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People & Ideas

Mar 15, 2016

Fashion writing is popularly understood to be a vapid genre. And it’s written in a gormless, burbling dialect that I will call “fash-speak”.

“Fashion”, by the way, is not a synonym for “clothes”. It’s an industrial cycle of design, media and retail, which constantly renews itself to drive demand for new garments. Fashion is a dynamic, wealthy business sector that engages with politics, ethics and social ideologies, and writing about this is not stupid. To intelligent, discerning people, fashion offers plenty of food for thought — and some fashion writers are impressively knowledgeable and analytical.

However, the majority of fashion writing — from glossy magazines to weekend newspapers and the increasingly crowded blogosphere — is explicitly framed as “lifestyle”. That is, it’s all about the role clothing plays in an individual’s consumerist fantasies. And because “lifestyle” is still consumed as part of a broad media diet, readers who aren’t interested in fashion are likely to encounter fash-speak and find it meaningless.

In the style of Star Trek‘s Leonard “Bones” McCoy, let me point out that I’m a cultural critic, not a fashion writer. I don’t go to runway shows and industry launches, or follow designers and trends. I’ve gone to fashion events before and felt completely unwelcome. To be frank, sometimes I see fashion journalists at media screenings of fashion-adjacent films (most recently, The Dressmaker) and experience a mean yearning to make them feel as unwelcome on my turf as I feel on theirs. So it would be easy for me to massage my professional self-respect by hanging shit on fash-speak.

But inevitably I want to defend fash-speak as a legitimate linguistic practice, and to explore what it might do. Like all industry jargon, it’s a set of shibboleths that reflects shared concerns and polices insiders and outsiders. Industry aspirants learn to use it, because mastering fash-speak establishes professional authority and credibility.

Fashion writers have been playing with language for ages; Diana Vreeland was an especially inventive wordsmith. Stephen Fried coined the term fashionista in his 1993 biography of model Gia Carangi, as an umbrella term for all the industry people in her orbit. It was a playful riff on the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, who were prominent in the media at the height of Carangi’s career in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “Fashionista” was irresistible because it connoted both exoticism and political militancy. It’s since birthed glamazon and frock star.

Fash-speak can operate in two registers. When it’s talking down, it’s euphemistic and twee, aiming to generate solidarity with the reader. Hair is a mane or tresses; a mouth is a pout; eyes are peepers; fingernails are talons; toes are tootsies. When it’s talking up, it’s constructing an air of mystique and exclusivity around industry practices. But it does this in a vague, nebulous way that fudges the distinctions between different price points and market positions.

The word couture just means sewing; but haute couture is a trade appellation granted by the Parisian Chambre Syndicale (now the Fédération française de la couture) that entitles a designer to show at Paris Fashion Week. Nonetheless, fash-speak uses hautecouture and high fashion as adjectives that all mean “labels that show at fashion weeks. Other brands are described variously as luxeboutiquecult and niche — all of which imply that they are still expensive and exclusive, but have a small, discerning market. Bespoke, strictly speaking, is clothing tailored to one person’s specific measurements, yet fash-speak uses it much more loosely to connote things that are hand-made and customised.

Much of fash-speak reflects the palimpsestic nature of fashion’s trend cycle. The treadmill of seasonal collections moves so fast that writers are flat out just describing how outfits look on models. It’s impressionistic rather than contextual, aiming to capture evanescent moments, moods and gestures.

Some words and phrases seem to be deployed primarily for literary effect. Va-va-voom, originally a 1950s term for the sound of a car engine revving, now connotes a buxom, old-fashioned kind of sex appeal. Outfits that are presumably not sentient are nonetheless whimsical and flirty; they’re also floaty and flippy and filmy and froufrou. And mute objects have something metaphorical to say: they become statement pieces.

Because of the pace of the trend cycle, fash-speak valorises an ability to anticipate and lead trends rather than to follow or lag behind. We hear of a fashion-forward or directional person or garment. Things are on-trend, or even bang on trend. They’re edgycutting-edge or even bleeding-edge. X is the new Y. However, you’ll often be allowed a sneak peak (always misspelled) at what’s coming up next.

Other elements of fash-speak refuse to view fashion as an industrial process of producing and marketing clothing, but instead see it as a rarefied aesthetic practice. I don’t think it’s accidental that what Alix Rule and David Levine have dubbed International Art English is an industry jargon almost as universally maligned.

When fash-speak is forced to consider the everyday practicalities of wearing clothes, it sounds almost grudging. It assures you that sober yet very costly garments constitute investment dressing, and that sometimes a garment must take you from day to night. Perhaps the most arch word in fash-speak’s vocabulary is wearable, which faintly damns a garment as bland and unimaginative, but also contains a note of admiration that a designer has been so bold as to invite non-fashionistas to wear their garments.

By contrast, fash-speak is at its most free-wheeling and grammatically elastic when it ponders aesthetic choices. One of fash-speak’s most commonly ridiculed quirks is the Fashion Singular. This is the tendency to depluralise things that come in pairs: a pant, a lip, an eye, a shoe. Could this refer to the fashion writer’s own eye, which has to travel so quickly that paired objects merge conceptually into one? The fashion writer’s gaze displaces itself onto the things gazed upon, which synecdochically become looks. And because this gaze has a velocity and a direction, fash-speak doesn’t have contemplative colour “schemes”, it has colourways.

Because the fashion world deals in exorbitantly priced luxury goods, it encourages mercilessly commercial writing that hypes the merch. In grammatical terms, this is the Fashion Imperative. Fash-speak deals heavily in hyperbole: journalists announce their current obsessions, what’s hot and not, dos and don’ts, the essential clothes they’re really feeling, which you need right now, the It bags and other must-haves they’re currently all about. This garment is everything. It’s killer. I die.

It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of fash-speak is appropriated from the language of people of colour — especially queer people of colour — and that this political redolence is neutralised in its use within mainstream (white) fashion journalism. In fash-speak, as in US hip-hop, people look fresh to death in what they’re rocking — their kicks are totally on point, on lock; their brow game is on fleek.

The underground queer ballroom scene is deeply entwined with fashion. Voguing is named after Vogue magazine; its moves are inspired by the poses of models and the performance space of the runway. Ballroom collectives are also called “houses” — like fashion labels — and many have even been named after fashion houses. Competitors walk for their house, much as fash-speak refers to models appearing in a given designer’s show.

The ballroom use of language to commentate on performance emerges in fash-speak when someone is slaying it, worked it, did that or went there. Yaaaaas queen! And fash-speak expresses enthusiasm by declaring the writer is living for or is here for expensive designer merchandise.

Popularised by designer Christian Siriano during his time as a Project Runway contestant in 2007, the term fierce is older; it appears in drag artist RuPaul’s 1992 single Supermodel (You Better Work). To call black women “fierce” is to reappropriate racist myths that they are savage and primitive, less feminine and deserving of less respect than white women. “Fierce” became a term of pride in and admiration for a racialised (trans)femininity.

But fash-speak’s attachment to “fierce” has had the unfortunate effect of dehumanising black women, while granting white women access to feelings of playful power.

Like any other industry jargon, fash-speak only becomes meaningful in the encounter between fashion writer and fashion-savvy reader. It’s a connotative rather than a denotative argot, surprisingly poetic in its use of allusion and onomatopoeia, and intended to create moods — of urgency, of pleasure, of possibility — as much as to actually describe things. But fash-speak’s innate elitism means it’s troubling that it’s so happily adopted the language that disempowered people use to assert their own dignity and sense of style.

*A longer version of this article was originally published at Footpath Zeitgeist

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