July 4, 1999, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 9; Page 1; Column 1; Style Desk
LENGTH: 1250 words
HEADLINE: MIRROR, MIRROR; How Stylish People Don't Describe Themselves
BYLINE: By Penelope Green
The idea is that you're 200 years old and you can choose from 50 items within your lifetime," said Tiffany Dubin, the director of the fashion department at Sotheby's auction house, describing the premise for a book on style she is putting together with Ann E. Berman, a writer. "So what are you wearing?"
At a photo shoot for the book on Wednesday in the East 20's, Ms. Dubin had assembled so many stylish types to answer her question that the city must have experienced a kind of style vacuum in its other neighborhoods.
Samantha Boardman, a young woman with shiny hair and pink and white skin, combined a charcoal gray tube top and a pair of gray Prada acetate pants, an outfit she accessorized with her two adoring miniature Yorkshire terriers, Jemima and Ellise, as well as a black velvet and rhinestone choker and black Manolo Blahnik shoes with rhinestone buckles. "She's dressed for Studio," Ms. Dubin explained, meaning Studio 54.
Ms. Boardman had brought a suitcase full of delightful and artful items, like a hairy black Gucci bag, which was both Daliesque and cuddly, and knee-high leopard print boots with stiletto heels. "Dolce?" Ms. Dubin asked, stroking one.
As they were stuffing the dogs into one bag and the boots into another, Ms. Boardman and Ms. Dubin were asked to define the word "fashionista," now so embedded in the lexicon of fashion insiders that it is being weighed for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary.
"I'm definitely not one, though I wish I were," said Ms. Boardman, who nevertheless joins Serena Boardman, her sister, in Vogue's 100: The Best-Dressed List, a mini-magazine packaged with this month's Vogue. "I don't do it daily, meaning really dress, and I think to be a fashionista you have to. My sister will kill me for saying this, but I do think my sister is one."
Ms. Dubin said, "Oh, I aspire to be a fashionista, to be hip, fun, ever knowing. I don't think fashionistas are victims. I think they're the trend initiators, the ones who know the cool place on 14th Street to get the right T-shirt to mix with the Gucci pants. Hamish is definitely a fashionista," she offered, meaning Hamish Bowles, the famously dandified European editor of Vogue, who arrived that afternoon to be photographed in a cinnamon-color djellaba and Gucci tuxedo pants.
"Fashion junkie?" asked Hollister Lowe, the photographer for the shoot. "Isn't that what we're talking about?"
Milly de Cabrol, resplendent in a see-through painted chiffon Ossie Clark dress, said: "What is this word? I don't use it. I've never toiled in fashion." Ms. de Cabrol is a decorator. "I wore Prada 15 years ago," she added. "Also Ferretti. I knew Zandra Rhodes when I lived in London. Honestly, I'm not trying to be presumptuous, but obviously I have this visual. Maybe I am a fashionista. Who knows?"
Should the neologism make it into the O.E.D.'s next edition, to be published in 2010, or its on-line edition, which will appear next spring, the definition might read like this:
fash*ion*is *ta. n. A dedicated follower of fashion; in extreme cases, a fashion victim. Usage: informal. Etymology: fashion + ista (1993, North American).
Neologisms are like little postcards from the culture that spawned them, and so "fashionista" is keeping company in the files of O.E.D. editors with words like "meatspace," which is the opposite of cyberspace and refers to the real, flesh-and-blood world.
Of "fashionista," Eleanor Rand, an O.E.D. editor, said: "The word fills a linguistic gap created by the rise of haute couture as a highly visible industry over the past couple of decades." She spoke not in meatspace, but by E-mail. She continued: "Etymologically, the suffix '-ista' derives from Spanish and is cognate with the English suffix '-ist,' designating a devotee, adherent or practitioner of the noun to which it is affixed. The implication could be of religious devotion, in line with the increasing view of fashion and image (and shopping!) as a new world religion; alternatively, if the formation is influenced (as seems likely) by the names of Latin American political organizations -- Senderista, Sandinista, Peronista, etc. -- the word can be interpreted as marking out those involved with the fashion industry as a movement or army, united in their devotion to the cause of fashion."
Tracking the use of "fashionista" by database in magazines and newspapers, including this one, is like watching a tiny Internet company go public. There was a single citation in 1993, in a book review in The New York Times for "Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of the Supermodel Gia" by Stephen Fried, in which the reviewer quoted "fashionistas" from the book. It appeared three times in 1994 (in The Charleston Gazette, The Dallas Morning News and The Chicago Tribune) and 26 in 1995. The next year, there were 54 citations, 74 in 1997, a whopping 243 in 1998 and no fewer than 225 this year.
Here's a sampling: "Hail to the Fashionistas!" screamed a headline in The Evening Standard, a London newspaper, in an article about the 1997 American spring fashion collections, in which fashionistas were described as the "fashion mafia."
Last fall, In Style magazine quoted Donatella Versace saying: "I am a fashionista and proud of it. I adore fashion. I like to wear outrageous clothes, to make an entrance."
George Rush, the gossip columnist for The Daily News, flings the word around his pages like salt on french fries, using it for both models and fashion editors.
Stephen Saban, the night life columnist for the original Details, estimated that the magazine's readership was 50 percent fashionistas. "On the low side, they're the severely and absurdly dressed couture geeks, whose lives revolve around what's in and where they're seated at the Paris shows," he said. "On the high end, they're the kids who simply make magic out of odds and ends found around the house."
Michael Musto, the Village Voice columnist and E! contributor, said: "I use it, and I'm not really sure what I mean by it. I guess, though, it means someone for whom fashion is like the militia. It's that rigid and powerful, and they're a mere foot soldier. Or it's one of those wonderful words like 'tofu' that could mean anything you want depending on the inflection."
Mr. Fried, now the editor of Philadelphia magazine, said he coined the word for "Thing of Beauty," about the short life of a drug-addicted model and the fashion industry in the late 1970's and early 80's.
"I mean, I believe I invented it, but maybe I shouldn't presume," Mr. Fried said. "Anyway, my intention was to solve a problem in my book of how to describe the army of people that descend on the set of a professional fashion shoot." In the book, he distinguishes between the beautiful people and the beautifying people, those he calls the fashionistas. "I needed a word to describe Polly Mellen and Way Bandy and the models and all those random assistants," he said. Ms. Mellen is the legendary Vogue sittings editor, now the fashion director at Allure, and Mr. Bandy is the equally legendary makeup artist, who died in 01986. "Now, they use it to refer to themselves," he added.
Ms. Mellen, for one, said the word means nothing to her. "Fashion victim?" she hazarded.
None of the beautifying people on Ms. Dubin's set would admit to the title, either. "No one has actually come out as a fashionista, so I guess we're going to have to start outing people," Mr. Musto said.
Or maybe it's time for a coup.
copyright by Stephen Fried