Branding: A Prosthesis of Identity

Pamela Mei-Leng See

Abstract


This article investigates the prosthesis of identity through the process of branding. It examines cross-cultural manifestations of this phenomena from sixth millennium BCE Syria to twelfth century Japan and Britain. From the Neolithic Era, humanity has sort to extend their identities using pictorial signs that were characteristically simple. Designed to be distinctive and instantly recognisable, the totemic symbols served to signal the origin of the bearer. Subsequently, the development of branding coincided with periods of increased in mobility both in respect to geography and social strata. This includes fifth millennium Mesopotamia, nineteenth century Britain, and America during the 1920s.

There are fewer articles of greater influence on contemporary culture than A Theory of Human Motivation written by Abraham Maslow in 1943. Nearly seventy-five years later, his theories about the societal need for “belongingness” and “esteem” remain a mainstay of advertising campaigns (Maslow). Although the principles are used to sell a broad range of products from shampoo to breakfast cereal they are epitomised by apparel. This is with refence to garments and accessories bearing corporation logos. Whereas other purchased items, imbued with abstract products, are intended for personal consumption the public display of these symbols may be interpreted as a form of signalling. The intention of the wearers is to literally seek the fulfilment of the aforementioned social needs. This article investigates the use of brands as prosthesis.

Coats and Crests: Identity Garnered on Garments in the Middle Ages and the Muromachi Period

A logo, at its most basic, is a pictorial sign. In his essay, The Visual Language, Ernest Gombrich described the principle as reducing images to “distinctive features” (Gombrich 46). They represent a “simplification of code,” the meaning of which we are conditioned to recognise (Gombrich 46).  Logos may also be interpreted as a manifestation of totemism. According to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, the principle exists in all civilisations and reflects an effort to evoke the power of nature (71-127). Totemism is also a method of population distribution (Levi-Strauss 166).

This principle, in a form garnered on garments, is manifested in Mon Kiri. The practice of cutting out family crests evolved into a form of corporate branding in Japan during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) (Christensen 14). During the Muromachi period (1336-1573) the crests provided an integral means of identification on the battlefield (Christensen 13). The adorning of crests on armour was also exercised in Europe during the twelfth century, when the faces of knights were similarly obscured by helmets (Family Crests of Japan 8). Both Mon Kiri and “Coat[s] of Arms” utilised totemic symbols (Family Crests of Japan 8; Elven 14; Christensen 13). The mon for the imperial family (figs. 1 & 2) during the Muromachi Period featured chrysanthemum and paulownia flowers (Goin’ Japaneque). “Coat[s] of Arms” in Britain featured a menagerie of animals including lions (fig. 3), horses and eagles (Elven).

The prothesis of identity through garnering symbols on the battlefield provided “safety” through demonstrating “belongingness”. This constituted a conflation of two separate “needs” in the “hierarchy of prepotency” propositioned by Maslow. 

Fig. 1. The mon symbolising the Imperial Family during the Muromachi Period featured chrysanthemum and paulownia. "Kamon (Japanese Family Crests): Ancient Key to Samurai Culture." Goin' Japaneque! 15 Nov. 2015. 27 July 2019 <http://goinjapanesque.com/05983/>.

Fig. 2. An example of the crest being utilised on a garment can be found in this portrait of samurai Oda Nobunaga. "Japan's 12 Most Famous Samurai." All About Japan. 27 Aug. 2018. 27 July 2019 <https://allabout-japan.com/en/article/5818/>.

Fig. 3. A detail from the “Index of Subjects of Crests.” Elven, John Peter. The Book of Family Crests: Comprising Nearly Every Family Bearing, Properly Blazoned and Explained, Accompanied by Upwards of Four Thousand Engravings. Henry Washbourne, 1847.

The Pursuit of Prestige: Prosthetic Pedigree from the Late Georgian to the Victorian Eras 

In 1817, the seal engraver to Prince Regent, Alexander Deuchar, described the function of family crests in British Crests: Containing The Crest and Mottos of The Families of Great Britain and Ireland; Together with Those of The Principal Cities and Heraldic Terms as follows: 

The first approach to civilization is the distinction of ranks. So necessary is this to the welfare and existence of society, that, without it, anarchy and confusion must prevail… In an early stage, heraldic emblems were characteristic of the  bearer… Certain ordinances were made, regulating the mode of bearing arms, and who were entitled to bear them. (i-v)

The partitioning of social classes in Britain had deteriorated by the time this compendium was published, with displays of “conspicuous consumption” displacing “heraldic emblems” as a primary method of status signalling (Deuchar 2; Han et al. 18). A consumerism born of newfound affluence, and the desire to signify this wealth through luxury goods, was as integral to the Industrial Revolution as technological development. 

In Rebels against the Future, published in 1996, Kirkpatrick Sale described the phenomenon:

A substantial part of the new population, though still a distinct minority, was made modestly affluent, in some places quite wealthy, by privatization of of the countryside and the industrialization of the cities, and by the sorts of commercial and other services that this called forth. The new money stimulated the consumer demand… that allowed a market economy of a scope not known before. (40)

This also reflected improvements in the provision of “health, food [and] education” (Maslow; Snow 25-28). With their “physiological needs” accommodated, this ”substantial part” of the population were able to prioritised their “esteem needs” including the pursuit for prestige (Sale 40; Maslow).

In Britain during the Middle Ages laws “specified in minute detail” what each class was permitted to wear (Han et al. 15). A groom, for example, was not able to wear clothing that exceeded two marks in value (Han et al. 15). In a distinct departure during the Industrial Era, it was common for the “middling and lower classes” to “ape” the “fashionable vices of their superiors” (Sale 41).  

Although mon-like labels that were “simplified so as to be conspicuous and instantly recognisable” emerged in Europe during the nineteenth century their application on garments remained discrete up until the early twentieth century (Christensen 13-14; Moore and Reid 24). During the 1920s, the French companies Hermes and Coco Chanel were amongst the clothing manufacturers to pioneer this principle (Chaney; Icon).

During the 1860s, Lincolnshire-born Charles Frederick Worth affixed gold stamped labels to the insides of his garments (Polan et al. 9; Press). Operating from Paris, the innovation was consistent with the introduction of trademark laws in France in 1857 (Lopes et al.). He would become known as the “Father of Haute Couture”, creating dresses for royalty and celebrities including Empress Eugene from Constantinople, French actress Sarah Bernhardt and Australian Opera Singer Nellie Melba (Lopes et al.; Krick). The clothing labels proved and ineffective deterrent to counterfeit, and by the 1890s the House of Worth implemented other measures to authenticate their products (Press). 

The legitimisation of the origin of a product is, arguably, the primary function of branding. This principle is also applicable to subjects. The prothesis of brands, as totemic symbols, assisted consumers to relocate themselves within a new system of population distribution (Levi-Strauss 166). It was one born of commerce as opposed to heraldry.

Selling of Self: Conferring Identity from the Neolithic to Modern Eras

In his 1817 compendium on family crests, Deuchar elaborated on heraldry by writing:

Ignoble birth was considered as a stain almost indelible… Illustrious parentage, on the other hand, constituted the very basis of honour: it communicated peculiar rights and privileges, to which the meaner born man might not aspire. (v-vi)

The Twinings Logo (fig. 4) has remained unchanged since the design was commissioned by the grandson of the company founder Richard Twining in 1787 (Twining). In addition to reflecting the heritage of the family-owned company, the brand indicated the origin of the tea. This became pertinent during the nineteenth century. Plantations began to operate from Assam to Ceylon (Jones 267-269).  Amidst the rampant diversification of tea sources in the Victorian era, concerns about the “unhygienic practices” of Chinese producers were proliferated (Wengrow 11). Subsequently, the brand also offered consumers assurance in quality. 

Fig. 4. The Twinings Logo reproduced from "History of Twinings." Twinings. 24 July 2019 <https://www.twinings.co.uk/about-twinings/history-of-twinings>.

The term ‘brand’, adapted from the Norse “brandr”, was introduced into the English language during the sixteenth century (Starcevic 179). At its most literal, it translates as to “burn down” (Starcevic 179). Using hot elements to singe markings onto animals been recorded as early as 2700 BCE in Egypt (Starcevic 182). However, archaeologists concur that the modern principle of branding predates this practice. The implementation of carved seals or stamps to make indelible impressions of handcrafted objects dates back to Prehistoric Mesopotamia (Starcevic 183; Wengrow 13). Similar traditions developed during the Bronze Age in both China and the Indus Valley (Starcevic 185).  

In all three civilisations branding facilitated both commerce and aspects of Totemism. In the sixth millennium BCE in “Prehistoric” Mesopotamia, referred to as the Halaf period, stone seals were carved to emulate organic form such as animal teeth (Wengrow 13-14). They were used to safeguard objects by “confer[ring] part of the bearer’s personality” (Wengrow 14). They were concurrently applied to secure the contents of vessels containing “exotic goods” used in transactions (Wengrow 15). Worn as amulets (figs. 5 & 6) the seals, and the symbols they produced, were a physical extension of their owners (Wengrow 14).

Fig. 5. Recreation of stamp seal amulets from Neolithic Mesopotamia during the sixth millennium BCE. Wengrow, David. "Prehistories of Commodity Branding." Current Anthropology 49.1 (2008): 14.

Fig. 6. “Lot 25Y: Rare Syrian Steatite Amulet – Fertility God 5000 BCE.” The Salesroom. 27 July 2019 <https://www.the-saleroom.com/en-gb/auction-catalogues/artemis-gallery-ancient-art/catalogue-id-srartem10006/lot-a850d229-a303-4bae-b68c-a6130005c48a>. 

Fig. 7. Recreation of stamp seal designs from Mesopotamia from the late fifth to fourth millennium BCE. Wengrow, David. "Prehistories of Commodity Branding." Current Anthropology 49. 1 (2008): 16.

In the following millennia, the seals would increase exponentially in application and aesthetic complexity (fig. 7) to support the development of household cum cottage industries (Wengrow 15). In addition to handcrafts, sealed vessels would transport consumables such as wine, aromatic oils and animal fats (Wengrow 18). The illustrations on the seals included depictions of rituals undertaken by human figures and/or allegories using animals.  

It can be ascertained that the transition in the Victorian Era from heraldry to commerce, from family to corporation, had precedence. By extension, consumers were able to participate in this process of value attribution using brands as signifiers. The principle remained prevalent during the modern and post-modern eras and can be respectively interpreted using structuralist and post-structuralist theory.

Totemism to Simulacrum: The Evolution of Advertising from the Modern to Post-Modern Eras 

In 2011, Lisa Chaney wrote of the inception of the Coco Chanel logo (fig. 8) in her biography Chanel: An Intimate Life: 

A crucial element in the signature design of the Chanel No.5 bottle is the small black ‘C’ within a black circle set as the seal at the neck. On the top of the lid are two more ‘C’s, intertwined back to back… from at least 1924, the No5 bottles sported the unmistakable  logo… these two ‘C’s referred to Gabrielle, – in other words Coco Chanel herself, and would become the logo for the House of Chanel. 

Chaney continued by describing Chanel’s fascination of totemic symbols as expressed through her use of tarot cards. She also “surrounded herself with objects ripe with meaning” such as representations of wheat and lions in reference prosperity and to her zodiac symbol ‘Leo’ respectively. 

Fig. 8. No5 Chanel Perfume, released in 1924, featured a seal-like logo attached to the bottle neck. “No5.” Chanel. 25 July 2019 <https://www.chanel.com/us/fragrance/p/120450/n5-parfum-grand-extrait/>.

Fig. 9. This illustration of the bottle by Georges Goursat was published in a women’s magazine circa 1920s. “1921 Chanel No5.” Inside Chanel. 26 July 2019 <http://inside.chanel.com/en/timeline/1921_no5>; “La 4éme Fête de l’Histoire Samedi 16 et dimache 17 juin.” Ville de Perigueux. Musée d’art et d’archéologie du Périgord. 28 Mar. 2018. 26 July 2019 <https://www.perigueux-maap.fr/category/archives/page/5/>. 

This product was considered the “financial basis” of the Chanel “empire” which emerged during the second and third decades of the twentieth century (Tikkanen). Chanel is credited for revolutionising Haute Couture by introducing chic modern designs that emphasised “simplicity and comfort.” This was as opposed to the corseted highly embellished fashion that characterised the Victorian Era (Tikkanen).  

The lavish designs released by the House of Worth were, in and of themselves, “conspicuous” displays of “consumption” (Veblen 17). In contrast, the prestige and status associated with the “poor girl” look introduced by Chanel was invested in the story of the designer (Tikkanen). A primary example is her marinière or sailor’s blouse with a Breton stripe that epitomised her ascension from café singer to couturier (Tikkanen; Burstein 8). This signifier might have gone unobserved by less discerning consumers of fashion if it were not for branding. Not unlike the Prehistoric Mesopotamians, this iteration of branding is a process which “confer[s]” the “personality” of the designer into the garment (Wengrow 13 -14). The wearer of the garment is, in turn, is imbued by extension.  

Advertisers in the post-structuralist era embraced Levi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropological theories (Williamson 50). This is with particular reference to “bricolage” or the “preconditioning” of totemic symbols (Williamson 173; Pool 50).  

Subsequently, advertising creatives cum “bricoleur” employed his principles to imbue the brands with symbolic power. This symbolic capital was, arguably, transferable to the product and, ultimately, to its consumer (Williamson 173).

Post-structuralist and semiotician Jean Baudrillard “exhaustively” critiqued brands and the advertising, or simulacrum, that embellished them between the late 1960s and early 1980s (Wengrow 10-11). In Simulacra and Simulation he wrote,

it is the reflection of a profound reality;
it masks and denatures a profound reality;
it masks the absence of a profound reality;
it has no relation to any reality whatsoever:
it is its own pure simulacrum. (6)

The symbolic power of the Chanel brand resonates in the ‘profound reality’ of her story. It is efficiently ‘denatured’ through becoming simplified, conspicuous and instantly recognisable. It is, as a logo, physically juxtaposed as simulacra onto apparel. This simulacrum, in turn, effects the ‘profound reality’ of the consumer.  

In 1899, economist Thorstein Veblen wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class:

Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods it the means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure… costly entertainments, such as potlatch or the ball, are peculiarly adapted to serve this end… he consumes vicariously for his host at the same time that he is witness to the consumption…  he is also made to witness his host’s facility in etiquette. (47)

Therefore, according to Veblen, it was the witnessing of “wasteful” consumption that “confers status” as opposed the primary conspicuous act (Han et al. 18). 

Despite television being in its experimental infancy advertising was at “the height of its powers” during the 1920s (Clark et al. 18; Hill 30). Post-World War I consumers, in America, experienced an unaccustomed level of prosperity and were unsuspecting of the motives of the newly formed advertising agencies (Clark et al. 18). Subsequently, the ‘witnessing’ of consumption could be constructed across a plethora of media from the newly emerged commercial radio to billboards (Hill viii–25). The resulting ‘status’ was ‘conferred’ onto brand logos. Women’s magazines, with a legacy dating back to 1828, were a primary locus (Hill 10).

Belonging in a Post-Structuralist World

It is significant to note that, in a post-structuralist world, consumers do not exclusively seek upward mobility in their selection of brands. The establishment of counter-culture icon Levi-Strauss and Co. was concurrent to the emergence of both The House of Worth and Coco Chanel.  

The Bavarian-born Levi Strauss commenced selling apparel in San Francisco in 1853 (Levi’s). Two decades later, in partnership with Nevada born tailor Jacob Davis, he patented the “riveted-for-strength” workwear using blue denim (Levi’s). Although the ontology of ‘jeans’ is contested, references to “Jene Fustyan” date back the sixteenth century (Snyder 139). It involved the combining cotton, wool and linen to create “vestments” for Geonese sailors (Snyder 138). The Two Horse Logo (fig. 10), depicting them unable to pull apart a pair of jeans to symbolise strength, has been in continuous use by Levi Strauss & Co. company since its design in 1886 (Levi’s). 

Fig. 10. The Two Horse Logo by Levi Strauss & Co. has been in continuous use since 1886. Staff Unzipped. "Two Horses. One Message." Heritage. Levi Strauss & Co. 1 July 2011. 25 July 2019 <https://www.levistrauss.com/2011/07/01/two-horses-many-versions-one-message/>.

The “rugged wear” would become the favoured apparel amongst miners at American Gold Rush (Muthu 6). Subsequently, between the 1930s – 1960s Hollywood films cultivated jeans as a symbol of “defiance” from Stage Coach staring John Wayne in 1939 to Rebel without A Cause staring James Dean in 1955 (Muthu 6; Edgar). Consequently, during the 1960s college students protesting in America (fig. 11) against the draft chose the attire to symbolise their solidarity with the working class (Hedarty). Notwithstanding a 1990s fashion revision of denim into a diversity of garments ranging from jackets to skirts, jeans have remained a wardrobe mainstay for the past half century (Hedarty; Muthu 10). 

Fig. 11. Although the brand label is not visible, jeans as initially introduced to the American Goldfields in the nineteenth century by Levi Strauss & Co. were cultivated as a symbol of defiance from the 1930s – 1960s. It documents an anti-war protest that occurred at the Pentagon in 1967. Cox, Savannah. "The Anti-Vietnam War Movement." ATI. 14 Dec. 2016. 16 July 2019 <https://allthatsinteresting.com/vietnam-war-protests#7>.

In 2003, the journal Science published an article “Does Rejection Hurt? An Fmri Study of Social Exclusion” (Eisenberger et al.). The cross-institutional study demonstrated that the neurological reaction to rejection is indistinguishable to physical pain. Whereas during the 1940s Maslow classified the desire for “belonging” as secondary to “physiological needs,” early twenty-first century psychologists would suggest “[social] acceptance is a mechanism for survival” (Weir 50). 

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard wrote:

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal… (1)

In the intervening thirty-eight years since this document was published the artifice of our interactions has increased exponentially. In order to locate ‘belongness’ in this hyperreality, the identities of the seekers require a level of encoding. Brands, as signifiers, provide a vehicle.

Whereas in Prehistoric Mesopotamia carved seals, worn as amulets, were used to extend the identity of a person, in post-digital China WeChat QR codes (fig. 12), stored in mobile phones, are used to facilitate transactions from exchanging contact details to commerce. Like other totems, they provide access to information such as locations, preferences, beliefs, marital status and financial circumstances. These individualised brands are the most recent incarnation of a technology that has developed over the past eight thousand years. The intermediary iteration, emblems affixed to garments, has remained prevalent since the twelfth century. Their continued salience is due to their visibility and, subsequent, accessibility as signifiers.  

Fig. 12. It may be posited that Wechat QR codes are a form individualised branding. Like other totems, they store information pertaining to the owner’s location, beliefs, preferences, marital status and financial circumstances. “Join Wechat groups using QR code on 2019.” Techwebsites. 26 July 2019 <https://techwebsites.net/join-wechat-group-qr-code/>.

Fig. 13. Brands function effectively as signifiers is due to the international distribution of multinational corporations. This is the shopfront of Chanel in Dubai, which offers customers apparel bearing consistent insignia as the Parisian outlet at on Rue Cambon. Customers of Chanel can signify to each other with the confidence that their products will be recognised. “Chanel.” The Dubai Mall. 26 July 2019 <https://thedubaimall.com/en/shop/chanel>.

Navigating a post-structuralist world of increasing mobility necessitates a rudimental understanding of these symbols. Whereas in the nineteenth century status was conveyed through consumption and witnessing consumption, from the twentieth century onwards the garnering of brands made this transaction immediate (Veblen 47; Han et al. 18). The bricolage of the brands is constructed by bricoleurs working in any number of contemporary creative fields such as advertising, filmmaking or song writing. They provide a system by which individuals can convey and recognise identities at prima facie. They enable the prosthesis of identity.

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Keywords


papercutting; branding; communication studies; post-digital technologies; craft



Copyright (c) 2019 Pamela Mei-Leng See

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