03 November 2009

Fashion, Clothing, Costume: What's the Difference?

This past weekend was Halloween. Is anybody surprised that it's my favorite holiday? The deeper, darker significance of the holiday aside, it's a time when everybody is encouraged to wear clothes they normally wouldn't. In many cases, costumes are clothes that, at any other time, would be socially unacceptable. Leaving the legions of 'sexy' or 'slutty' women's costumes aside, what other time of year could you walk into a grocery store covered in blood, wearing a full-face mask, and not have the clerk bat an eye?

As a result, I've been thinking a lot about costumes, and what makes them different from normal clothes. Costume is obviously different, right? We use the terms 'clothes' and 'fashion' pretty much interchangeably in many circumstances, though. What the difference there? Is there one?

While I was doing my degree, a professor defined fashion very narrowly: it was the product of established designers, preferably French. Nothing less rarefied or expensive counted as 'fashion.' This definition always struck me as a little elitist, exceptionally Francophilic, and far too labelwhorey. What about subcultures? What about the great majority of consumers who can't afford the haute couture - are they exiled from fashion culture entirely?

With all these questions in my mind, I fetched out my dictionary, looking for some insight, or perhaps a good workout: it's the 1970 second-edition Webster's New Twentieth Century, and a good five inches thick at the spine. Let's see what it has to say (I'm leaving out definitions unrelated to dress, if only because that's a lot of typing).

Clothes: covering for the human body: articles, usually of cloth, designed to cover, protect, or adorn the body; dress; vestments; vesture.

Fashion: the prevailing mode or customary style in dress, speech, conduct, or other things subject to change; especially, the mode or style favored by the dominant circles of society.

e: 1. a style of dress; dress in general, including accessories, style of the hair, etc. 2. the style of dress typical of a certain country, period, people, etc., often worn at masquerade or in a play. 3. a complete set of outer clothes considered as a unit and worn for a particular purpose; as, a riding costume.

: (vt) to put clothes on, clothe: to provide with clothing.

Dress: (n) 1. that which is used as the covering or ornament of the body; clothes; garments; clothing; apparel; as, she gives all her thought to dress. 2. the usual outer garment worn by women and girls, consisting of a skirt and waist, generally in one garment. 3. formal clothes; as, full dress.

So, on the most basic level, the terms dress, clothing and (to my surprise) costume are interchangeable. Each one refers to covering or ornaments for the body. There are shades of meaning, as with any set of closely-related similes (which is why, much as I love my giant Roget's, it can be a dangerous tool in an incautious writer's hands). For our purposes, moving forward, let's use the terms thusly:

Dress is the overarching term, incorporating all others. Essentially, it just means "things worn," and that could apply to anything from an evening gown to body paint. Under certain circumstances, it might even be applicable to full nudity.

Clothing is what people in most modern societies wear: pants and shirts, dresses (definition 2), jumpsuits, jackets, socks, etc. This may or may not change according to the cycles of fashion (see below): it incorporates the very trendy as well as items, such as L.L. Bean's eponymous boots, that have not changed in design in a very long time and remain the same regardless of fashionable impulses.

For Costume, I'm going to stick with the second definition for the most part: a codified system of dress, encompassing little to no variation, of a certain group (ethnic, religious, literary, social, historical), worn for certain functions such as a masquerade (a sadly mostly-defunct term: Americans usually say 'costume party' while Brits say 'fancy dress') or a play. Sort of related to this are uniforms, which are a codified, dictated system of dress for a specific duty, activity, or group. However, the definition of costume gets problematic when we look at it too closely. Are the members of style subcultures such as Goth wearing costume or fashion? What about historic dress: where is the line between historic fashion and historic costume? We'll pry further into this in the future.

Fashion is the only distinct phrase: it implies ephemerality, a constant shift in what is covered by the word. In a way, my prof was right - or at least she was for earlier eras. Fashion's not a cohesive, top-down system any more, dictated to the plebes by the exalted few, trickling from the ateliers of the great designers to the ready-to-wear houses to the mass-market wares (wears?) available in department stores. There's some of that, sure, but also a whole lot of movement in the other direction and even sideways. The fashion system has become fragmentary and downright weird: tune in next time for a more in-depth discussion!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated to reduce spam, so don't worry if they don't show up right away!