“Clothing has become an intelligence and reporting tool”

The philosopher Benjamin Simmenauer, in Paris, June 1, 2022.

Is this a test? Installed, legs crossed, on his sofa, Benjamin Simmenauer wears a shapeless black hoodie and jogging whose fabric drowns his body and improbable white rubber mules taken from a collaboration with, let’s say, divisive aesthetics, between Crocs and Balenciaga. “To what extent are the type of messages that we send through our clothes analogous to linguistic communication? » He throws the question into the room, not without malice. However, it is by no means reserved for its attire of the day, which oscillates between comfort and hype, the first and the second degree, but is at the heart of its research, in particular a thesis carried out at the University of Lorraine, in Nancy. , in analytic philosophy, which he should support in 2023.

In short, is fashion a language? “A priori, it seems less rich and more ambiguous than our way of speaking, but, for it, there is no need for a lexicon or a dictionary.. We all make inferences about other people’s psychological or identity characteristics just by looking at their outfits. They can tell us about social position, gender identity, aesthetic, sexual and cultural preferences. I can thus indicate by my clothes if I like metal or rock, decrypts Benjamin Simmenauer. HAS Originally, clothing was a purely practical artefact, intended to protect us from the cold. But, as the world has become sedentary and humanized, it has become useful as an intelligence and signaling tool. »

“Barthes is pseudoscience. We can enjoy it, but neither explain nor predict: the two goals of science. »

Therefore, the ambition of the one who teaches at the Institut français de la mode (IFM) is to create a “reporting system”, expression borrowed from the American philosopher David Lewis. A mathematical tool, combining information theory and probability. It would model the projections and interpretations related to each outfit and “could apply to anything. Studying Zulu battle dress as well as the looks of 1980s English punks ». Specifically, this project “formal semantics” made up of unstoppable equations would lay down in black and white all the conclusions that we draw when seeing our peers dressed in one way or another. And this, even if the chosen garment is ambivalent.

“I dress intentionally informatively,” says Benjamin Simmenauer, pointing to one of his favorite “archetypes”: a nylon bomber jacket.

“An outfit can send ambiguous, even contradictory messagesadmits Simmenauer. The plaid shirt can mean that you love Canada, that you are a lumberjack or that your ancestors are Scottish. But inferences can be calculated by taking into account both the “natural” meaning of the garment (material, shape, color, pattern…) and its context, such as the place in which it is worn or the body of the person who wears it. gate. In this operation, the outfit plays the role of information that redirects the beliefs that we had about the person. » Still, some pieces, even passed through the sieve of math, remain acrobatic to interpret. “In general, the very popular ones, those that don’t provide much information and that we wear for everything and nothing to say, like jeans…”, he said, looking down at our Levi’s.

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