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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

fashion statement

(1980’s | journalese | “statement”)

A bit of a cheat by my avowed chronological limits, but only a bit, “fashion statement” arose in the 1970’s and became available for use outside the industry in the 1980’s. Google Books shows effectively no instances before 1970, when it started to creep into fashion journalism. By 1985 it could turn up anywhere in the entertainment press, from sports to theater reviews, and even in political reporting. “Fashion model” and “fashion sense” are much older, “fashion plate” is older still; any of them might have provided a model for the new coinage. “Fashion police” and “fashionista” came along later.

The phrase can mean a lot of things. As of 2015, it applies loosely to any wearing of clothes or accessories to get any sort of attention. Like a muumuu, the vagueness conceals many meanings. Let’s try a few on:

-announcement of new line or even trend, normally at a major show, but only by means of the clothes themselves (a designer’s description of her new line at a press conference would not be considered a fashion statement)

-declaration of allegiance to a particular designer or trend.

In these two cases, the statement is delivered by the clothes themselves, and it centers on a designer or trend. But fashion statements may say more about the person making them:

-using clothes and accessories to show that you are independent of the current mode, or have an interesting variation on it

or, more broadly,

-any expression of one’s character, preferences, passions, etc., etc. through the medium of apparel. I’m not sure if wearing an Aeropostale shirt counts as a fashion statement. More loosely still, the phrase means

-doing or wearing something because it’s chic

-drawing attention to oneself by means of what one is wearing.

But references to the world beyond the runway are possible, too. Fashion statements may take aim at a social or political issue (as in students wearing Confederate flag t-shirts, or showing solidarity with gay peers by wearing denim.)

It doesn’t even have to be wearables: I came across an article in the Oberlin Review (April 3, 2015) about “decorative beards,” which are adorned with flowers, miniature Christmas lights, and who knows what. More than one student used “fashion statement” to talk about the new phenomenon. True, the donning of a three-dimensional object is still required to trigger use of the expression, but one wonders how long before beards or tattoos become potent fashion statements in themselves.

What you really have to watch with this expression is who (or what) makes the statement. It may be a designer, stunning this year’s audience with sheer audacity. It may be you or I, or it may just be the clothes. Who you are and what you wear may blend seamlessly, with your garments reflecting, nay, expounding your inner self through your carefully chosen wardrobe. Or you make your wardrobe as discordant or opinionated as possible in order to provoke reactions from bystanders. The gregarious looseness of this expression — abetted by the word “statement,” more general than declaration, announcement, or testimony — lets it cover such a broad range.

Fashion is often derided as superficial and trivial, but fashion statements, even light-hearted ones, are rarely dismissed out of hand. They are influential, or at least have the potential to be, and the power of a designer to inspire imitation through bold novelties remains considerable. Frankly, I would have expected the phrase to have taken on a negative cast over time, like hipster or comfort zone. No such derogatory usage has ever become the norm.

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