Material Visions

Material Visions

On the delight of fashion words

Jean Shrimpton in a cloud of fabric. Original photograph by Richard Avedon, dress by Pierre Cardin, 1970. B, Flickr

While sometimes I teem with opinions jostling to be exercised over the page, at other times I’m drawn into meditation, where my engagement with the happenings, and the actual materiality, of fashion loosens its grip. In these times, I ponder. I drift. And lately, these limitless flights have led me to savour the particular and peculiar sensuality of the words we accord to fashion.

Fashion has a lexicon unto itself, peopled with specific words that denote fabrics, garment styles or accoutrements. These words were often my first introduction to such fineries, as I am sure is common for many readers, especially readers who, like myself, were drawn to historical novels full of descriptions of period dress. Yet what a shock it sometimes was to encounter the real fabric, far from how I had imagined it! I was so disappointed to discover how rough tulle is, feeling it for the first time, and how far that scratchy, synthetic stuff was from Anne Shirley‘s dreamy imaginings (and mine) of grown-up dresses with “clouds of tulle”.

Crepe de chine always conjured visions of very elderly Victorian women in funereal black, whereas organdie was a constant imaginative stumbling-block: was it the same as organza? Whether the sentence contained “organdie” or “organza”, my mind would immediately conjure the idea of both, as I tried to picture what was being described. (I would invariably decide to just imagine it as silk and hastily move on.)

Frankly, my dear, I love your sleeves. Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind. Wikimedia Commons

And what person intrigued by fashion could fail to be seduced by Margaret Mitchell’s description of Scarlett O'Hara getting dressed for the barbeque at Twelve Oaks in Chapter Five of Gone With The Wind? She writes,

“_Since eight o’clock [Scarlett] had been trying on and rejecting dresses, and now she stood dejected and irritable in lace pantalets, linen corset cover and three billowing lace and linen petticoats. Discarded garments lay about her on the floor, the bed, the chairs, in bright heaps of colour and straying ribbons. The rose organdie with long pink sash was becoming, but she had worn it last summer when Melanie visited Twelve Oaks and she’d be sure to remember it. And might be catty enough to mention it.

The black bombazine, with its puffed sleeves and princess lace collar, set off her white skin superbly, but it did make her look a trifle elderly … It would never do to appear sedate and elderly before Melanie’s sweet youthfulness … The green plaid taffeta, frothing with flounces and each flounce edged in green velvet ribbon, was most becoming, in fact her favourite dress, for it darkened her eyes to emerald. But there was unmistakeably a grease spot on the front of the basque. Of course, her brooch could be pinned over the spot, but perhaps Melanie had sharp eyes._”

Woven into the description of the dresses is Scarlett’s prior experience of having worn them as well as her anticipation of wearing them again (and in the face of her rival, Melanie). We can almost see them, scattered and colourful, and vibrant as Scarlett’s passionate youth.

Linen petticoats, black bombazine, a brooch at the basque: there is something mildly intoxicating about their cadence. In the reading, there is a brief connection between the sensuality of wearing and the sensuality of language, a delicate membrane between the two that is momentarily felt and then passed over.

And so I invite you to sink into reverie, to savour the following words like sweets lolled on the tongue. For me, they offer an invitation to dream. They can assume character, or a sensation - I wonder if it is the same for you?

Velvet, and its leggy teenaged sister velveteen. Silk, satin, sateen, bombazine. Tartan, practical, braced and standing tall. Muslin, cambric, taffeta, lace. Poplin. Brocade, suede, cashmere. Energetic, ready-for-anything nylon. Polyester. Lamé, lurex, voile. As my friend Diana once remarked, “the language of textiles is as orgiastic as the language of food”.

Evocative as fabrics are, consider also the satisfaction of contemplating the everyday words we have for clothing. How the word “buckle” immediately conjures not only the thing itself but also the object’s useful function. The restriction of the word “corset”, the first half of the word opening the mouth only to be drawn back against the teeth by the final, limiting “t”. The French finesse of the words “brassiere” and “lingerie”, compared to the cheekiness of “knickers”, the faded, small “undies”, and the prim-lipped “unmentionables”.

They have a poetry unto themselves, these words, their evocative possibilities often skimmed over in favour of their functionality - “what is this made of? Is it dry-clean only?” But how delightful to sink into the reverie their names invite, and to float away for a while on the romance of a word like “peau de soie”.

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