The Language of Fashion


Every industry has a lexicon, but how does the lexicon of the fashion industry effect those of us who are interested in style, clothes and their creation but who do not work in it? Obviously, there is a wealth of specific terms related to pattern creation, garment construction and the necessary technology that are common between the commercial and home-based forms of clothing production. But what about all the other terms that exist as a way of describing what we see/make? How much of a DIYers’ vocabulary has been directly affected by ‘the industry’?

Let me explain my personal angle. When I was small, my mother brought in extra cash as a dressmaker, her sewing machine seemingly permanently set up on the dining table (except for when it was put away so we could actually eat our dinner). Before that time she worked stints in a bridle wear company and at a big London-based costumier. Yet the tissue of her craft and labour was called material. By the age of 19, I had decided to follow a similar path and went to university to study Fashion Design. It wasn’t until I found myself in the studios of the Fashion Department, that I discovered material was also called fabric. In fact, the lecturers, tutors and technicians there seemed to have their own foreign tongue. Like infants learning to talk, through emersion, repetition and reinforcement  we students also began to adopt many of these words. Material became fabric. Photos became images. Magazines became sources (this was largely pre-internet).

Although the acquisition of this new language was largely subconscious, the times in which I was made consciously aware of my vague fluency, I felt proud. Proud I guess to be part of something (Fashion!) that at the age of 20 seemed so vital, energising and socially relevant (which, at its best, I still believe it can be).

As the university course wore on, I heard my tutors use other words and phrases too: ones that I wasn’t so inclined to pick up. An obvious example of what I mean is the singularisation of items commonly accepted as plural. When analysing high street trends for a group assignment, we were asked to uncover the most prevalent ‘trouser’ trend. For my very casual final collection, I received some (rare) praise for an innovative ‘jean’ design. In fact, in my subsequent post-university involvement in the fashion industry, I even heard speak of the latest look for ‘glass wear’, meaning spectacles. Where did this singularisation of plurals come from? I can’t tell you, but what I do know is that it didn’t sit well with me. It was a bridge too far, uncomfortably close to the fashion-speak satirised in ‘Absolutely Fabulous’, linked to well-worn fashion journalist phrases such as ‘must-have’ and something being ‘important this season’.

Such language felt pretentious, exclusive and snobby, often used by people too concerned with projecting the perception that they somehow understand fashion and are uniquely able to translate for the benefit of the rest of the population. Before my awareness of the environmental and social damage caused by the fashion industry, the essence of the aforementioned mentality was what I hated the most about the industry as I saw it: the apparent continual preoccupation of appearance without meaning.

My reaction was to make a strong personal distinction between the language I felt represents the more vacuous side of fashion, and the language I believed genuinely assisted the communication of descriptions and concepts. I even began to, and in fact probably still do, distrust the word ‘fashion’ itself, as it seemed to me too closely associated with the showy, faddy and self-promoting elements of the industry. Instead, where appropriate, I preferred to replace ‘fashion’ with ‘style’ and the ‘fashion industry’ became the ‘clothing industry’.  

It seems, post-Sex in the City, people are more clued in to such speak than ever before. Am I alone in my reaction towards it? Have I over-thought the situation or not allowed myself to grow out of an arguably juvenile take on it? I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Zoe Edwards   —  

Comments 21

Delly Bean

As a Canadian raised on American TV, trousers didn’t really enter my personal lexicon until I started costuming for an historic site (now I have to keep telling my staff to stop talking about their underwear and use the term “trousers” instead of “pants”). But as I read your commentary, I felt that it was grammatically correct to change them to singular in those senses. The one that gave me pause, however, was the “glass wear” as that just makes me think of glasses for beverages, especially if it were to be heard rather than read.


I’ve never sewn commercial patterns before I got into Fashion School and now that I’ve started, I find craft and commercial patterns quite difficult to understand as they often employ terms different than those I am used to!

So I guess it goes both ways :)


The must-have idea always makes me nuts, especially when it’s some absurdly expensive, extremely impractical “statement” item with a lifespan shorter than a fruit-fly’s. Like I’m going to drop a couple thousand on over-the-knee hooker boots. Right.


As this post is so concerned with language, it should be noted that you meant “bridal,” not “bridle” and you misspelled “immersion.”

I don’t have a problem with professionals using the specialized language of their field, especially with their peers.


But terms like “must-have” and “investment piece” are ridiculous. But those are fashion journo terms. I don’t consider them to be fashion industry professionals.


Thanks for your refreshing thoughts. As a sewing novice who really loves to design and sew those terms bug me! I feel like they’re used to make the rest of us feel “unworthy” or super uneducated about style and fashion, but if it’s really art and a form of expression then shouldn’t it be accessible to all who want to be part of it, even if it’s only to dabble and not to make a profit?


I see no pretention or snobbery in using these terms, they simply allow communication at a greater level than is generally required outside the industry. Every industry has it’s own terminology – take Medicine, where your knuckle is actually a metacarpophalangeal joint!
‘Materials’ is the collective word for all the components of a garment, and ‘fabric’ is just one of them. Using the word fabric is more specific, and it is important to be specific in business and international communication. If I am told to order the material for a dress, does that mean the fabric, interfacing, zips, buttons, etc? Or is it just the fabric? Whereas if I am told to order the fabric, it is clear what I need to do. A home sewer doesn’t need to be so specific about wording.
I think ‘trouser trend’ and ‘jean design’ is grammatically correct. You might have a collection of jeans, and be referring to a specific ‘jean’ in particular – hence the singular. A home sewer probably doesn’t use this context often because they don’t make collections of jeans.
‘Fashion’ has so many subtle meanings, and I struggle to use it too. I always introduced myself as a clothing designer, rather than a fashion designer which I always felt was a bit tacky and embarrassing! I tend to use ‘fashion’ in the context of high fashion, but it is used a lot for clothing in general, and even out-of-fashions!
I haven’t worked with any vacuous people – I think this is a myth cultivated by the media, TV programmes, hanger-ons and wannabes.
I must mention that in the industry no one is interested in making home sewers feel inferior, after all most of us were home sewers once! In fact most of us are impressed by the time and effort home sewers put into their creations, often without the resources we have access to.


I haven’t experienced (or at least I haven’t noticed) this firsthand, but I think I understand and sympathize with what Zoe’s saying. Of course, every specialized field has its own language, and learning that language is part of the joy of learning the field.

It’s such a fine line, really, but I do think it happens that specialized language to facilitate communication can become deliberately exclusive. Not exactly in the sense of industry setting itself apart from home sewers, just in the way that Zoe described — “trouser” isn’t any more specific or useful than “trousers,” and it can get frustrating when people say that just because it’s what’s cool.

Hope this makes some sense… thanks for the intriguing post.


Thank you that is what I was basically trying to say. It’s when people say things a certain way to sound a certain way that gets under my skin.


Wow Zoe, reading this post was like reading a page out of my own life…
I just had to comment and say that it’s refreshing to find someone else who thinks about the industry the same way I do.


I think you are very great. Your fashion view I agree. In fact have everyone has their own fashion view, but in different position


Although I agree that every industry has its own jargon I would argue that this language is not solely evolved to increase efficiency. Obviously efficiency and accuracy are huge motivators in the evolution of an industrial lexicon but the projection of status is arguably equally important. It would be difficult to seperate those two hugely powerful factors in the success or failure of specific terms in the vocabulary of a trade.

I think that the original post makes a distinction between these two uses of language, and she criticises the latter. This makes sense coming from a home sewing activist who has a vested interest in democratising garment making and making the process transparent in order to undermine the vast power of the industry. The battle for authenticty is very important and firmly tied up with language. Until home sewers can learn to see their own garments as being equal to those tinged with the shiny magical aura of ‘the fashion industry’ then the industry will always have the upper hand.

As far as i’m aware ‘jean design’ is no more grammatically correct than ‘jeans design’ so I’d like to see some evidence for that assumption!

Also, I find it hard to believe that there are no vacuous people in the fashion industry. C’mon, surely there’s a few? You’d have to be fairly shallow to be so blindly oblivious to the enormous social and environmental damage your industry does. Of course, we’re all guilty and no industry is blameless but when you know how your designs are going to get manufactured surely that’s a bit too close for comfort morally speaking?

Anyway, I offer this only in a spirit of lively debate. I’m sure i’ve got plenty of Uzbeki cotton and sweat shop t-shirts on my rail and my computer was made in china with precious metals on the circuit boards mined from the Congo at gunpoint in the middle of a civil war…and so it goes


Never having trained in the fashion industry (or even the home-sewing industry, for that matter) I wasn’t aware of most of these terminological differences, so it’s interesting to read! Technical terminology is useful when it is (more) precise, but if it’s not any more precise it’s not helpful and can quickly become elitist. At the same time, when you’re wrapped up in a profession, it’s easy to forget how the rest of the world perceives it.

The things that pisses me off most about fashion industry, however, has nothing to do with jargon. It’s trends. I’ve always been a thrifter and a bit eclectic in my style, and the idea that something that is gorgeous and flattering on me one year somehow becomes passe and ugly the next makes me see red. I understand getting bored and wanting a change from time to time (although I read somewhere that most people are quite set in their fashion ways by the age of 23 or so), but I feel it should be driven from within the individual, not because an industry tells you so.

So that’s my rant of the day. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Zoe!


There was recently a related post on Garance Dore’s blog making fun of the fashion magazine jargon — it appears that even the fashion industry “insiders” find the language in fashion magazines somewhat ridiculous:

Personally, I do not think that language used by the fashion industry professionals is meant to be snobby or pretentious. The terms used by the people who produce clothing and accessories are just a common nomenclature used to communicate with each other effectively (kind of like the field-specific terms used in medicine, finance, IT, etc.). I also doubt that the language used in fashion magazines is meant to alienate the readers by portraying “exclusivity” — on the contrary, I would guess it’s aim is to make the reader feel as part of a (fashionista!) club — all with the purpose of selling the “must-have trendiest trouser of the season”.


I think you have rather succinctly expressed what acadæmia does to our concept of important life skills. My memories of my 4-H days and entering my first sewing project at a local county Fair when I was nine years old, could have become tainted by professionals and their Fibers and Textiles criticism.
However, my love of learning and an eagerness to create my very own clothing helped me retain my Real roots. I still make lists of *Fabric* for my wish list and as I walk the aisles of a fabric store, I will always have the desire to unconsciously fondle folds of fabric.


Having been an historical costume major at college, rather than a fashion designer, allowed me to integrate the language much more easily. Because most of the words that sounds unusual, and even the single/plural reason don’t come from the English language they seem awkward to us. We call them a “pant” or “trouser” because that is how it is translated directly form French: “un pantalon”. Of course, I still say shirt instead of bodice, etc. in everyday situations, but sometimes it is fun to mess with retail customers and directors who won’t have a clue what you’re saying!
Also, I find a lot of the lexicon now to be made up by fashion writers that is latched onto by the public, so the fashion language remains evolving, but not always in an accurate way.


I know little about the fashion industry and the terms that are used, but can relate comletely to why these things don’t sit well for you. It’s odd how the use of certain words can make your skin prickle. There are several the crop up in magazines that make me want to put the magazine down and run away…most specifically the word ‘luxe’.


Very interesting article that sparked a lot of different point of views. I agree with Sherry that most of the examples you mentioned are industry jargon common in most industries and not snobbery.

Terms such as “must-have”, “it” and so on are, however, in my opinion marketing terms used to make something sound bigger and better than it is. Those could certainly be called snobbery as they make those that do not have the “it-bag” feel inadequate and left out and contribute to consumerism.

Additionally, there are often also terms that are only used within a company and only understood by those working there. This could be seen as snobbery, but might also contribute to a sense of belonging to a group.

Anna Boone

My mom always called it “material” too. My mom embroidered towels with people’s initials for extra cash. She taught me to sew when I was 4. I started out sewing with no thread on notebook paper. Thanks for making me think back. I have no idea when I started calling it “fabric”. I might have never used “material” and that word might be generational.

thelens world

Awesome One…!

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