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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Finding the words for fashion

New York Fashion Week ended last week, kicking off the new slew of international catwalks.
It's the perfect storm of aesthetics, commerce and, if you follow that sort of thing, celebrity gossip.
But for all the glitz and glam, it can be a little hard to follow.
To our rescue is Erin McKean, a word nerd with a fashion bent. McKean has solid word credentials: She served as editor-in-chief of The New Oxford American Dictionary, second edition; she has written four books about words; and she founded the dictionary website Wordnik.com.
But McKean also knows her clothes. She has written a novel called "The Secret Lives of Dresses," and she shares her adventures as a hobbyist seamstress in her blog, named A Dress A Day.
"There's a bit of a disconnect between the language used by people who are really into fashion, either professionally or as a hobby, and people who don't care about fashion much, if at all. It's equivalent of the divide between people who are into professional sports and who know all the jargon and the folks who always have to ask what a 'safety' is during the Super Bowl," McKean said in an email.
But does that mean we all get a free pass? Maybe not.
"There's a basic set of fashion terminology that most people should know just as a matter of cultural literacy, and then there are the insider terms that aren't as relevant. For instance, knowing the word 'couture' is probably more important than knowing that fashionistas use the word 'directional' to mean 'trendsetting,' " McKean said. But as language is fluid and fashion is fleeting, these meanings can change.
"Since fashion is so aspirational, there's a tendency for fashion terms to get broadened and applied in more situations. 'Haute couture' used to refer to made-to-measure clothing from a specific set of designers — and is still a legally restricted term in France — but 'couture' is now used to mean any high-end — usually expensive — clothing or accessories." McKean said.
And sometimes the stories behind these changes are interesting.
"The etymologies of fashion words are usually pretty straightforward. For instance, 'frock' was used to refer to the clothing of monks before it was used for women's clothing; a lot of other fashion jargon is borrowed from French. 'Chic' is more interesting, as it may be related to an older word meaning 'trickery.' The original French sense was closer to something like 'style' in the non-clothes sense, more like 'artistry' or 'excellence,' " McKean said.

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