August 12, 2006

Madonna mia!


Justice was done in episode 5 of Project Runway: Michael won with a daring, self-assured, perfectly executed hot pants suit in pink, recreating a fierce Pam Grier, and Bradley flopped with a sad, uninspired tinfoil-y outfit that did not manage to capture any of Cher's ironic, over-the-top fashion sense. Heidi Klum paid homage to her Germanic roots in some kind of dirndl-meets-puss'n'boots outfit (see Blogging Project Runway for details) -- perhaps she played truth or dare recently, who knows.

Overall, not much to complain about, so let's just talk about the linguistic basics: The designers had to modernize the look of a "fashion icon" – and if "icon" makes you think of gilded representations of saints and madonnas, you're on the right track, though the challenge was not about that kind of madonna (Italian for "my lady").

The original meaning of fashion is "shape" (first documented in the year 1300). Something that was "out of fashion" was something that was out of shape, not well made, or to use a PR term, not well executed. The word comes from Old French (facon) and ultimately from the Latin verb facere (to make). That means that fashion and fact share the same root.

Over time, many uses of the noun fashion have gone, well, out of fashion, others have emerged. The current predominant use ("conventional usage in dress, mode of life, etc., esp. as observed in the upper circles of society") is first documented in Hamlet. A recent addition to English vocabular is fashionista ("a person employed in the creation or promotion of high fashion"), which is formed with a suffix from Spanish ("-ista"), modeled after words such as Sandinista (after the Nicaraguan leader). According to the OED it has been around since 1993. It will be interesting to observe whether or not this affix will become productive in English (I've come across the word "Blairista", a negatively connotated term for supporters of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair).

Icon comes from the Greek word for "image". It used to mean "image" quite literally (16th century), and has now taken on various more specialized meanings. Among other things, an "icon" can be a representation of a saint, a small visual representation of something on a computer screen (a recent invention), and, finally "a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect". According to the OED, the latter use can be traced back to around 1950 (the same time that "fashionista" was first used), but the fact that the OED only added the word to the dictionary in 2001 tells you that for a long time they were not sure whether or not the word would develop staying power. I just did a Google search for "fashion icon", and it came up with 339,000 hits. Looks like staying power to me.

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