The Desperate Synonyms of Fashionspeak

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I took a break to create/produce Babel, a CBC Radio program about the changing English language. Check it out at: cbc.ca/babel.

May 18, 2012

Prowling down the catwalk this season is something called “tribal chic” with its khaki jackets, wooden bangles and animal prints.

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Images from left: Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Rodarte, Diane Von Furstenberg.

Tribal is just the latest vogue word to describe a fashion trend. In the last while, we’ve been presented with any number of chics — athletic, street, pajama, granny, geek, eco, even Hitler chic.

We’ve also been hit with steampunk, gothic Lolita and boho grunge.

Fashion can indeed be a strange land. And the people who live there speak a curious language with rules of its own.

“You adopt a certain vernacular when you’re part of the fashion world,” admits Canadian fashion journalist Adrian Mainella, currently editor-in-chief of online style magazine The Aesthete.com.

“It’s a way of thinking and expressing yourself, and there are certain colloquialisms that people use within the fashion world that sometimes makes sense only to the fashion world.

“That’s something that happens because people typically spend a lot of time with one another, both in work and socializing. In a lot of ways, it becomes a tribe.”

So in the spirit of cross-cultural understanding, let’s try to translate some of this language.

‘Flatforming’ the merch

In the industry itself, there are words for the folks who make the fashion world whirl.

One of them is a Jolie Madame, which originally referred to a fashionable Parisian lady, but has since crossed the pond to mean any immaculately elegant, perhaps somewhat aloof woman. You could even tack on Angelina.

The jolie-laide (pretty-ugly) is a woman who will turn heads because she is striking, though not conventionally pretty. And the petite mains (little hands) are the people who actually put all those stylish garments together.

Speaking of throwing things together, the tribe also loves to blend words, as in swancho (a sweater/poncho), and shootie (a shoe/boot).

And abbreviations such as boho (Bohemian) and merch (merchandise) are as common as stilettos and big hair on the runway. Those never seem to go out of style.

Fashionspeak serves a couple of purposes, according to Erin McKean, lexicographer and author of The Secret Lives of Dresses.

“One is to give a ‘handle’ to concepts so they can be discussed easily,” she says.

For example, why say “flat platform shoes” when you can say flatforms?

Another is that, like any jargon, once you’ve mastered it you’re in the tribe. It helps maintain the exclusivity.

Desperate synonyms

Of course you could also say that fashionspeak is really aimed at getting people to buy in to the latest styles.

Designers and retailers put out the same clothes every year — pants, shirts, dresses — but to keep them trendy, they have to sound different from the clothes that were trotted out last season.

And this is where the linguistic gymnastics begin. Nouns get converted into adjectives as in Banana Republic’s explosional florals (what is that?), statement necklace and boyfriend jacket.

Some fit what McKean calls a “yet-but” construction (originally coined by fashion writer Erika Kawalek). A new outfit is a little bit this, yet it’s also that. As in boho-yet-classy, or sumptuous-yet-sporty.

Creative suffixes abound such as “—eggings” to describe, well, anything shaped like a legging. Like jeans, and here’s hoping these jeggings will quietly go away.

There is also the kind of branding that Nancy Friedman labels “fashion singular.” That would be pant instead of pants; a kitten heel instead of heels with an ‘s’, if you please.

Friedman also lays out the “desperate synonyms” used for jeans. They used to be stonewashed, then distressed. Now they’re busted, destroyed and damaged.

And still, people buy them!

“Fun words and colourful words and puns and plays on words — others in the literati think it’s a bastardization of the English language,” says Mainella.

“I think if the consumer connects to that word and that idea, that’s what you’re ultimately trying to achieve.”

Expanding the range

While fashionspeak is probably meant to be the lingo of the in-crowd, there are signs that it’s opening up to a broader audience.

Fashion words, for example, have been burbling up in the blogosphere.

LBD famously stands for Little Black Dress. There’s also VPL (Visible Panty Line), VBS (visible bra strap). Not to mention: LSD (the dangerous little sequinned dress) and TFFF for the too-fat-for-fashion. My, it’s a catty world.

Arm_party

It was actually a blogger who coined a current buzzword. The Man Repeller.com (which brandishes stylish clothes that men just don’t get) thought up arm party for the jangle that a stack of bracelets makes on a woman’s arm.

McKean says fashion bloggers are contributing more to the lexicon these days because they have more “at-bats”. They’re constantly writing about the latest fashion, from what celebrities wore last night, to what they saw on the street this afternoon.

High-end fashion magazines, while they may have regular blogs, tend to save the big splashes for their monthly publications.

As McKean puts it, “you can limit the number of invitations to an in-person fashion show, but you can’t police the internet.” And so the tribe expands.

Now, you likely won’t hear too much of the fashionspeak blog-talk in the haute couture world. But the democratization of the lingo may be a sign that the fashion tribe is willing to take some of those tribal chic bracelets and throw a little arm party —despite themselves.

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