I Apologize for Inventing the Word 'Fashionista' 20 Years Ago

In 1993, an unsuspecting Gia Carangi biographer made up a word to collectively refer to the many tiny factions within the 1970s fashion industry. Today, it's everywhere.
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Pocket Books; Flickr user Royalty.Girl

Twenty years ago, I apparently changed language forever. I published a book that unleashed upon an unsuspecting public a single word of terrifying power and controversy. That word is "fashionista."

I suppose I should apologize to all users of language for my crime against nomenclature. I could also apologize to my wife, a writer and my editor, who lobbied loudly against the word when I invented it—and later came to believe that if we had only copyrighted it, we'd be fabulously wealthy by now. (An English major, she also did a spit-take when we learned my little word was being added to the Oxford English Dictionary.)

The love/hate people have for fashionista was best captured by well-known linguista author Ben Yagoda, who called me "Stephen Frankenstein" for creating it and the "storm it of -istas that has followed."

It is, I must admit, weird to have invented a word. And I'm still amazed at how it happened.

Fashionista first appeared on page 100 of my 1993 book Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia. I created it because as I was writing about the fashion industry—and young model Gia Carangi's immersion in it—there was no simple way to refer to all the people at a sitting for a magazine photo or print ad. I got tired of listing photographers, fashion editors, art directors, hairstylists, makeup artists, all their assistants, and models as the small army of people who descended on the scene. This was also the group that, according to one top fashion illustrator I interviewed, had collectively become "the famous non-famous people" at Studio 54.

Since I was re-reading a lot of the newspapers and magazines from the period of Gia's supernova career in the late '70s and early '80s, and remembering a lot of coverage of Sandanistas (and a lot of "–ista" jokes among my mag writer friends), I just decided to try it.

The word only appeared four times in the book, and it did not immediately catch on. In fact, the first mention of it, in a May 2, 1993 review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, was a cranky one: The author, Carol Kramer, a magazine fashion editor herself, dissed my "vivid (if slightly unfair) indictment of what Mr. Fried ... who tends toward hyperbole, calls the beauty-industrial complex."

And then she bitch-slapped me for "fashionista," saying "he makes up corny labels, too."

I never gave the word another thought, frankly, until it started showing up in the fall 1995 coverage of the European couture shows, both in the London Evening Standard and the Washington Post. A Lexis/Nexis search showed it was actually used three times in 1994, 26 times in 1995, 54 times in 1996 and 74 times in 1997.

The use of fashionista dramatically expanded in 1998, as did interest in my book, when HBO made a movie about Gia's life, starring the young (and extremely naked) Angelina Jolie. The word was used more than 200 times in U.S. newspapers that year.

And then, in 1999, came the announcement that fashionista was going to be included in the OED. This led to a full-on attack of and by the fashionistas, and a big piece on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Styles section about the rise of the word, and the many meanings it had taken on over the years. The writer, Penelope Green, went around to many top fashion people and asked them what fashionista meant, and if they were fashionistas.

Donatella Versace was quoted as saying "I am a fashionista and proud of it." Fashion editor legend Polly Mellen said the word meant nothing to her but wondered if it connoted a "fashion victim?" Tiffany Dubin, then head of the fashion department at Sotheby's, said, "Oh, I aspire to be a fashionista, to be hip, fun, ever-knowing. I don't think fashionistas are victims."

Twenty years later, the OED defines it as "a person employed in the creation or promotion of high fashion, such as a designer, photographer, model, fashion writer, etc. Also: a devotee of the fashion industry; a wearer of high-fashion clothing."

Columnist Michael Musto said he used the word all the time even though he was "not really sure what I mean by it ... it's one of those wonderful words like 'tofu' that could mean anything you want depending on the inflection."

I have been fascinated by all the different meanings the word has taken on, many of them pretty arch. I never meant the word as an insult. I think it's fair that the word has grown to refer to people in the so-called "fashion mafia." But I never really thought it was right for the word to be used to accuse people of being "fashion victims." Honestly, part of the research and writing of Thing of Beauty involved a writer for national magazines (at the time I was working for GQ and Vanity Fair) crossing the divide between the word people on the editorial staff, to the visual people on the art direction and beauty side, and taking their world seriously as a subject for investigative and personal reporting.

As a result, some of my best friends are fashionistas (at least by my original definition.)

Twenty years later, the word is everywhere—most recently and annoyingly in a bombardment of T.J. Maxx commercials. It sits happily in its place it the OED, which defines it as "a person employed in the creation or promotion of high fashion, such as a designer, photographer, model, fashion writer, etc. Also: a devotee of the fashion industry; a wearer of high-fashion clothing."

Since the entry does include fashion writers, I guess that means I am technically a fashionista. Although, if you saw me sitting here in my unfashionable office wearing the same t-shirt and jeans for the second day in a row, I doubt that's the first word that would come to mind.

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Stephen Fried is an adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the author of five books, includingThing of Beauty and Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time

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