We Need New Symbols

Genuine digital experiences—those that provide us with something the physical world cannot—demand a new symbolic language.

When we move ourselves into the digital world, we take our clothing with us.

From our avatars in video games to our 2D profile pictures, we tend to dress our digital selves much in the same way we dress our physical selves. We replicate our real-world tastes and preferences, dragging and dropping them into a digital medium where few, if any, of the same parameters apply.

“Meta Avatars Store” selling the wares of favourite physical designers from Balenciaga, Prada and Thom Browne. Image Credit: Meta

But the complex constellation of meanings, associations, and symbolism—cultural, religious, status—that our clothing carries doesn’t always translate into the digital.

Instead of digital clothes working to convey what we are experiencing digitally, they mostly refer back to our physical experiences. The clothing’s symbol and all that it communicates loses its potency in a new context of virtual values increasingly untethered from the physical.

This dwindling potency is an issue.

Everything digital will always be lesser if it is constantly placed in direct relation to the physical. Our experience of the “digital self” will always be severely limited if we continue to define our forms of self-expression, like fashion, only in physical real-world terms.

To meet the potential of the emerging medium and to aptly dress our emerging selves, we need not only a new symbolic language, but entirely new forms of self-expression that reflect what it feels like to experience ourselves and each other digitally.

Clothing as a symbol

French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes defined clothing as having a three layered structure of meaning: the material (e.g. a physical jacket); the immaterial (e.g a jacket’s design); and the symbol (e.g. what that jacket means).

In virtual worlds, when the materiality melts away, all that remains are these last two elements: 1) the design and 2) what it means. Therefore, in its digital form without the material, the symbolic part of clothing becomes more central than ever before. And that’s also true in practice.

Take for example, choosing to wear a beige digital sweater. It’s quite obviously not cold in a virtual world or the enclave of a profile picture, nor are you driven by the need to protect the modesty of your avatar.

Instead, what that item of clothing says about you is the only motivation for ‘wearing’ it.

The symbol becomes everything.

Take, again, the beige digital sweater. In its virtual form it doesn’t have to be a typical sweater design at all (it could be completely abstracted, a digital field of beige maybe), but it is a “sweater” shape and you chose that shape. Not for most of the reasons you chose to wear a sweater in your physical life (for comfort, ease, and warmth perhaps) but for exactly one reason: you hope to associate your virtual self with what the sweater communicates to others.

The symbolic meaning of the physical garment—even without its (symbol-defining) materiality—is translated into the digital.

But in the real world, materiality is in large part what gives clothing its meaning. An intricately embroidered skirt digitally translated only points to its craftsmanship. Without a new way of capturing the embroidery, the garment’s history, meaning, and art will only ever be depicted, never present.

When we make these direct translations of clothes, the messages that the digital twins communicate can never really be their own. They are only ever the messages of the garments that they depict. It’s a limitation. The digital embroidered skirt will always pale in comparison to its physical counterpart. A digital sweater may convey warmth, but has no relation to temperature. A digital halter neck top may ooze sex appeal but cannot invite real touch or be taken off.

Lace Halter Top - S69 by ekinege. Image Credit: ekinege via The Sims Resource

Digital fashion symbols—when so deeply rooted in the physical—are ultimately unfelt. They are feeble versions of our physical fashion system. The digital twin is unrelated to any actual digital experience, always pandering to the physical.

The clothes don’t match

But digital experiences are far from feeble. As real as anything, these experiences, to many people, are very much felt.

Just as we often forget that our clothing is fundamentally different in the digital world (it isn’t clothing at all), we forget that we ourselves are fundamentally different in the digital world. Our digital lives are different from our physical ones—we engage different sides of ourselves and are constantly exposed to completely new experiences, people and phenomena.

Herein lies an opportunity to create clothing that authentically speaks to the emerging digital experience; to create digital fashion that doesn’t just point to art but rather embraces the digital medium to make new art; to ditch referring to the physical and stop perpetually self-categorizing as a copy.

There’s a lot at stake.

More and more of our lives are digital, just as more and more of our selves are expressed digitally. For that to not be a completely dystopian fate, there has to be some art to how we experience ourselves. So if we care about having rich digital lives, we need authentic means of self-expression that add value and bring us meaning. We need to create, not translate.

We need new symbols.





The Fashion System, Roland Bathes

Ontology and Aesthetics of Digital Art, Paul Crowther

Digital Aesthetics, Sean Cubitt

Fashion Theory: A reader, Malcolm Barnard