Eco and Stallybrass in Decoding the Meaning of Clothing

Both Umberto Eco and Peter Stallybrass, through different perspectives, capture how clothes go beyond the idea of objects to become symbols of past and present motions. Eco and Stallybrass, as well, have a similarity in using “I” in their texts to create a personal narrative. To start with Eco’s Social Life as a System, there is a clear emphasis on fashion being used as codes, messages and symbols that are acted through gestures and demeanor. He states: “I am speaking through my clothes…Obviously fashion codes are less articulate, more subject to historical fluctuations than linguistic codes” (Eco 144). His comparison of semiotics in clothing are interpreted just as easily and frequently as our movement is. Fashion symbolizes class and economic standards. It divides us in social boundaries, but somehow is our common thread, as well. To understand these linguistics, Eco states: “The task of semiotics is to isolate different systems of signification, each of them ruled by specific norms, and to demonstrate that there is signification and that there are norms” (Eco 145). Using these norms as a starting point of comparison can help us in decoding each other’s symbols and signs. Just as Eco also echoes in “Lumbar Thought”, a pair of jeans transformed his demeanor and he developed a new set of symbols embodied in his physical movement.

Analyzing movement is emphasized in Stallybrass’ analysis of grief in clothing of those who have passed away in how the human movement is now gone, but there is still something, something almost magical, moving around in the fabric. That is what is called the imprint. When speaking of the death of his friend Allon White, he states: “For Jen, the question was whether and how to reorder the house, what to do with Allon’s books and with all the ways in which he had occupied space” (Stallybrass 35). By his use of literary language, Stallybrass is emphasizing that the signs of remembrance, like Allon’s books, still existed around them; his signs stayed even though his physical body had left. Stallybrass talks of memories as the imprint of a person and the power in processing that memory comes from within in us.

When my mother’s mother passed away, there was this spree and excitement for my aunts to gather as much of her personal items as quickly as possible. The stampede to her home in Waterbury empathized a true fetishism in my grandmother’s belongings. The pearls she bought after my grandfather returned from war, the sapphire rings she collected, and the many cashmere sweaters she wore during the seasons seemed to be a commodity, as Karl Marx would see it; these items were so valued for their price that the memory of my grandmother faded. My mother, however, started fidgeting with the fake diamond pins she seemed to snag out of the items that were taken. They were my grandmother’s, and when I asked my mother why she wore them, she said she could feel my grandmother’s presence with her. Here is where I saw my mother’s power in imprinting my grandmother’s memory. She didn’t need the most expensive item to feel her own mother’s love; she needed something that reminded that she had strength from the ones who passed away in her life. My mother sat in a hospital for two months watching my grandmother withering away while my aunts sat in their homes, far away from the horror, and all they wanted was stuff. It’s just stuff.

The true reason why clothing becomes a memory is by the senses of the body, and the magic that makes you feel somehow secure knowing that that pin sat on someone else’s shoulders for a long time. It’s as if the pins, gathered on my mother, would be like having little imaginary former lives of memory helping her make decisions in the present. The magic of those moments, and the symbolism of some cheap Macy’s pin, as I believe Stallybrass would agree, gathered meaning because some wore it.

Clothing is different because it touches the body; it has direct connection to that person’s movement, the environments they both enter, and the way they live on that person and in return, the clothing becomes the life. It can be frightening if you think about and this terror is captured by Vladimir Nabokov as he states: “Her dresses now wear their own selves, her books leaf through their own pages. We suffocate in the tightening circle of those monsters that are misplaced and misshapen because she is not there to tend them” (Stallybrass 40). And maybe that’s the point: we need to keep this circle motion going of tending to these items so that they continue their own path of life along ours. Clothing truly haunts us and that adds comfort, along with some mystery or terror, to how clothing is truly grieved.

Eco and Stallybrass understand the physical whether it’s in how we move as people when wearing clothes, or the physical texture of clothing that imprints a person even after the person is gone. Beyond capitalism and fetishism, which do exist in the fashion industry, symbolic meaning of clothing is a long last influence, and is preserved by us as people. Whether alive or not, the codes of a person are embedded in their clothing, truly shaped into it, so that their presence cannot leave. The materiality of clothing by sharing and reusing clothes, shows that clothing is also a sign of a long journey, collecting memories as if they item can be personified forever. The magic then, is accepting the movement of the present and how movement continues in the past to provide a real mystery to the definitions of life and death.

Work Cited

Eco, Umberto. “A Theory of Semiotics.” Social Life as a Sign System (1976): 143-47. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.

Eco, Umberto. “Lumbar Thought.” Umberto Eco (n.d.): 315-17. Web. 3 Sept. 2016.

Stallybrass, Peter. “Worn World.” Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things (n.d.): 35-50. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.

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