Today is the final day of New York Fashion Week (NYFW), the seven-day period during which designers present their new collections — Spring/Summer 2017, this time around — to the press and well-heeled clients. (The event has been called Fashion Week since 1993; for half a century before then, it was known as Press Week.) With apparel on our minds, it seems like a good time to look at a curious fashion term that’s been all over fashion reporting this season – but, like much of fashion itself, turns out to be recycled.
The term is cold shoulder, and in its typical mid-price-point manifestation it looks like this:
Bailey 44 “Deneuve” Cold Shoulder Body-Con Dress, $138 at Nordstrom.
Fashion writers talk about it like this:
If you're obsessed with off-the-shoulder everything, but can't imagine wearing the trend post-summer, we've got some good news: On Saturday, It label Self-Portrait confirmed that the cold-shoulder aesthetic is here to stay, just with some epic new variations. – Refinery 29, September 11, 2016
(That short passage contains a grand slam of style jargon: obsessed, It label, cold shoulder, and epic.)
To be classified as a true cold-shoulder dress or top, the arms must be at least partially covered and the shoulders exposed. (No halter tops, in other words, and no off-the-shoulder peasant blouses.) Unlike a lot of fashionspeak, that makes a certain amount of sense.
But wait: Isn’t cold shoulder also an established idiom in the English language with an unattractive meaning – a show of disrespect or contempt, a snub? It is indeed. So how did this negative term become attached to objects of desire?
According to the OED, the earliest documented usage of cold shoulder is in Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 Antiquary. (Hello again, Sir Walter! We last met a couple of days ago over a basket of deplorables.) Scott’s entry was rendered in Scottish English: “The Countess’s dislike did no gang farther at first than just shewing o’ the cauld shouther.” Twenty-five years later, Charles Dickens used the idiom in The Old Curiosity Shop: “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.” The OED suggests that the inspiration for the expression was a “cold shoulder of mutton” – a meager dish to serve to company, presumably. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 3rd Edition (2004) goes into more detail:
“Cold shoulders” have been turned to so many passionate advances that this expression is usually thought to be connected with women spurning unacceptable. men. But it seems that the phrase has no romantic origins. In the early 19th century, when the phrase was first recorded by Sir Walter Scott, it was the custom of hostesses to serve hot meat to a welcome visitor and to bring out a cold shoulder of mutton to someone who had overstayed his welcome or wasn’t particularly welcome in the first place. That this is the source of cold shoulder can best be seen in the Victorian slang to give the cold shoulder of mutton, meaning the same thing.
The OED’s entry hasn’t been updated since 1891, so it doesn’t include the adjectival fashion sense. For that matter, neither does any other dictionary I consulted. If such an update existed, here is what it would say:
The first person to apply cold shoulder to fashion was the designer Donna Karan, who included a dress she called Cold Shoulder in her 1992 collection. In her 2015 memoir, My Journey, she recalls that she had “two thoughts in mind” when she created the style:
First, a woman never gains weight in her shoulders, so everyone is happy to bare them. Second, it would look conservative under a jacket by day and supersexy at night.
Hillary Clinton in the Donna Karan cold-shoulder dress she wore to her first official White House dinner as First Lady, in 1993. (Via Vogue.) New York Magazine called it “arguably the sexiest dress Hillary Clinton ever wore as a public figure.”
Karan sold her eponymous company in 2001 to the French conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton; in June 2015 she announced that she was stepping down as chief designer after 31 years in the position. (The previous year, she had told a reporter that relations with LVMH were strained: “Vuitton has given me the cold shoulder.”) The company suspended its main Donna Karan collection and did not hold a show at New York Fashion week in September of that year – or since. In July 2016, LVMH announced that it was selling Donna Karan International to G-III Apparel Group, an American manufacturing and licensing company that holds the licenses for Ivanka Trump’s fashion line, among others.
Despite Donna Karan’s absence, her influence nonetheless made itself felt in Spring 2016 styles such as this top from Wes Gordon.
It’s unclear what will happen to the top-of-the-line Donna Karan brand. Existing stock, including recent versions of the cold-shoulder look, is deeply discounted at retailers.
Donna Karan Cold Shoulder Date Night Top, marked down from $1,295 to $485.25 at Neiman Marcus.
Donna Karan Easy Cold Shoulder top in sequinned cashmere, marked down from $1,495 to $598 at DonnaKaran.com.
The “bridge” – that is, less-expensive – DKNY brand is now in the hands of creative directors Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow, who presented a show last week that Vogue charitably described as “dystopian.” There was plenty of exposed skin, but none of it was in the shoulder area.
Thanks to Jan Freeman for suggesting this topic!
For more on the lingo of fashion, see my 2010 Visual Thesaurus column “Decoding Fashionspeak.”