Two Part Review: Fashion Writing, Part One

The way fashion-people talk is kind of the worst, right? I love it. Remember that episode of The Ali G. Show that tried to prove all fashion designers are retards? When he was like, “I feel these clothes are very light, like airy clouds, and dark, like the earth, very heavy,” and each designer agreed?

A lot of designers don’t know how to talk about clothes. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Most musicians don’t know how to talk about their own music—Marc Bolan thought T. Rex was pure pop, ICP think that their songs definitely don’t inspire violence, and Courtney Love thinks Hole should have been put into the same category as Nine Inch Nails, not Nirvana.

Musicians, though, can go on and on referencing their influences and all their friends’ bands, and that’s fine in that industry. It’s encouraged. But fashion designers are supposed to be more competitive than that. Even if many of the big shots are dead or retired, their design houses still exist, so to reference another design in your own is to become a knockoff.

Fashion writers have to be especially innovative for this reason. Anyone at all interested in linguistics who isn’t a dinosaur etymologist studying Ye Olde Ænglish believes that language is progressive. And fashion is, by definition, progressive. The language used to describe fashion is some of the most progressive language in the world. Dorothy Hughes of The University of Nebraska said, in 1935, that,

“The language of the fashion sheet has given a banal subject the pose of an esoteric cult.”

Which actually doesn’t really sound like a bad thing. What she didn’t know is that this word-transformation she describes as dumb is exactly necessary for fashion writing. She further makes my point by trying to make her own:

“The suffix -ish gives a word the same vagueness a flounce gives a hem.  Such blunt adjectives as tall, short, stout, thin, and flat, are too harsh for the description of a dress and its wearer, with the result that tallish, stiffish, lowish, stoutish, narrowish, and similar forms take place.  The need for new adjectives has caused the suffix to be added to nouns as well, and we find townish, contourish, tricornes-ish, and Vionnetish on the fashion page… [along with] a Byron-ish collar, May-West-ish curves and a Robin Hood-ish jerkin.”

This article goes on to give examples of changing constructions other than new suffixes  (-y, -ness, -er, -ist and -able are also popular), such as compound adjectives (a despise-the-ground-you-walk-on carriage), emphasis by repetition (straight-as-straight), present and past participles in combinations with adjectives (much-looking and bare-throated), verbs coming from nouns and adjectives (to grandstand or to out-modern), verbs with new meanings (nipping), and adverbs from adjectives (slinkily). Like I said, this was written in 1935, and some of these constructions are common to our vocabulary now, which is another irony coming out of Hughes’s work.

One style informs the other, progressively. But Hughes says:

“The literary style is for the most part childishly simple, and the sentence structure uninvolved.  On this simple framework the fashion writer hangs her peculiar fabric of epithet and metaphor that creates the familiar atmosphere of ‘chic.’  Particular expressions may be as ephemeral as the fashions they describe…”

Which is exactly what I love about fashion writing. And Hughes didn’t know what she was missing. While trying to describe the stupidity of fashion and “the fashion sheet” she made it sound even more stand-up. Because fashion is cool, I don’t care what you say.

You don’t even know how much you love fashion, and I’d try to prove that to you, but the one good scene in the really bad movie, The Devil Wears Prada, the scene where the mock-Anna Wintour talks about the sweater that’s this one kind of blue and how it trickled down into Wal-Mart world from couture or something, already did that for me.

Natasha Stagg

Works Cited:

Hughes, Dorothy. “The Language of the Fashion Sheet.” American Speech 10 (1935): 191-194. JStor. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 5 Feb. 2007>.

3 thoughts on “Two Part Review: Fashion Writing, Part One

  1. Great article, but gonna have to disagree on one thing – there are many, many fashion people who know how to talk about fashion intelligently, and with great insight. Look a bit further than The Ali G Show for quotations – I dont know what designers were being quoted but I’d like to know – and you’ll find a lot of good stuff. Great stuff actually.

    There are of course a lot of stupid people working in that industry. There are also a lot of stupid people working in every industry, and particularly in the creative fields, there are a lot of bullshiters who can get by with statements such as “I feel these clothes are very light, like airy clouds, and dark, like the earth, very heavy” (shall we take a stab at the art industry?) Its not fair or accurate though to state that all fashion talk is as inane as the statement you’ve quoted. To provide one of MANY counterexamples, one which has always struck me for its acuity and lack of flair: “Fashion is not art, but needs an artist in order to exist.” Succinct, thought-provoking, and true, this is a conclusion afforded only to one with a great his intimacy with his craft: Yves Saint Laurent.

    Additionally, Dennis Freedman (ex-W Magazine editor) recent interview on provides some further slightly smarter shop talk:

    “The longer you work in fashion, or at least, the longer I’ve worked in fashion, the more I’ve realized it’s really not just about clothes. So why reduce it to that?”

  2. Pingback: People We Love | Sonora Review

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