Langue and parole, dress and dressing

We know that for Saussure human language can be studied from two directions, that of langue and that of parole. Langue is the social institution, independent of the individual; it is a normative reserve from which the individual draws their parole, ‘a virtual system that is actualized only in and through parole’. Parole is the individual act, ‘an actualized manifestation of the function of langage’, langage being a generic term for both langue and parole.

It seems to be extremely useful, by way of an analogy to clothing, to identify an institutional, fundamentally social, reality, which, independent of the individual, is like the systematic, normative reserve from which the individual draws their own clothing, and which, in correspondence to Saussure’s langue, we propose to call dress.

And then to distinguish this from a second, individual reality, the very act of ‘getting dressed’, in which the individual actualizes on their body the general inscription of dress, and which, corresponding to Saussure’s parole, we will call dressing. Dress and dressing form then a generic whole, for which we propose to retain the word clothing (this is langage for Saussure).

We must obviously be careful about extending this analogy without due care and attention. Only the functional opposition of the two levels can have any methodological value. This was spotted in relation to dress itself by Trubetskoy, who established a parallel between the tasks of phonetics and those of vestimentary description.

The opposition dress/ dressing furthermore can only help to reinforce a sociological standpoint: by strongly characterizing dress as an institution and separating this institution from the concrete and individual acts by which it (so to speak) realizes itself, we can research and isolate the social components of dress: age groups, genders, classes, degrees of civilization, localization..

Dressing then remains an empirical fact, capable of being analysed with a phenomenological approach: the degree of scruffiness or dirtiness of a worn garment, for example, is part of dressing, it has no sociological value, except if scruffiness and dirtiness function as intentional signs (in a theatre costume for example). Conversely, a less obvious element of appearance, such as the differential mark in a garment for married and unmarried women in any society, will be part of dress and has a strong social value.

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