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Said Language to Fashion: OMG I Die
The English nerd-turned-style editor on hyperbole, emptied signifiers, and fashion's impact on contemporary language.

Every girl needs a black leather skirt. Step it up this season with an architectural shoe. Nothing screams military chic like skinny cargo pants with a pair of beautiful camo-print ballet flats. Want to look as effortlessly cool as Rachel Bilson? Try a tribal-inspired hobo bag with a retro mini. For night, go luxe with a glam gown, but add unexpected accessories, like a splash of leopard print. Totally surreal.

Welcome to Fashionland. The light is ever a photo-perfect shade of grey, we wear sunnies all year round, and smoking is nowhere forbidden. Our national bird is Daphne Guinness. As for the language, it may sound like English, but compulsive buyer beware: nothing means what it used to mean. The words I’ve italicized, above, mean hardly anything at all. Everything isn’t just amazing–it’s amaaaaaazing. And still, nobody is happy.

I would like to believe myself a stranger in Fashionland, and often I do feel that way. Ostensibly I’m just a fascinated, wary observer; once upon a time I really was. But now, like it or not, I live here. So do you, or at least you live nearer than you think. Fashionland has annexed many of its surrounding parts: visual art (the fairs, the trends, the persistence of Damien Hirst), interior design (Elle Decor, of course, but also The Selby and its imitators), graphic design (“triangles are so last year”), pop music (Lana Del Rey), even literature. All these parts are more cyclical, more commodified, more intended for–and then defined by–public consumption than they once were. (But don’t believe me; read Bruce Hainley. Seriously. Read Bruce Hainley.)

Although I write more about fashion than any other medium, I’ve interviewed musicians, painters, architects, industrial designers, and other makers of art/stuff, and for years I’ve heard from them the same complaint: that _____ field is becoming too much like fashion. Often they say this in a tone that implies I should, like, do something about it. Only recently has it occurred to me what I should be doing about the insidious fashioning of everything, and sometimes am doing successfully, and sometimes am not. I should write about this stuff without using its provisional language (see: Barthes). Without consenting to codified desires that aren’t even really mine. Without all the bullshit, I guess.

Except, bullshit sticks. Before I began writing about fashion and by extension participating in the multiple interlocking systems thereof (the street style game, the “exclusive” soirees, et cetera), I had a different language. My writing style was maybe not so different, but it was more writing style, less style style. I thought exclamation points were for special occasions. I thought beauty might be a lot of things, but never the cosmetics section. I didn’t think to sign emails to complete strangers with multiple kisses. I knew when I was exaggerating.

The other day I was looking for the first review I had written of a young designer’s show. I thought, okay, enough time has passed; I can read this without wanting to scoop out my own eyes with those little melon-ball things. But no. I had to stop, disgusted, at the words “impossibly cool.” Impossibly? What is less impossible than making a reasonable facsimile of an Alexander Wang army pant? But then, it is the Alexander Wang “army pant” that has made “impossibly cool” seem like a legitimate word-pairing (it would slip past almost any fashion copy editor, I’m sure). We are into the Baudrillardian post-fashion phase, in which fashion exists for fashion’s sake and clothes are mere copies of copies of signifiers, communicating emptiness at worst and self-satisfaction at best. NERD ALERT: Military fashion was only military fashion when it became a signifier of something (hippie protest) opposite to military clothing’s intent (war). It became post-fashion when, after so many iterations of camouflage and cargo, the signifier became, if not entirely divorced, at least estranged from all former signifieds. We have gone through the same nullifying process with “punk chic,” for example. Or with “hippie vibes.”

When I see myself having written “impossibly cool”–or, to take that sort of mistake to the extreme, when I read the breathless, barely-English copy on popular fashion blog The Coveteur–I know something similar is happening to language.

On the same day I got an email from our dear Alex Molotkow, one she’d signed with roughly a million x’s to make fun of my fashion-girly habits and/or Twitter handle (which, when I signed up I didn’t think I would use the stupid thing okay???). I’ll have you know, ALEX, I am already exercising great restraint when it comes to kissing people over email. Like, I am now signing off with just one ‘x’ (unless we’re good friends or I’m apologizing for something or something). I feel so nice and austere, like the ’90s Calvin Klein of letters.

Once I’ve conquered the x’s, I’m going to get real with words. I need to stop saying everything is “the best” or “the worst” or “classic” or “incredible.” I know I don’t mean it; I’m distanced enough from my teens, age-wise and irony-wise, to appropriate teenage language with something like wit, but it’s a pretty low form thereof. And actually, I use more superlatives now than I did when I was 14 (and so do all my totally perfect best friends! SEE?). I need to grow up (again) (maybe). I need to stop saying “need.” Shit.

It’s not slang that bothers me, as it does so many oldsters, nor is it even all the LOLzy net-speak that threatens to make spelling the new cursive writing. It’s the inflation of language and devaluing of expression, and the considerable role of fashion in that. It’s the dread ubiquity, the absurd-making via thoughtless repetition, of truly essential irreplaceable words like “beautiful” and “glamour” and “perfect” and “love” and “need” and “hate” and “want.” Invented words, neologisms, portmanteaus: those aren’t the threat to language. Rather, they can protect language by giving new words to new ideas or whims, thus saving from bastardization and overuse the old and endangered and best (here I swear I do mean best) words. Some words cannot be permitted to become cliches of style, void of truth.

And of course it’s not style itself I have the problem with, either. I’ve argued with a few serious people who refuse to believe that Joan Didion’s style is her substance; or as Didion says it, better, “the arrangement is the meaning.” Caitlin Flanagan’s recent Didion essay (in which, among other missteps, she used the most nugatory fashion word, “chic”) dwelled on the latter’s Vogue training, on how that made her able to understand and describe women by their details. The descriptions of curtains, you know, and of jewellery. The lists of preserves. In Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s skillful, almost successful 1980 takedown of Didion, she panned those famous lists. “That juxtaposition of nihilism with all the ripeness and plenitude of the physical world–the emptiness/cornucopia syndrome–is what passes for style,” Harrison wrote. But Didion’s writing was never a cornucopia, especially when she was describing such. She did not embellish too much, did not indulge; she chose her details carefully. She told truths by omission. I worry that today’s fashion writers and fashionable writers alike, myself included, lie by overuse.

I’m by no stretch the first fashion writer to worry this much about fashion. There was the New Yorker’s Kennedy Fraser, for one, who was a sort of style-world Cassandra. In her 1976 essay “The Fashionable Mind,” she wrote this:

‘Fashion is well equipped to pass on to us how things look or seem, and is often good at making assessments peripheral to appearances, such as how much money they are worth, but it is not equipped to tell us what things really are. When the mind surrenders itself to fashion, the first casualty is objective judgment – which is, to all intents, the mind itself. …

‘The greatest disservice that fashion does is carelessly to turn life’s most precious and fragile assets into marketable products of transient worth. If a great, dark locust cloud of fashion settles upon our world, upon our dreams of quality, upon our humble individualities, we must fear that its passing will leave behind a ravaged field of empty gestures.’

I don’t think, yet, we’re condemned to live in a post-fashion world. Clothes can still say things if we mean them, by which I mean, if we think about what they’re saying, rather than merely reproducing bullshit sartorial idioms like “tribal” (my personal least favourite, ever) or “heritage.”  Maybe new meanings derived not from the onetime signifiers themselves, but from their arrangement. And so in language, if we can fight cliches and find new meaningful arrangements, if we can write about style–about fashion, about art, about living–with style of our own, we can justify the system a little longer.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is the Style Editor at Toronto Standard. Monitor her superlative usage at @xoxSNP.

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