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Decoding Fashionspeak

"In difficult times fashion is always outrageous," the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli famously said. But come hard times or good times, you can always count on fashion writing to be an excessive, outrageous genre unto itself. Where else but in fashion copy would destructed be an acceptable — indeed, comprehensible — adjective? Who but a fashion editor would bully her readers with imperatives such as must-have? And what on earth is one supposed to make of cryptic abbreviations like cardi, bodycon, and MOTG?

Luckily for you, I am an experienced translator of Fashionspeak. I'm neither fashion forward — an oddly constructed adjective, in use since at least 1948 (according to the OED), that means "on the cutting edge" — nor a complete naïf; I've worked with fashion and retail clients for years, consumed steady doses of fashion media since I was a teenager, and managed to maintain both an appetite for and a robust skepticism about the subject. With no additional fanfare, here's my slightly biased guide for the fashion-perplexed.

The Grammar. To master Fashionspeak, you'll need to learn two new constructions, the Fashion Singular and the Fashion Imperative. In the Fashion Singular, nouns gain by subtraction: It's the skinny pant; a smoky eye (achieved with cosmetics, by the way, not cigarettes); the essential cami. (For cami, see Abbreviations, below.) Singular items are, presumably, more special than their lumpen cousins; they're given their own articles, a or the, almost as honorifics. "To demonstrate your true mastery of this lingo," advises fashion writer Hadley Freeman in her Guardian (U.K.) column, "deploy it only in positive circumstances, e.g., 'Ooh, I do love a kitten heel.'" (For kitten, see The Peculiar Adjectives, below.) Bryan A. Garner, author of the authoritative Garner's Modern American Usage, observes, a bit peevishly, that "clothing retailers lack standardization when referring to trousers" and that "[t]his inconsistency has been around for a long time" — at least since the late 19th century, when both pants and pant emerged as abbreviations of the older pantaloons.

As for the Fashion Imperative, it's the grammatical case fashion editors use to instill fear and desire in their readers. "Must-Have Shoes, Bags & More!" blares InStyle in an all-caps cover headline. "Get in on the season's best ideas with these major must-haves," commands Harper's Bazaar next to photos of a $2,468 clutch purse and a $930 high-heeled sandal. (Major indeed!) The Fashion Imperative also entitles editors to declare that the current season "is all about" pink, or crotch-high mini-skirts, or see-through blouses; to label a particular clothing choice a "Do" or a "Don't" (as Glamour magazine has done for decades, complete with black bars over the eyes of the offending Don'ts); to exalt a T-shirt or a bangle bracelet as Important or Essential; and to give readers monthly marching orders — as Harper's Bazaar does — about what to buy, keep, and store. (Those beaded earrings we ordered you to purchase a few months ago? You're not wearing them now, are you?)

The best and funniest explanation I've found for the Fashion Imperative comes from Hadley Freeman. "Fashion people love a good imperative," she writes in The Meaning of Sunglasses a brisk, hilarious antidote to fashion hyperbole, "maybe because this kind of fearsomely brook-no-argument tone helps to trample over any bleating objections or queries as to why a $3,000 handbag with a handle made from the bone of a woolly mammoth and stitching from the hair of an albino virgin is apparently as necessary to someone's life as water. But there is some literal truth in the phrase, as it is usually used in connection to this season's most expensive accessory by a company which has spent a particularly large wad on advertising, the sort of advertising a magazine must, ahem, have."

The Peculiar Adjectives. Anthimeria — the use of a word as a different part of speech — is an essential element of Fashionspeak. Boyfriend, for example, is not merely that unshaven fellow who plays video games on the couch while you clean the apartment; it's also a descriptor for an item of apparel with a characteristically masculine cut. Thus, a boyfriend jacket looks like you borrowed it from your beau — that is, it's sloppily large. In a similar vein, statement is a modifier that translates to "humongous": a statement necklace is so big and gaudy it practically shouts. (It may also have an impact on your bank statement, but that's another matter.) 

Then there's It — always capitalized, and usually preceding "bag." The term has been used this way since the 1990s, when the market for easily identifiable designer handbags (the Hermès Birkin, the Chanel 2.55) exploded. But capital-I It goes back to the 1920s, when silent-screen actress Clara Bow was dubbed "the It girl" after she starred in the movie It, adapted from Elinor Glyn's sensational novel of the same name. ("It" was, tacitly, sex appeal.) Eachseason brings a new It accessory that's "of the moment" (another favored bit of Fashionspeak) and may require refinancing the mortgage.

As for kitten, I admit it's hard to fathom how this word became a descriptor, first seen in print in the late 1950s, for a certain style of low heel, slender yet curvaceous. Other than Puss in Boots, I'm not aware of any felines with a penchant for footwear. However, the OED informs us that kitten has been used since at least 1870 as a synonym for a young, playful woman — someone who might choose to wear slightly frivolous low-heeled shoes.

The Abbreviations. Nicknames and acronyms are shorthand that conveys an in-group familiarity essential to all jargon. Fashionspeak is no exception. Thus, a cami is a camisole — originally an undergarment, now any lightweight, skinny-strapped top; a cardi is a cardigan; a pony is a pony-tail hairstyle; bodycon is not a bodybuilders' convention but rather the short form of body-conscious (i.e., uncomfortably tight); and boho means bohemian, which in Fashionspeak may signify beaded, fringed, earthy, frayed, or mismatched. (Boho is often seen in a combination form known as "yet-but," as lexicographer Erin McKean points out in last weekend's "The Word" column for the Boston Globe. "'Boho yet' has been completed with: classy, uptown, sophisticated, 'very '80s,' elegant, glittery ... 'casual and stylish,' and modern," writes McKean. "Sometimes the yet-but is double-stacked: 'gypsy-boho-yet-modern-and-crisp.'") And memorize these acronyms if you're planning to dive into style blogs: MOTG, short for "mom on the go," refers both to a person (often an SAHM, or stay-at-home mom) and her breezy/perky/not-overtly-sexy wardrobe choices; an MOTB is the mother of the bride; and MDAL means "mutton dressed as lamb" — the reproving label for, par exemple, a lady of a certain age wearing latex short-shorts.

The Overreachers. In recent years, Fashionspeak has ventured beyond Important and Essential into the lofty realms of fine art and high finance. Whereas, for example, a fashion neophyte might stuff an outmoded dress into the back of her closet, a fashion maven will archive it. An alarmingly expensive coat isn't an indulgence; it's investment dressing. (Note the Peculiar Adjective.) And store owners don't simply sell a collection of items, they curate their wares — code, as the New York Times explained last fall, for "I have a discerning eye and great taste." A sign the trend may have crested: The mid-market retail chain J. Crew has gotten in on the act with its Curator Pant (note the Fashion Singular), a pair of droopy jersey trousers that are "part of the J. Crew Collection."

The Desperate Synonyms. Blue jeans — can't live without 'em, can't keep up with their infinite variety. The experiments began in the 1970s with acid-wash and stonewash; "distressed" finishes began to appear in the 1980s. Language lovers may be even more distressed by the newer coinages, which describe a recent spate of torn, patched, and re-torn styles: busted, destroyed, damaged (for a pair of $255 jeans), and, yes, destructed are a few of the creative synonyms for what our grandparents might have dismissed as hobo wear. And one can only wonder what Elsa Schiaparelli might have said about a women's shirt — J. Crew again — in a fabric traditionally called seersucker, from Persian words meaning "milk and sugar." (The poetic term describes the textile's bumpy texture.) J. Crew calls it Suckered. Which is how you and I might feel if we shelled out $69.50 for it.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 5th 2010, 6:10 AM
Comment by: Donna R. (Johnstown, NY)
What I was wondering is why a certain form of shirt is called a "wife-beater?" Also, I have destructed jeans which I paid alot less for-they didn't come that way, I wore them out..
Monday April 5th 2010, 7:58 AM
Comment by: Michael H. (Buffalo, NY)
Ah, "The Beater" . . . perhaps it's just an urban myth, but I always understood we can thank Marlon Brando's portrayal of Stanley Kowalski for this one.
Monday April 5th 2010, 9:22 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the entertaining column: My FB friend recently posted the following:

"I totally admit it. I like Old Navy because of the names of the clothes. 'Cardi-Coat' and 'Whirly Skirt' just make me smile. We don't even fast forward through the commercials. I love those mannequins! Kudos to you Crispin Porter + Bogusky!"

And later: "I bought myself a whirly skirt the other day because it looked so cute on the mannequin. That's the way I shop - by looking at outfits already put together. I'm hopeless otherwise. I always wanted a cardi-coat because I like to say it, but never bought one..."

Finally: "Uh oh! Just saw a new Old Navy commercial - now I feel the need for an arty cardi to go with my whirly skirt! I am every ad agency's dream!"

Makes me laugh!
Monday April 5th 2010, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Would the abuse of destroyed as 'destruct' come from 'self-destruct'? As far as I'm concerned, the fashion experts have harmed far more than the language. Remember all those foot doctors' kids that went to college because of the stiletto heels?
Monday April 5th 2010, 12:39 PM
Comment by: Valerie P.
Although I wear "gently reused" clothes most of the time, I like to keep up with the lingo. Reading about it takes less time than watching TV commercials and less money than buying fashion magazines:)))
Thursday April 8th 2010, 4:22 PM
Comment by: Jimmy M. (Kansas City, MO)
Regarding the "wife-beater" shirt- I think this one explains itself through imagination. If you picture any of the men portrayed in movies or television (I am hoping you do not have the misfortune of knowing any men of this quality) who beat their lady friend- wife or girlfriend. Personally, when I imagine this, I do imagine an un-showered, unshaven man between 29 and 40, sitting on a tattered, floral-print couch with his dirty feet on the coffee table, drinking loudly from a can of cheap beer, while he sweats oily sweat beads from his forehead and armpits, yelling at his woman to do something. That man I imagine is ALWAYS wearing his stained, used-to-be-white tank-top which he wore under his dirty work shirt that day in the heat, and the day before...

The fact that the term caught on as a universal descriptor of the thick-strapped tank-top for both boys and girls to wear is still perplexing to me. The term, however, seems to have lost its negative connotation, and its connection to the low-class dirt-bag who made it popular.

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