The Winchester shirt, with its distinctive white collar and French cuffs, was designed in the 19th century as a sporting shirt by hunter Oliver Fisher Winchester. Since then, the shirt has undergone a Banana Republic-like transformation. What was once meant to serve the rugged outdoorsman in the wilderness now serves the refined businessman in the office. Through its changing functions, the shirt has taken on new cultural meaning, symbolizing membership in high society, becoming what French philosopher of semiotics Roland Barthes would call a “classifying myth.” Analyzing the mythology of the Winchester shirt in Barthes’ terms can shed light on the shirt’s cultural significance, as well as demonstrate the possibilities and limitations of Barthes’ conception of myth.
In his collection of essays Mythologies, Barthes uses linguistic theory to analyze non-linguistic entities in terms of “signifier” and “signified.” His “myth” is the synthesis of the signified with the entity’s unique signification process. Myth informs culture as a sort of autonomous constituent. It is commutative: culture and signification beget myth, and myth begets culture and signification. Myth is elemental to the reality of its own subject. That is, an entity does not exist in a vacuum; it is necessarily informed by the meanings society attaches to it, both consciously and unconsciously. Myths are not qualified by truth; they are living, self-perpetuating phenomena that lend themselves well to social theorizing.
Certainly, the Barthesian myth is inexorably linked with its own sociological consequences. Barthes examines his subjects through a Marxist dialectic. His paradigm is illustrated in “Soap-powders and Detergents,” in which he writes: “this distinction [between the respective imageries of liquid versus powder soaps] has ethnographic correlatives” (Mythologies 36). Although ethnography usually concerns nations and races, Barthes extends the term to include classes. While establishing a seemingly fantastic signification framework that places in opposition a generalized “washer woman” and “housewife,” Barthes derives implicit class distinctions from the variation between advertisements for soap powders and for liquid detergents. Ultimately, this unexpected examination of class struggle based on variations in detergent advertising highlights the relationship between myth social stratification.
Myths have agency to unite, divide, and exclude, sometimes simultaneously. Myths develop in stages marked by the confluence of two forces: the impregnation of a signifier with its signified and the cultural regeneration of this signification. Myth is perpetuated across generations through translation and sometimes transmutation. This process can be unconscious, conscious, or both. In all of these three cases, the moment that one culture or subculture (read: class) takes ownership of the myth, its course of regeneration is altered. Following this appropriation, the myth becomes universal within and exclusive to that constituency. Wine, for instance, is hardly unique to France. However, when the French identified wine as particularly French, wine’s myth developed accordingly. In Barthes’s words, wine provides a “collective morality” for the French (Mythologies 59). The issue of morality is specific to the function of wine in France. However, that the morality is collective indicates that the wine myth is what may be called a classifying myth, whose primary signification unifies a certain group of people as the signifier’s constituents and, in so doing, sets them apart from and excludes everyone else.
The Winchester shirt also functions as a classifying myth. Through the process of regeneration, the shirt became an indirect suggestion of membership in high society. The signifier is primarily concerned not with monetary capital but with a kind of cultural capital, namely knowingness, the possession of class-specific knowledge and disposition. Knowingness is the signification buffer between high society and the Winchester shirt. The shirt signifies knowingness, which in turn signifies membership in high society. Members of this high society themselves are agents of the myth, meaning they are primary actors in its “life.” The refusal of high society, of these agents, to codify knowingness perpetuates the very exclusivity on which it feeds. In this way, the shirt sustains its own classifying myth.
The Winchester shirt has acquired its myth through two stages of signification, in its transformation from clothing for the outdoorsman to clothing for the businessman. The shirt’s white frame now emphasizes form over function, and as a result, it can be designated a “sign-function” (Barthes, Semiology 41). It is now a mess of competing signs. The pallor of its edges suggests purity, in a throwback to the days of the hunter-gatherer, or at least to the days when hunting and gathering were common recreational activities in high society. While that association seems to contradict the image of the wealthy as leisurely and unemployed, it in fact enhances it because that image is itself reminiscent of the time when men “worked” in the style of Newland Archer, Esq., and never rolled up their sleeves (which would be antithetical to the Winchester style anyway). The shirt, therefore, is an affirmation of both hierarchy and the related manly ambition for predominance in the wild or workplace.
Thus the Winchester shirt sign-function came into being. The style was marked by the suggestions of wealth that accompany leisure-hunting, and, as a result, wearing a Winchester shirt came to denote membership in high society. Ultimately, while the original hunting function receded, the sign endured, and society “re-functionalized” it as if it were made for use by the business elite (Barthes, Semiology 42). Having completed this cycle of normative and cultural regeneration, the Winchester appears “just” a shirt for the same reasons that “a fur-coat [can] be described as if it served only to protect from the cold” (Barthes, Semiology 42). What the shirt was has been subsumed by what it now is, namely an indirect signifier for knowingness.
Knowingness is the unspoken but undeniable key to the kingdom of high society. According to Barthes, “knowing how to drink [wine] . . . [qualifies] the Frenchman, demonstrating at once his performance, his control and his sociability” (Mythologies 59). Indeed, it seems that knowingness substantiates the classifying myth. Barthes asserts that to be French is to possess both the knowledge of proper drinking technique and a disposition marked by specific attributes. This knowingness cloisters the French, unifying them in their brand of isolation. Knowing how to dress is to an American businessman what knowing how to drink is to a Frenchman. The right combination of suit, shirt, tie, and shoes is important not because it demonstrates style, but because it betrays a familiarity with the principles of men’s business attire and a disposition confident enough to enable one’s conformity to unspoken expectations; in other words, the right combination demonstrates knowingness.
The man who understands that a cutaway collar belongs with a full knot like the Windsor is likely also to understand how to behave at a business lunch because these comprehensions are both hallmarks of hereditary knowingness. A cummerbund may be worn however one likes, but it is meant to accompany formal dinner attire. Similarly, a Winchester shirt may be worn however one likes, but it is meant to accompany knowingness. This dependency is so strong that wearing a Winchester shirt while lacking knowingness will likely expand the gap between the wearer and high society. Donning a Charles Tyrwhitt Winchester shirt, of course, reveals a particular sense of style, but more importantly, it highlights the wearer’s familiarity with those standards of behavior commensurate with elite businessmen. It is thus evident that in the Winchester’s myth, knowingness is the signified. However, within the framework of this classification myth is a subtler signifier, the white collar itself.
In a shift to the sub-myth of the white collar, although the signifier changes, the signified stays the same. Fundamentally, the white collar’s classifying myth is realized in its physical differentiation of two groups. It has been saturated with socio-political implications at least since 1919, when Upton Sinclair remarked on the capitalist connotations of a white collar in his exposé, Brass Check. While the Winchester’s signification developed separately from the white versus blue collar paradigm, it is nonetheless affected by that sub-myth. The collar carries important social meaning, ultimately signifying a romanticized bourgeoisie-proletariat class struggle. The reality of such a struggle is irrelevant because it was mythologized regardless. As a result of this signification, the structure of the Winchester classification myth is binary, implying both that the wearer is opposed to the average working man and that he is a member of high society.
This definition of high society within a larger signification framework is maintained cyclically. The binary signification, particularly the implication of knowingness, is used by high society to sustain the very exclusivity that defines it in the first place. Because knowingness paradigmatically reveals behavioral standards, it self-perpetuates its exclusivity. High society inherits and passes down knowingness through generations; the origin of knowingness is neither identifiable nor important. Knowingness is not an explicit body of knowledge that a newcomer can memorize and acquire. Furthermore, any explicable knowingness is deliberately obfuscated by the agents of the myth. The rest is perpetuated through unconscious, cultural regeneration. Knowingness is divided so statically along class lines because one cannot become part of high society without it, yet one is unlikely to have it unless a member of high society. Thus, Barthes’s Marxist dialectic appears vindicated in the Catch-22 that sustains classification myths like the Winchester’s. Deliberate attempts to codify knowingness would derail the myth’s process of unconscious cultural regeneration and retard its process of conscious, normative regeneration. Such attempts, if successful, could result in a microcosmic overthrow of bourgeois cultural capitalism.
Although the derivation of such class distinction from a shirt is perhaps unsettling, it is not surprising. Fashion breeds mythology, especially classification myths. Specifically, items like the Winchester are significant because they represent the perpetual attempts by cloistered communities to grasp the vestiges of intra-class nepotism, in this case conveniently disguised as fashion, while appearing politically correct. As with any consciously rendered explanation of a mythology, this one is imperfect. Generally, Barthes’s mythological paradigm is incomplete because it neither accounts sufficiently for consciously perpetuated myths nor provides a way to distinguish them from comparably organic ones. It is, therefore, an inadequate framework for analyzing the Winchester myth, which is consciously perpetuated by its constituents and unconsciously perpetuated by society at large through stereotypes about wealth and notions of class distinction. Such a complex network of regenerative sources for one myth exceeds the limitations of Barthes’s concept. That said, the application of linguistic theory to non-linguistic entities astutely acknowledges the centrality of language to both conscious and unconscious societal dialogues. The way that individuals speak about the wealthy or the upper class relates directly to the way that society thinks about them. Of course, when the implications of something like the Winchester shirt are consciously considered, whether in a Barthesian or other framework, the objectivity and universality of the myth are compromised. Myth is an inherently unacknowledged life form, and though studying mythology is valid, it is also destructive.
Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. Trans. Jonathon Cape. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. Print.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Jonathon Cape. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.
Sinclair, Upton. Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism. Pasadena, CA: Published by the author, 1919. Print.