Dressed to Kilt: Structuralism & Poststructuralism

by - September 22, 2016

No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he or 
she doesn't understand, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, 
but rather at someone who tampers with your own language.
Jacques Derrida

We're going to talk Structuralism and Poststructuralism today... yay

Structuralism and therewith Postructuralism are two theoretical methods that mostly concentrates around language and the structure of language (hence 'structuralism'). However these methods can also be applied to analyse human cognition, behaviour, culture and experience. As you might've guessed, Poststructuralism comes after Structuralism, where 'they' start critiquing and building upon the Structuralist way of thinking.

'They', better known as important people who've developed this way of thinking, are:

  • Ferdinand de Saussure (1875-1913)
  • Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914)
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009)
  • Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

  • Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)
  • Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Below I'll give you the basics of Structuralistic and Poststructuralistic thinking with help from none other than the tartan print! (Text and images are taken from a Pecha Kucha I held during one of the Fashion Theories classes on Popular Culture).


Ferdinand de Saussure says that language is relational. You take a signifier (a physical object like a sound, printed word or image), you add a signified to it (a mental concept which bears no necessary relationship to the signifier) and you get a sign (aka the end result of the two). Simple!

So we'll take for instance the word TARTAN. The first thing that pops into your mind is a pattern consisting out of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical stripes most probably on a red or green background. This brings us to the sign: a fabric with a tartan pattern on it.

However the signifier TARTAN + the signified criss-crossed stripes on a red or green background can also make you think of the sign Scotland, heritage, military, tradition, kilts, skirts, fashion, Alexander Mcqueen, Vivienne Westwood, punk, aggression, making a statement, and on and on we go.

But what does this mean?

Saussure says that meaning is the result of difference and relationship, and that this is made in a process of combination and selection. However -as demonstrated- the sign or meaning can differ, contradict and change depending on the who, what, where, when, why and how. So for instance:

TARTAN + criss-crossed stripes on a red or green background IN SCOTLAND = a Scotsman in traditional costume

TARTAN + criss-crossed stripes on a red or green background JUST WALKING OUT OF 430 KING'S ROAD AROUND THE 1970s = Vivienne Westewood and friends

TARTAN + criss-crossed stripes on a red or green background ON THE CATWALK = Stella Tennant during the 2013 Chanel pre-fall show

Strauss and Barthes realized that basically the way we perceive TARTAN is something that's not fixed. On top of that Barthes says that dependent on the location, historical moment and cultural formation 'we', when confronted with tartan, receive a different sign.

Context plays -thus- a crucial role in finding meaning. Therewith Barthes states that meaning is made out of two layers, namely: Denotation, the literal meaning, and connotation, the implied or suggested meaning. So let's take for example Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols. Johnny didn't shy away from some tartan and wore it on many occasions...

Johnny Rotten gets to be defined as the stage name of John Lydon, who was part of the English punk rock band the Sex Pistols. He's also known of being part of -and start of- the punk movement in England.

He's being associated with music, trash, punk, aggression, Anarchy, abuse, DIY, fashion, tartan.
But also male, Irish, English, British, singer, songwriter etc. etc. etc.

As you can see, denotation vs connotation is often a 'battle' between literal vs emotional. The connotations you have with an 'object' or signifier again depents on your own bubble of knowledge. CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING.


This brings us to Postrstructualism where the slogan "Meaning is always a process", is being held high. According to Derrida: "Meaning depends on structural difference but also on temporal relations of before and after." This socalled process will lead to an endless play of signifier to signifier.

So: tartan, Scotland, heritage, military, tradition, kilts, skirts, fashion, Alexander Mcqueen, Vivienne Westwood, punk, aggression, making a statement, and on and on we go.

To stop the process of signifier to signifier, Derrida says you'll need CONTEXT. Context, so he states, is always very important. However even within context you can't fully control meaning.

To demonstrate:
The very word TARTAN has had different meanings and connotations, especially -in many contexts- of it being something very Scottish. However it's only around the 16th and 18th century that tartan is being seen as a woven cloth that specifically originates from the Highlands. And it could be said that today it's not even necessary for tartan to be made in Scotland and that the definition solidly derives from the pattern alone.

The Scottish Tartans Authority -yes, there's such a thing as the Scottish Tartans Authority- states that since the 18th century tartan has been commercially interesting thanks to many corporations who took the fabric overseas.

Throughout the years tartan has had almost no trouble in popularity and staying in fashion, because -says the Scottish Tartans Authority- of its close links to identification, tradition and heritage (of Scotland). But also because of its versatility (they've counted over 7.000 unique tartan patterns in their system) and mostly because of the individuality a tartan recalls.

The same words, however, can be said about the way tartan has been incorporated in the punk subculture and in (high-)fashion. Identification, tradition, heritage, versatility and individuality are also being waved around with when describing the use of tartan in punk and fashion.

This corresponds to Derrida's 'différance', which means to defer and to differ. Aka: words have multiple meanings. Through deconstruction you can show that assumptions about language and objectivity are flawed.

We know what tartan means because we understand patterns, stripes, symbols, repetition -which is not singular but repeatedly or 'to do again' which leads to undo, to retract or withdraw, to withdraw is to give up and to give up is to... know when you've had enough.

So to conclude:
"There's no reference point outside of text, no way to think outside of language, no correct or true word for actions or objects. There is no objective truth. There is no significance in the words themselves."

However I'd like to think that although there's no significance in the words themselves, the significance we attach to it -the feeling of for instance happiness, anger, confusion etc.- plays an important role in the way we present or think about for instance tartan in certain CONTEXTS.

Because may it be clear, CONTEXT is very, very, very important.

Yes, you can describe Scottish heritage, punk and fashion with the same words and therefore probably with the same significance we've given those words. But the intention behind them are certainly, most probably, different. Not necessarily binary, but contextually.

And that was -in short- a Structuralistic and Poststructuralistic view on tartan.


Sources: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / And: The Language of Fashion by R. Barthes, Visual Guide: Fashion by G. Ambrose & P. Harris, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, an introduction by J. Storey

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  1. As someone who wears a lot of plaid and tartan, this was such an interesting post to read! I'd love to see more like this xx

    1. Thank you! I wasn't sure at first if I should post it or not, but as a tartan-wearer myself I thought it -as you say- very interesting to look at it in this way. Glad you agree... ;) *pat on the back*


  2. What a unique, intellectual, and creative read. This analysis on the simple but well loved tartan is fascinating, and slightly astounding. To think that even tartan can have such deep seated connotations and denotations to them I guess they alway were there-- you just brought them to the light.

    1. *blushes* Well thank you very much! I always find it funny how a certain theory or just the point your standing can change your perception of that 'same' object. I think structuralism/poststructuralism is one of those theories, when discussed during the course, that really surprised me (in lack of other words) on how applicable it is to basically anything (but also how much of it is steering us to perceive something as it is, to describe it as it is (while, may this post sort of be to proof of it, it never just 'is' the way it 'is')). So... thank you again!