oriented fashion magazines made arrogant remarks about the superiority of Parisian fashion (Stewart 159). Considering that AGB’s main focus was to promote French couture and the French textile industry, mainly centered in Paris, this focus on Parisian style and the city’s fashion authority is probably even more heightened.

If by analysing this text through Barthes approach can teach us anything, it’s that fashion is a matter of performativity (Jobling 139). According to Rosine, to be fashionable one must wear the appropriate garments, in the appropriate materials, at the appropriate time (as noted above), but her concluding remarks for this 9 page fashion text reminds readers that to be fashionable takes more than just the right clothes:

“To be in the fashion one must… have the correct taste for knick-knacks, follow the latest crazes, have the flair for discovering artistic curios, gives one self the air of a connoisseur, even if one knows nothing about it; give Mah-Jong teas even if one does not know the rules of the game; appear at luncheon in a sport costume and a hat; have made at least one journey from Paris to London and vice verse in an aeroplane… such as the modes of life, difficult to achieve, but which mark to-day the really chic people” (The height of fashion).

Works Cited

Ginsburg, Madeleine. Paris Fashions: The Art Deco Style of the 1920s. Gallery Books, 1989. Print.

Jobling, Paul. “Roland Barthes Semiology and the Rhetorical Codes of Fashion.” in Thinking Through Fashion. Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik. London and New York : l.b Taurus & Co, FIX 2016. 132-148. Print.

Rosine. “The height of fashion.” Art Gout Beauté March 1925. Print

Stewart, Mary Lynn. Dressing Modern Frenchwomen: Marketing Haute Couture, 1919-1939. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Print.


About jennifer.braun

Jennifer Braun is a freelance fashion writer from Montreal. When she isn't being the best student ever, she's watching Sex and the City and planning her next big story.