What you’re about to read is a compendium of prose poems and short stories in the costume of dictionary entries, that employs fashion as device and motif. These particular excerpts centre around the figure of the designer and/or the artist, and the cult status that surrounds them.
Button: Originally merely decorative, buttons have, over time, become functional, mere means of opening and closing garments, akin to zips and other fasteners. As a result of which, buttons function like the edges of the body – the lips, the enclosure of the teeth, the rim of the anus, an opening, a mouth. The decline of the button as a sign of high ornament has made these sartorial trinkets appear from afar, as moth-eaten or charred holes. The surrealist fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, however, often made her buttons out of peanuts, padlocks, and typewriter keys. Her black hat in the form of an inverted high-heeled shoe worn with a cocktail suit with pocket edges appliquéd in the shape of lips, along with her buttons, which in her own words were ‘anything but buttons’ brought to the surface of the fabric a hidden carnival humour and as a result, often repressed the body and brought clothing to the fore as a kind of symbolic language. Seen from a psychoanalytic perspective, perhaps Schiaparelli saw the body as the ‘unconscious’ of clothing.
Cuffs and Collars: A fold or band serving as a trimming or finish for the bottom of a sleeve. Initially, like the collars of a shirt – ornamental collars in the mediaeval period in Europe were worn as a form of jewellery and prior to that in the 12th century served as neck-protecting armour – cuffs were detachable. Now, attached, they appear – much like collars – as beautiful remains. There is something beautifully masculine about large collars and cuffs. Egon Schiele used to vigorously wash his collars and cuffs every evening, and, when there was not enough water, used to make his cuffs and collars, himself, out of chart paper.
Emphasis: Christian Dior, in his Little Dictionary of Fashion maintains that ‘if you have a particularly outstanding feature it is always a good thing to emphasise it. In fact the whole of fashion rests largely on emphasis.’ Perhaps the whole purpose of fashion is to emphasise the body. The purpose of collars, Dior contends, is to provide a frame(work) for the face, and if you have beautiful hands – as I do – the cuffs of my sleeves often emphasise my hands, provided they are of the right length. Necklaces emphasise necks that are already beautiful and anklets give emphasis to beautiful feet. The slightly roundish spectacles I wear emphasise my aquiline face. This took me years to understand, for all the shops selling eyewear in the city I live in sold primarily rectangular-shaped glasses that naturally hid my face, or rather made my face appear too angular and hard, nearing a cubist painting.
Frock: Originally, a frock was a loose, long garment with wide, full sleeves. It often had a belt and was worn primarily by monks and priests. Hence, the origin of the term defrock or unfrock, meaning ‘to eject from the priesthood.’ Today, a frock may designate a woman’s or girl’s, or child’s dress or light overdress. In her diary, in the spring of 1925, Virginia Woolf wrote ‘people have any number of states of consciousness and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness’, which functions somewhat like an open secret and refers to those dresses (frocks) one wears to conceal and reveal oneself simultaneously at parties, parties one often visits begrudgingly.
Jama: During the Mogul reign in India, the coat or Jama most in vogue was a long tunic with an overlapping collar fastened by means of a binding on both sides, and gathered at the waist by a cloth belt or sash tied artistically into a knot, conferring to the garment the appearance of a full skirt with heavy falling lines. The Urdu poet, Mir Taqi Mir, was exceedingly fond of wearing pointed shoes and coats whose circumference measured fifty full yards, but with the decline of the Mogul empire, this sartorial extravagance began to be perceived as burlesque. In 1780, when Mir, forced by circumstances to leave Delhi, arrived in Lucknow in the already outmoded attire as described above, he made himself the laughingstock of the town. Fashion had moved towards the general trend of shortening dresses, signs of a declining empire.
Karl Lagerfeld: A Prussian fox who left the city situated at the banks of the Elbe for Paris, and became immediately a star. Although he loved modern art, he did not hang paintings on the wall; instead he surrounded himself with books and paper. Karl loved paper and reading was his truest joy. His protestant work ethic helped him shine in the fashion industry. He was known to have said that he is a fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm. In some ways, a futurist, he criticised his friend, colleague and rival, Yves St. Laurent for being so attached to the past and the use of memory in his collections – Yves St. Laurent was obsessed with Proust. Very few people remember what Lagerfeld looked like as a young man; it is as if he arrived in his prime in old age with his snow-white ponytail, and dark glasses that hid his sympathetic eyes. A teetotaller himself, he did, however, prefer the company of people who liked to get high and slowly destroy themselves. During his later years, he stuck to a strict diet and exercise regimen – drinking diet coke from morning to night, he only drank drinks that were served cold – allowing him to remain as light as a feather, much like the models he dressed-up – he often referred to himself as a coat-hanger. Although many a fancy-clad population surfaced for his funeral, Lagerfeld was known on many occasions to say that when it is done, it’s done, all over. This Prussian fox would have preferred the death of a wild animal, left to die in the heart of a forest.
Mannequin: Contrary to what is understood under this term, a mannequin is not a mere (wooden) doll upon which garments are hung, as if on a hanger. Mannequins are those bodies that by virtue of their splendour and animation breathe life into cloth. It was Charles Frederick Worth, the grand couturier, who replaced the wooden doll with a human model. Often, however, these human models conduct themselves as if they were mere wooden or plastic dolls, without life or intelligence.
Metamorphosis: Fashion’s seduction must rely on its powers to immediately transform, something we are already familiar with as children. The wolf – who is in fact a paedophile – disguises himself as Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother by virtue of his dress, and the story of Cinderella does not merely express the dreamscape of the persecuted. The fairy, by a mere stroke of a magic wand, changes Cinderella’s clothes immediately; what society considered to be a pestilence, a servant girl lying in the ashes is now all of a sudden by virtue of a flux in attire, adored. There is nothing as transformative as putting on, or for that matter removing, clothes. Elsa Schiaparelli knew she was unconventionally attractive and always felt the transformative magic of a dress, a dress that could change her from ugly duckling to swan. ‘Nobody knew how I would appear. Sometimes I lead fashion. At other times, wearing my ordinary clothes, I appeared like my own ugly sister.’
Scarf: A piece of fabric worn around the neck or head for warmth, sun protection, cleanliness, fashion, or religious reasons or used to show the support for a sports club or team. A scarf can be made in a variety of different materials such as wool, linen, silk, or cotton. On September 14, 1927, the dancer Isadora Duncan chokes to death in Nice, France, when the enormous silk scarf she is wearing gets tangled in the rear hubcaps of her open car. To this, adds the writer Gertrude Stein, ‘Affectations can be dangerous.’
Skirt: A piece of clothing that is largely worn by women and girls and that hangs down from the waist. Often its perimeter is so large that it results in rendering a clear demarcation between the person wearing the skirt and the world around her. In France, after the demise of Louis XIV, women began to ‘loosen’ up by wearing clothes with flowing lines. One such curious feature of that era was the return of hoops. Instead of putting emphasis on height, they had their skirts distended sideways, sometimes so much as fifteen feet, making it difficult for two women to enter a doorway side by side or share a seat on the same couch. The width of this skirt affected even architecture, such as the curved balusters of 18th century staircases in France. Although I have never worn anything that resembles a skirt, I have spent much of my life skirting around opportune moments, promises of happiness, and the perimeters of what lies at the heart of life.
Uniform: Distinctive clothing worn by members of the same organisation or body or by children attending certain schools. In Robert Walser’s novel about a mysterious boarding school, Jakob von Gunten, Jakob likes to wear uniforms because even though they make the students look alike and essentially bound, unfree, the uniforms themselves are beautiful and Jakob likes to slip inside them. At any rate, Jakob contends, it is far better than having no uniform and being compelled to wear shabby, torn clothes; Jakob also never really knows what to wear and wearing a uniform frees him of that burden. Hermann Broch, in his Die Schlafwandler contended that ‘A uniform provides its wearer with a definitive line of demarcation between his person and the world. Closed up in his hard casing, braced in with straps and belts, he begins to forget his own undergarments and the uncertainty of life.’
Vair: Fur, typically bluish-gray, obtained from a variety of squirrels, used in the 13th and 14th centuries as a trimming or lining for garments, but more importantly the material used to make the inner sole of Cinderella’s lost shoe, for were it really made of glass, her soft feet would have never been able to remember whether the shoe truly belonged to her.
Veil: When she was low and felt that the world was being inordinately unkind to her, she would look around for the emergence of new, fresh retail: shopping malls, minor arcana. Her husband, the late navab, had left her with as much money as few friends. Cloistered and sheltered in an ancestral home ridden with portraits of her ancestors, her friends would always try to guess what kind of family resemblances there may be. The old begum sahiba, who grew up in the palace walls of a crumbling empire, was now safely settled in a luxurious but nonetheless civilian home in a posh part of town. For months, she had been listening to rumours of the construction of a new mall, one that was not only intended to be large but also well designed – suitable for young children in order to play – the latter of which the begum did not care about. Being childless, she filled and measured her life in shopping bags, whenever she felt lonely and sad, buying clothes ranging from Zara to Alaïa. Even though she was not particularly fond of sweets, she bought baklava, kaju katli, pain au chocolat for her neighbours, friends who never knew how to return these kindnesses. The Begum Sahiba indulged their appetites. She made it a point to invite to her house – something which developed in some respect to a kind of obsession – obese and by and large unhealthy people; she insisted to present them with lavish meals, as a sort of tease. The Begum Sahiba was not particularly attractive but she never failed to understand the transformative power of a dress, and had lately even indulged in plastic surgery: She enlarged her lips, lifted her cheekbones and got a successful nose job – what more could a mere face handle? She, however, was content with her small breasts and rear, both of which were always anyway covered by an abhaya. With the help of just the right eyeliner, lipstick and rouge, the perfect veil, she would stroll the avenues of the newly built mall barely recognised.
Zipper: A fastener that initially was camouflaged in clothing until Elsa Schiaparelli incorporated them on sportswear in 1930, and introduced exceedingly large ornate zippers into her collection of evening dresses in 1935. Although Schiaparelli could alter visual phenomena with much ease and grace – she believed in magic – and render radical transformations that nevertheless expressed themselves subtly – who else could have made a shoe sit on a head as comfortably and naturally as a hat – she still worked within a human frame(work), unlike many designers today. By introducing the conspicuous zipper, she understood that hidden things can, in fact, be removed from their hiding places, like a wound that has been stitched-up by a zipper, a mechanical scar that by virtue of a kind of surgery closes what was once open.
Gaurav Monga is a writer and teacher from New Delhi. His most recent book, Raju & Kishore, was published by Raphus Press in 2022. He is currently teaching a course called Fashion in Fiction at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Gandhinagar.