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Precursors to theorizing fashion: The Labyrinth

In his final lectures at the Collège de France in Paris just before his death in 1980, and concluding a collaborative set of lectures on ‘the Labyrinth’ (2003: 177), Barthes felt in a position to come clean about his work on clothing and what he thought of the subject itself. He describes how, in 1953 or 1954, he had met up with the philosopher Maurice MerleauPonty to discuss work on a semiology of clothing. Quoting MerleauPonty, Barthes remembered a phrase from the discussion:

Clothing was a ‘faux bon sujet’ (false good topic). Applying this description to the Labyrinth as metaphor, he suggests that a ‘false good topic’ is one which exhausts itself or is exhausted from the start, which forces the topic’s ‘development’ to be a repetition of the subject-word. In fine Barthes style, he illustrated this with a tautology: ‘The Labyrinth is a Labyrinth’.

The paradox of Barthes’s work on clothing and fashion is, then, a fine paradox: how to research and write on a subject that, at best, has nothing to be said about it, and at worst invites pure tautology. This is an essayistic challenge typical of Barthes. He then goes on to say why the Labyrinth is a ‘false good topic’ in ways which we could continue to apply to clothing.

Firstly, it is a form which is so well designed that anything said about it appears to be within (‘en deçà’) the form itself; ‘the topic is richer than the general, the denotation than the connotation, the letter than the symbol’; there is nothing to understand in a Labyrinth, it cannot be summarized. Secondly, as a metaphor, the Labyrinth is everywhere in human society (monuments, gardens, games, cities,

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