Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

How not to talk about clothes

Spare me the fashionese

Luke Leitch loves fashion yet despairs at the linguistic pomposity that makes it so easy to hate

Luke Leitch loves fashion yet despairs at the linguistic pomposity that makes it so easy to hate

Luke Leitch | October/November 2016

Fashion is a scam designed to part the impressionable and the insecure from their hard-earned. It’s a carnival of vanity, an elaborately beribboned void, a festival of froth celebrated by fakes. Fashion doesn’t just elevate form over function – it positively delights in frog-marching practicality round the back, coshing it and dumping its limp, muffin-topped body in the nearest canal. Fashion is ageist, racist, sexist, fattist and fascist.

Having been buttonholed by any number of sanctimonious scruffier-than-thous who wouldn’t know a knife pleat if they cut themselves on one, I’ve become inured to fielding cheerily hectoring opening gambits along these lines. Fashion sets out to provoke a reaction, and one of the most frequent, it seems, is the puritanical thrill of disapproval felt by the pseudo-virtuous who are too po-faced to enjoy its chief, if admittedly shallow, pleasure: playing with your appearance. Fashion is easy to criticise; it is much harder to justify to those who don’t instinctively get it, at least not without sounding like a pompous twit.

This bloviating is my biggest bugbear with the industry. It is a business that treats itself with immense seriousness. Yet, when it searches for words that have a gravitas it believes its creations deserve, it trips itself up like a stumbling model careening off the catwalk. Fashion is plagued by rhetorical botox – its language may have sounded smooth when it was first used, but now it’s rigid, characterless and hard to tell whether it’s spoken by a human or an alien.

Can a perfume be “legendary”? Only if Helen of Troy gave herself a couple of spritzes as the topless towers burnt around her. Can a shoe be “storied”? Did it win a VC for its bravery on the beaches at Normandy or make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela? With those heels, unlikely. And please take a deep breath before using the word “iconic” about a handbag that looks, well, handbag-shaped. Your interests have to be perversely narrow if you think that the saga of Paris Hilton’s fragrance franchises will be sung for generations hence or even earn a multipart Netflix dramatisation.

The most grotesque examples of fashionese stem from the assumption that customers or readers need to believe that, in buying a new garment, they will somehow demonstrate grittier qualities than hedonism and a taste for luxury – judiciousness, cold-blooded calculation, financial acumen. Referring to a “dress” as an “investment”, for instance, makes as much sense as asking “does my bum look big in these equities”. The word “directional” – as in “leg-o’-mutton sleeves have defined this season’s directional silhouette” – is “avant-garde” translated for the era of management-speak.

A stultifying sub-dialect of pseudo-professionalism has also sprouted, in which the acquisition and possession of fashion is made to sound like a full-time job. If you get rid of old clothes to make way for some new ones, you are “editing your wardrobe” (much in the same way, I suppose, as binning furred cheese and liquefying tomatoes is “editing your fridge”). Choose what to wear of an evening and you’re “curating” your outfit. These days, anyone who manages to stumble out of his front door without being entirely naked can claim to be a stylist.

Fashion’s propensity to treat itself with religious solemnity is matched only by its over-sensitivity to criticism. Some of the worst insults traded publicly in the business are so muffled and hedged by insinuation as to be incomprehensible to outsiders. To call a designer’s work “consistent”, for instance, sounds like a compliment – it sounds as if they keep hitting the spot. In fashionese, however, “consistent” means “hasn’t had a new idea since 2008”.

Fashion unapologetically licks off the icing and throws away the cake. But it has something for everyone, from harem pants cut so low their gussets sweep the pavement to transparent miniskirts cut higher than Keith Richards. I recently enjoyed a collection whose ball gowns came with inbuilt smoke machines, so that the wearer left a vapour trail, and another whose men’s cassocks featured peepholes at the crotch, conceived to confront gender norms (and possibly to make it easier to relieve oneself). And why shouldn’t I? Fashion deploys great taste, artistry and technical skill – just look at the Dolce & Gabbana Alta Moda collection in this issue – but all that effort is directed at gratifying the fundamentally vapid desire to look good. Fashion is not stupid, but the urges it satisfies are simple. If the fashion world took itself less seriously, then the rest of the planet might be encouraged to relish its excesses, not dismiss them.

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.