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Fashion-mania: a linguistic tribute to Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood

Dame Vivienne Westwood. It’s a name to conjure with. If you know nothing about her, you might be forgiven for thinking that she’s a character in a period drama, or a Jane Austen heroine. Indeed, like so many of Austen’s women, Dame Vivienne is a breaker of social conventions. But while Elizabeth Bennet’s idea of scandal was to get mud on her hem and appear in public with frizzy hair, Westwood’s approach to revolution has been a little more drastic – she is the grand dame of British fashion, and to celebrate her 72nd birthday, I want to take a look at what makes her both so unconventional and a bona fide National Treasure.

Amidst the economic depression of the mid 1970s, Westwood helped to shape the aesthetic of the punk movement, with fashion drawn from counterculture and subculture. From the teddy-boy revival, through to her iconic sadomasochism-inspired collections, Westwood didn’t just push the boundaries; she uprooted them and set them down again in places fashion had never been before.

The London store variously known as “Let it Rock”, “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die”,“Seditionaries”, and simply “SEX”, run by Westwood and her partner Malcolm McLaren, was a showcase for their radical fashion and became a focal point for the London punk scene. Now known as World’s End, it continues to stock Westwood fashions, with a style which has evolved to include homages to, and parodies of, the historic clothing of the British upper classes. Velvets and wools, tweeds and satins, became staples of Westwood’s collections. Westwood has also championed a number of environmental causes during the course of her career, and she’s never afraid to speak her mind, with Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge having been recent targets of her fashion criticism.

But enough of this. This is the OxfordWords blog and you don’t read it  for the latest in couture, you read it for the words. So, as a tribute from a fashion fan who loves language, here’s a discussion of four words that, for me, define Westwood.

Asymmetry

One of the key features of many of Westwood’s collections is the way in which she experiments with the paradox of cleanly tailored but asymmetrical lines, with hemlines that brush the knee of one leg and the calf of the other, for example. Symmetry comes from the Greek symmetria, a word formed of the prefix syn- (“together, alike”) and metron (“measure”). To have symmetry is to have equal measures, and usually refers to a correspondence of two sides of a thing.

In the Western artistic tradition, symmetry speaks of order, balance, and beauty. A symmetrical face, in which the left and right sides are very similar, is traditionally considered more beautiful than an asymmetrical one. The addition of that little prefix, a-, expressing lack, turns beautiful symmetry into disturbing asymmetry.

And yet, modern developments in Western art and architecture have become more and more comfortable with asymmetry, just as our conception of beauty has come to encompass the asymmetrical faces of certain supermodels. The French even have a word that covers this kind of beauty: jolie-laide (or joli-laid if the subject is male), a compound of jolie (“beautiful”) and laide (“ugly”). Jolie-laide has been used in English since at least the 1890s: think Javier Bardem or Charlotte Gainsbourg for an idea of its meaning.

Asymmetrical also has plenty of excellent synonyms. You might choose askew or awry, for example, both of which are formed with the prefix a-, meaning “on” or “towards”. Skew can be an adjective, noun, or verb, referring to things which are crooked or at an angle, and is related to the verb eschew, meaning to avoid. It also forms the first half of another synonym option, skew-whiff.

Wry originally meant bent to the side, distorted, and came to refer to a twisted facial expression and to anything perverse or aberrant. So a wry smile is one that is not “straight” in a number of senses: it may be crooked, the kind of smile that indicates mockery or sarcasm.

If you want to move a bit further on in the alphabet for your asymmetrical synonyms, you could always go for lopsided, from the verb lop, meaning to hang limply or to droopOr you could use my favourite, wonky, which is a word of “fanciful formation” according to Oxford Dictionaries Online.

Punk

It feels like such a modern word, but punk had a long history well before Westwood and her circle brought it to prominence in the 1970s. Its etymology is uncertain, but it first appears in the 1500s as a word for a prostitute, and later develops into a term for a young man kept as a sexual partner by an older one. From this came the U.S. use of punk to refer to a homosexual man, first attested in the 1930s, according to the OED‘s current findings. A non-sexual sense of the word made its appearance in the very early 1900s, meaning a contemptible or despicable person, and later expanded its meaning to include amateurs, inexperienced people, cowards, and weaklings.

When you think of punk rock, cowards are probably pretty far from your mind. Punk, with its deliberately offensive lyrics incorporating loud and raucous obscenities, is hardly the music of weaklings. The term instead draws on the countercultural, sexually-charged elements of the word, , and on the deliberate adoption of an anti-social persona.

There are also elements of the inexperienced in punk, which is a deliberately unpolished style of music. Punks actively chose to be seen as despicable, incorporating animal collars and toilet chains into their look, and choosing stage names like Steve Ignorant, Billy Childish, and Johnny Rotten. Rotten was the lead singer of influential punk bank the Sex Pistols, who were managed by Malcolm McLaren and dressed by Westwood.

Seditionaries

Seditionaries are revolutionaries, making the word an appropriate name for Westwood and McLaren’s London boutique. The word sedition is formed from the Latin prefix sed- (“apart”) and itio (“going”). It refers to rebellion, or incitement to rebellion, against established authority. The same prefix, in a variant form se-, is found on words such as segregation, separation, seclusion, and sequestration, all words emphasising apartness.

This sets seditionary apart (pardon the pun) from its synonyms, rebel and revolutionary. A rebel is one who fights back, from the Latin prefix re- and bellare, to fight or make war, while a revolutionary turns things around, from Latin revolvere. Anarchists, meanwhile, were often closely allied with the punk movement, and are named from the Greek, an- and archos, meaning “no leader” or “no head”, reflecting their refusal to recognize authority. And if a seditionary goes apart, a dissident sits apart, from Latin dis- and sedere. Their close cousin the zealot is derived from a Greek word which is also the root of jealous and indicates strong emotion. And to return to the beginnings of things, a radical is one who aims for social change from the very roots, from Latin radix, “root”.

Mania

This is the word that really sums up all the others. Westwood’s Anglomania collection, in fact a combination of English and French design ideas, has been keeping women looking awesome for years. The word Anglomania, used from the 1700s onwards to denote enthusiasm for English things, is also a French/English combo, having its roots in the French word anglomanie.

It’s far from the only –mania word in English, of course; in fact, the OED has over 150 words formed with the second element –mania. Punks were often accused of such things as dipsomania (drunkenness) or demonomania (possession by devils). A seditionary might be characterised by eleutheromania (zeal for freedom), and should be careful not to succumb to megalomania (uncontrolled lust for power). Westwood’s bondage-inspired early fashions, meanwhile, exhibited a certain amount of flagellomania (enthusiasm for whips), while her later historically-inspired clothes demonstrate retromania (love of past styles). And, unfortunately, everything she makes fills me with almost uncontrollable oniomania (the compulsive urge to buy). Just please, don’t tell my bank manager.

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