A Socio-Semiotic Analyses of the Media/Consumer Relationships in the Production of Fashion Systems: the Case of the Aelle-France@ Magazine

ABSTRACT - This paper explores media/consumer relationships in terms of functioning of fashion systems, using therefore the case of the AElle-France@ Magazine. Responses to divergence between postmodern consumers’ fashion orientation and traditional media offerings are shown to include a retreat from proscription as described in the paper.


Patrick Hetzel (1998) ,"A Socio-Semiotic Analyses of the Media/Consumer Relationships in the Production of Fashion Systems: the Case of the Aelle-France@ Magazine", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 104-107.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 104-107


Patrick Hetzel, University Jean Moulin, France


This paper explores media/consumer relationships in terms of functioning of fashion systems, using therefore the case of the "Elle-France" Magazine. Responses to divergence between postmodern consumers’ fashion orientation and traditional media offerings are shown to include a retreat from proscription as described in the paper.


Authors such as Firat & Venkatesh (1993) have noted that postmodernity is prevailing in contemporary consumption. In the fashion system this means that eclecticism and individualism are becoming more and more important (Solomon, 1985; McCracken, 1988; Davis, 1992; Craig, 1994). If on one hand, we considere that these characterizations of contemporary consumption are true and on the other hand, that in order to keep their readership, the media have to respond by modifying their offer, it can be interesting to study the evolution of the content of a magazine like "Elle-France" over a long period of time. Such an analysis can help us discover any "markers" of eclecticism and individualism in the content and the "enunciative" procedures of this medium and also to see what has been kept (which is probably the "Elle" specificity on the market) and what has been changed over the years (which is probably the adaptation of the medium to the sociological change of the french society or at least part of it). The slogan of Elle is itself suggestive of the "co-existence" of those two aspects: "Always the same, never the same...".


The material for our study came from the Hachette-Filipacchi dta base of all the Elle Magazine issues published during the last 52 years (since the launch of the medium in France in 1945). We have selected, from this data base, representative issues from every decade, to establish specific units per decade and make comparisons between them, especially in terms of evolution of the content of the medium. Then we have used the concept of enunciation, to analyse our "corpus". According to Veron (1987), the relation between a magazine and its readership is based on a reading contract. In other words, a link is set up, as with any contract, between the content of the medium and its readers. The enunciative discourse already includes a construction of a model receiver (sometimes also called "model reader" in the linguistic theory). The sender (in this case the medium), in order to enunciate, constructs a receiver (in this case the reader) with a certain level of expectations. The content of a magazine can therefore also be analysed through the type of contract that is established between the magazine and its readership. For example, as a result, if we describe two magazines that are extremely closely related from the point of view of their topics and the contents listed therein, we notice that while they may seem very much alike at this first level, they can differ considerably when it comes to the reading contract, i.e. the manner in which the link is set up between the medium and its readership. By analysing not only the content of the mesage but also the way in which it is modalized, we are able to show how the enunciator (in this case the press medium) constructs a model reader and the relationship (the reading contract) with this constructed receiver. Doing so, we can bring out the specificity of a medium but also find out if there are some deep evolutions of a medium and its relationship with the readers even if on the "surface level" the content still seems to be the same. We have used Figure 1 as a conceptual framework for analyzing our data.


The magazine "Elle-France" was launched in 1945 under the direction of HTlFne Gordon Lazareff. Colour photographs, luxury presentation and constantly innovative role then made it unequalled for more than a decade as the definitive magazine for women interested in the world of fashion. It was also the first magazine in France to use colour advertisements. At the time the style of its presentation of pictures, articles etc. and its contents were at odds with the publications of the day. This was probably also why this magazine enjoyed such rapid success in the women’s magazine market. In other ways, "Elle-France" had, very early in this period, understood the influence of the cinema on changing outlooks and tastes and the photographs in the magazine sought to capture this movement. "Elle-France" announced itself immediately as a magazine produced by women for women. It was to convey ideas, opinions and even seek to educate its readers who were thirsty for knowledge. "Elle-France" was to inform, judge (specifying, for example, what was good taste and bad taste), select ("truly" fashion items as opposed to those that weren’t) and to entertain at the same time. Thus it became the bosom companion of an entire post-war generation of French women who wished to forget the days of restrictions. It was then also a sociological marker, a way of integrating socially and belonging to a groupBthat of dynamic women who cared about being accepted. "Elle" was thus a veritable institution in the fashion world of France; and this is still true fifty years later, even if between its debut and today the magazine has changed considerably in terms of positioning, presentation and editorial content. Indeed, after a period of blossoming and very intense growth until 1960, "Elle", like all French women’s magazines saw its sales fall from 550,000 copies sold per issue in 1962 to 266,000 copies sold per issue in 1979. Taken over by the Hachete-Filipacchi group in 1982, "Elle"whose considerable reputation had remained intactBwas repositioned and has since seen steadily rising sales once more. This repositioning was effected in terms of editorial content, giving more importance to factual articles on subjects including society, the self, psychology, love, sex, celibacy, couples, health, relationships at work which were accentuated without, of course, neglecting fashion, beauty and cosmetics features which are still the three basic mainstays of the magazine. In addition, repositioning has been accompanied by the regular publication of special issues and very carefully designed front pages. "Elle" has learnt to attract women through its cover. Each week, success depends on the model chosen for the cover and on the cover titles, which have to be eye-catching.


There are of course various ways to analyse the changing face of magazine like "Elle". In our opinion, there is nonetheless some point in reviewing some of the main historical periods. "Elle’s" fifty year life can be divided into four major phasesBthe fifties and sixties, the seventies, the eighties and the nineties.



In the fifties and sixties, "Elle" was very clearly Haute-Couture, the norm, the Diktat of fashion. However, it is also of interest to note that the magazine tackled subjects that were still very largely tabooBsexuality and contraception (and this before 1960). This avant-garde function was, however, to be eroded and its circulation fell. Although identified primarily by its content and its pictorial features, "Elle" did not escape being called into question. With the disaffection of its readership (profound changes in the female condition, urbanisation, women starting to work outside the home and having access to higher education) "Elle" became aware of the changing nature of women’s problems.

In the seventies, the disaffection of the female audience with women’s magazines increased and attempts to adapt "Elle" were unsuccessful. The challenging of ideologies, the growing impact of new "unisex" media and the emergence of a new self-awareness amongst women led to "Elle" becoming divorced from its readership. The magazine lost its leading role and its avant-garde function in the face of the growth of feminist ideas. "Elle" had supported the rise of feminism in France but by the seventies women were no longer reading "Elle", and once more the problem of providing appropriate content for its readers arose. This time "Elle" decided to target a new readership rather than try to win back those with whom the break was complete.

The eighties saw the fall in circulation stabilise and very slowly the recovery (explained by the repositioning of the magazine) began. Thus "news" pages appeared in the magazine dealing with current political, economic and social issues, arts news, personalities of the day and books. This was a clear success for "Elle-France" which then became the third most popular French weekly (after l’Express and le Nouvel Observateur). The contents dealt more with the "new" than the news. It interpreted the "mood of the times" and in this sense too was a fashion magazine. "Elle" then became a sensitive magazine that tried to establish a strong emotional bond with its readers. The "readers’ letters" section was redesigned. When the content of any particular issue of "Elle-France" from this period is analysed, it can be seen that the information published is often repeated 10 times but always seems new. An explanation for these repeated references to one topic is that "Elle" regarded news in somewhat the same way as a daily newspaper. Anticipating an event it would present a film sequence as it was shot, then make a fuss as it happened, then interview the star and follow it up with critical analysis. Durig the same period and driven by the Hachette group, who had bought the publication, "Elle" went international with 17 foreign editions. But although this internationalisation allowed considerable autonomy to each foreign editorial team, nonetheless it was to have consequences for "Elle-France". For once selected and formed, the local foreign team came to Paris for two or three months training in the "Elle" concept and style. The organisation put in place in order to train these foreign teams made a positive contribution in that it made the French editorial team open and sensitive to the international dimension (as was happening in part of society at large). Exchanging experiences and skills and the pleasure of contributing to the development of a publication in the process of becoming world-wide was felt in the magazine itselfBthe page layouts and editorial content were marked by this new "internal" culture.

In the nineties, "Elle" again covered fashion and became the journal of referenceBbringing a breath of fresh air, disrespectful, new and intriguing to its readers. Redefining fashion, fashions, ideas and pleasure, in short, women’s lives. Thus the objective of "Elle" in France was the same each weekBto provide information about the new designers, the personalities of the moment and the latest trends. The impression was given that the contract that emerged between the magazine and its readers was that the magazine gave them an escape from the humdrum daily life while keeping them well informed about the possibilities of their everyday lives. "Elle" expounded a new way of living. Thus the magazine was full of trivia but some features also dealt straightforwardly with marital problems. The magazine, unique when first published, was becoming pluralist. In its pages opposites were reconciled, it was the "day of the tribe" (Maffesoli, 1988) that manifest itself in each issue of the magazine. Thus we find:

B news about a variety of lifestyles, all the women’s fashions and aesthetic canons of the moment

B rather conservative fashion trends side by side with avant-garde fashion trends

B a determination to show everything and to give the impression of choice to the reader? Although there of course the clothes and pictures had been through a prior selection process one has the impression that everything is done to hide it. There is a desire to give an impression of freedom when in fact everything has been tightly controlled (for a development of this theme, see Hetzel, 1996).

B "Elle-France" communicated an ideaBthe idea of the global village.


The main findings are as follows:

B Over the years, the magazine is developing a closer relationship to the reader.

B The magazine is moving from the production of the "Haute-Couture" and the star system to the production of everyday life: everyone can be a star, everyone can "mix and match" fashion styles (eclecticism), there is no longer a "Diktat" of the magazine: "You should wear this and not that...". Very different styles "co-exist" in the same issue in the nineties whereas at the beginning of the magazine, one style was dominant at any one time.

B The discourse of the magazine is becoming more and more "worldly" and less "French" centered. It is more and more a juxtaposition of individualities and the reader has to choose between very different opions that are suggested by the magazine. In the past, the recommandations were closer to commands following the slogan: "Follow me or leave me".


What all the above shows is that that a women’s magazine like "Elle" never limits itself to simply presenting content but sets up complex relationships with its readers, with the written material and with the issues it has raised itself. These relationships, that some on occasion group under the heading of enunciative relationships, may play an important role in the shaping of the possible world constructed by a magazine like "Elle-France". In any case, it seems that over the years this world may be modified significantly. In order to make such an assertion, it must of course relate to more than just the subjects tackled and be linked not only to the subject content of a magazine but also to its treatment of the subject. Thus, fashion in the "Elle" of the nineteen fifties is not described or presented like fashion in the nineties. There is a gradual displacement from unicity to pluricity. Difference, initially outlawed because it did not comply with the norm, now seems to have become the norm. It has become the central value and the unifying principle of all editorial material and of all fashion images apparently so remote from each other. We can now begin to pose the question of this dialectic that has established itself between a common status (all this is in "Elle") and a more superficial appearance which reflects the difference. Some talk freely of a "style supermarket" (Polhemus, 1994). In other words in a postmodern era, individual behaviour in matters of fashion is the same as their behaviour in a supermarketBthey push a trolley and as they pass different "styles" they take a little of style A then a little of style B, etc. And the result of this selection process is that the individual can then shape his own identityBdifference will then be a measure of authenticity and reality. "Elle" will thus, in a way, sell itself, because the magazine reconciles conflicting trends. The message to its readers is of the type: you are different on the surface but you are similar underneath. "Elle" permits a kind of common membership to be put in place and noticing differences will permit awareness of the existence of an underlying unity to develop. In short, once again, fragmentation will lead to a quest for unity and identity. What characterises recent issues of the magazine "Elle" is that appearances have a discussion amongst themselves through the pages of the magazine, like a game. One resonates differently from the other. One style implicitly quotes the other. Diversity is therefore highly valued, is even placed as the central value of the magazine. Valuing this difference firstly permits the emergence of a reader in the form of an individual being who should and may make her own choices (diversity permits the medium to hold a discussion of the type, "by revealing differences, we take charge as soon as your own specific character and difference is expressed. You are a unique being, through this diversity we respect you for what you are") and secondly, the rallying of all its readers to one collective personaBthe typical reader for whom the message has been constructed. "Elle" has thus gradually evolved, creating a "federative" concept of its readers’ identity, "You are all different, you must therefore be presented with a content that stresses diversity". Diversity then becomes the producer of the social link which before was probably more easily developed through the norm. One cannot then prevent oneself from thinking that a new paradox then appears. It is probably to release oneself from certain very rigid social norms that individuals are seeking, in this postmodern era, the diversity that a magazine such as "Elle", for example, offers them. Moreover, byreading "Elle" one helps to legitimise the weight of certain prescribers in the fashion world and in particular those in the media. Thus for fashion journalists there are likely to be good times still to come ...


The main limitation on this investigation lies in the fact that we have only worked on the publication itself. We have laid stress on how it constructed its relationship with the reader. However, it must not be forgotten that the reader herself is often aware that the magazine is a construct of reality and that it evolves within a "possible discursive space". It would thus also be of interest, in particular from the point of view of better understanding the behaviour and expectations of the readership, to confront the world constructed by the assertion with that of the interpretation on the one hand, and on the other hand to analyse the discrepancy between this interpretation of enunciative content by the readers and their expressed expectations. Indeed what makes a publication relevant is that it meet the expectations of a particular readership. Moreover, the greatest ambiguity for fashion publications is to manage to survive and to ensure that they continue to do so, although fashion by nature is ephemeral and changing.

On the other hand, this research tends to confirm the observations of a great many postmodern thinkers, in particular through what is said about the fragmentation of the real, eclecticism or even the end of a fashion Diktat. However, one can also ask oneself if the consumer society and in particular young consumers are not already reacting to this culture of diversity and fragmentation by bringing a new concept into beingBthat of ugliness in fashion. Are we seeing the growth amongst some young people of a search for clothes whose defining characteristic is their ugliness? Relative to the culture of beauty and the aesthetic canons developed in "Elle", a fashion counter-culture seems to have emerged that is, at least in part, contributing to the repudiation of designer Raymond Loewy’s adage, "Ugliness is hard to sell". Perhaps even diversity and difference are concepts that have their limits. In any case, for "Elle-France", and this has been true for over fifty years, a fashion magazine always goes hand in hand with beauty... This may well be a constant that transcends many of the differences raised above.


Craik, Jennifer (1994), The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion, London, Routledge

Davis, Fred (1992), Fashion, Culture and Identity, Chicago, Il., Chicago University Press

Firat, A. Fuat & Alladi Venkatesh (1993), Postmodernity: the Age of Marketing, International Journal of Research in Marketing, Volume 10, August, Pages 227-249

Hetzel, Patrick (1996), The Fall and Rise of Marketing Fundamentalism: The Case of the "Nature & DTcouvertes" Distribution Concept, in Marketing Apocalypse, Edited by Stephen Brown, Routledge, London, Pages 171-186

McCracken, Grant (1988), Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press

Maffesoli, Michel (1988), Le temps des tribus, Paris, MTridien Klincksieck

Polhemus, Ted (1994), The Supermarket of Style, Presentation at the * Fashion and Semiotics Conference +, Urbino, Italy, July

Semprini, Andrea (1996), Analyser la comunication, Paris, L’Harmattan

Solomon, Michael R., ed. (1985), The Psychology of Fashion, Lexington, MA, Lexington

Veron, Eliseo (1987), La sTmiosis sociale, Saint Denis France, Presses Universitaires de Vincennes



Patrick Hetzel, University Jean Moulin, France


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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