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How to Make a Fashion Statement in a World of 'Voguespeak,' Muffin Tops

AP: I'm Adam Phillips for Wordmaster, sitting in for Roseanne Skirble and Avi Arditti. Today, we take a look at some of the specialized words found in the world of fashion.

(MUSIC: "I'm Too Sexy for My Shirt"/Right Said Fred)

AP: New York City enjoys pride of place as one of the world's top fashion centers. That's where you'll find Valerie Steele, who directs the Museum of the Fashion institute of Technology, or FIT ["F-I-T"], where many of tomorrow's fashion designers, marketing executives and others train for careers in the six-hundred-eighty-billion-dollar-a-year fashion industry.

VALERIE STEELE: "The fashion world is the industry for me. It's definitely its own world. It has its own discourse. You could call it voguespeak, I guess. Vogue being, of course, the number one fashion magazine internationally.

AP: Indeed, Vogue is the premier go-to place for both industry professionals and the public to see a designer's line, a word that FIT assistant curator Fred Dennis says means about the same thing as a designer's collection:

FRED DENNIS: "A collection is what a designer will produce [in] any given season. It can be anywhere from twenty-five to a hundred pieces depending on the designer. Pieces are looks. A look is a total head-to-toe ensemble. So you can start with a hat perhaps, a top, shoes."

AP: "Ensemble" is one of dozens of French words used every day in the world of haute couture, a phrase that translates literally as high culture but which also connotes the glamorous, expensive side of fashion -- or, as they say, la mode. Again, Valerie Steele.

VALERIE STEELE: "So you talk about decolletage [day-coe-la-TAHGE] for example, which is the noun referring to a neckline of say a dress, usually a low neckline, as in a plunging decolletage."

AP: The fashion world sometimes pokes fun at itself with terms like fashionista, meaning an almost obsessively knowledgeable expert on what's hot -- meaning in, or in fashion - and what's not. FIT's Tamsen Schwartzman contrasts fashionista with fashion victim.

TAMSEN SCHWARTZSMAN: "One who falls prey to the latest trends and fads. They'll go out and buy something that lasts as a fad for only a couple of months. Fashion victims can also be the people who are cutting edge -- bringing some trend into the market."

AP: "So I presume that the fashion industry likes these kind of 'victims.'"

TAMSEN SCHWARTZSMAN: "Of course! They shop. They promote things that other people then catch on to, and buy."

AP: Indeed, the business of fashion is all about desire, and so many fashion words convey judgments about what is attractive -- and what isn't. Many terms of fashion praise, such as dope, sharp and phat (it's spelled P-H-A-T) are borrowed from popular music and the hip-hop scene.

And, according to Emily Berry at Parsons The New School for Design, another New York fashion school, just what will be considered phat in two seasons can be seen right now on what insiders call the catwalk.

EMILY BERRY: "Which is a colloquial word for 'runway.' It's usually a stage from where models will walk down to display the fashions of the line and they walk in a very straight line much like a cat would, one foot in front of the other. And the term catwalk was also made popular by the song: 'I'm too sexy, on the catwalk, on the catwalk, yeah.'"


AP: All the young women in Emily's class know that song, just as all agree with classmate Stella Kim, who says that some clothes, such as the mom pant, can never be sexy.

STELLA KIM: "And it refers any pant that seems excessively high on the waist and in the back, which tends to accentuate the gluteus maximus [buttocks] and also the front, also known as the mom pooch [the stomach area]."

AP: "So it's not necessarily a complimentary term."

STELLA KIM: "Not necessarily, no."

AP: Nor, adds Emily Berry, is the term muffin top.

EMILY BERRY: "It's when you have a lot of women who are wearing pants or skirts that are too tight for them, so all of the fat that would normally reside in their pants has bubbled over the top. The love handles just sort of explode above the hip line."

AP: Many fashion phrases can be either positive or negative, depending on the context. Fashion Institute of Technology curator Molly Sorkin cites the phrase over the top as another example.

MOLLY SORKIN: "'Over the top' is used to mean that something is just kind of beyond and too much. And it can refer to excess in good ways and bad ways. So you can have some amazing couture dress that is over the top, or somebody can be over the top because it's a little crazy."

AP: It all depends on the zeitgeist, adds Sorkin.

MOLLY SORKIN: "It's kind of what is in the air and what is now, and what is happening. That's kind of tricky because once something is now, it's also kind of over."

AP: For many, the fleeting nature of fashion trends may be part of their charm. Today, pink handbags, for example, might be chic -- the word means fashionable -- but tomorrow, they'll be so yesterday.

However, one thing does remain constant: as long as people wear clothes and want to be admired for them, there will be fashion, and people will talk. For Wordmaster, I'm Adam Phillips reporting from New York.