Performing Arts professor teaches the language of clothing and costume

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Prof. Isabela Tavares working on costume renderings (ALBERT AGHA PHOTO).

By Salma Ghalwash

UNIVERSITY CITY, SHARJAH – With the spread of information, social media, fast fashion and globalization, people have lost awareness of how much fashion communicates, said Isabela Tavares, an associate professor in the Performing Arts Program at the American University of Sharjah on Oct. 3.

“The semiotics of costume is a form of non-verbal communication through clothes,” she added.

Though “costume” is an umbrella term for stage clothes and historical dress, the use of the word has changed over the last 50 years, Tavares said. She said that it is no longer used to refer to historical or traditional dress, which represents a particular ethnicity, culture or religion. 

The semiotics of stage costumes – an area Tavares teaches in the Performing Arts Program – examine how characters are constructed for narratives in film, theater, advertisements and music videos, whereas the semiotics of fashion concerns people in everyday life, she added.

Fashion history

Tavares said that fashion’s history began in the Middle Ages with the introduction of the middle class. The shift from feudalism to capitalism made social mobility possible, she said. As a marker of status, fashion “propelled social mobility” through imitation, she added.

Fast fashion chains copy designs of luxury brands and market them to the masses at lower prices, Tavares said.

In modern societies, consumption promotes self-expression and vice versa, she added. Tavares highlighted that people organize themselves in groups but have prioritized individual interests, via clothing choices for example, since the Enlightenment period.

“The experience of being human is this constant negotiation between wanting to be a part of the tribe and being original,” she said.

Social thermometer

According to Tavares, fashion is a “social thermometer” for this negotiation.

She said that abayas and kanduras symbolize both cultural norms and national unity. As the United Arab Emirates adopted secular capitalism, Emirati women incorporated different materials, textures and decorations in the traditional black abaya, she added.

But the “change of color was met with resistance,” she said.

Women who kept wearing colored abayas became influencers, Tavares added. She noted that historically women have endured more social changes, which are reflected in dress.

Until the 1940s, pants and skirts “communicated the place of men and women in society,” she said. Suffragists who wore pants were conveying that they were equal to men, she added.

“This idea of semiotics is not absolute in terms of time because our societies change and our social dynamics ebb and flow,” Tavares said.