Fritinancy Fashion Week continues with the story of a venerable retailer, a mysterious ad, and a clever tagline/hashtag.
The September 2015 issue of American Vogue contains 832 pages, and on only two of those pages do we see women who aren’t whippet-thin. The women on those two pages are photographed in silhouette against a gray background, and although the spread appears to be an ad, no brand is identified – there’s only a date (9.14.15), an enigmatic hashtag (#PlusIsEqual) and web URL (plusisequal.com), and “It’s time for change. Be part of it.”
Trilby: A soft hat, traditionally made of felt, with a narrow brim and indented crown.
The trilby hat style takes its name from Trilby, the title and principal character of an 1894 novel by the British writer and caricaturist* George du Maurier (grandfather of Daphne du Maurier). In Du Maurier’s story, Trilby O’Ferrall is a half-Irish woman living la vie bohème in Paris; she’s transformed from artist’s model to opera diva through the hypnotic powers of a sinister mesmerist named Svengali. In one production of the play that was adapted from the novel, the actress playing Trilby wore a distinctive short-brimmed hat that became a fashionable menswear staple. Du Maurier may have borrowed the name “Trilby” from an 1822 novel, Trilby, ou le lutin d’Argail,by Charles Nodier, in which Trilby was a Scottish fairy; the ballet La Sylphide is based on the French story.
(Like trilby, “Svengali” also entered the lexicon: it’s “a person who exerts a sinister controlling influence,” usually over a woman. “The name has been absorbed into the language as irrevocably as ‘Simon Legree’ as a definition of cruelty, or ‘Scrooge’ of parsimony,” wrote Avis Berman in a 1993 article for Smithsonian Magazine. Trilby also contributed the phrase “in the altogether” as a euphemism for “naked.”)
From the back cover of the Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition of Trilby (2009):
Immensely popular for years, the novel led to a hit play, a series of popular films, Trilby products from hats to ice-cream, and streets in Florida named after characters in the book.
Kipe (also kype): To pilfer or steal; to swipe. North American slang (20th century).
Kipe is a word I associate with my childhood—it was a word used only by kids—but have heard only rarely since. Indeed, I’d have laid odds that the word was as dead as gadzooks or prithee. Then, just last week, I stumbled upon “The Revolution Will Probably Wear Mom Jeans,” by Eugenia A. Williamson, which was published this year in Issue No. 27 of The Baffler. The story is about the fashion trend called normcore, a subject in which I have more than a passing interest: I made normcorea word of the week in March 2014, and I am proud that that post is the first citation in the Wikipedia entry on normcore.
About halfway into the Baffler piece I saw this:
“…a retail label whose name kipes the year of the Bill of Rights’ signing…”
Whoa! Kipes right out there in the open, with no parenthetical definition or footnote, in a semi-scholarly essay! In 2015! I was transported back to John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles, which is where I learned to say kipe from friends who’d probably learned it from their larcenous older siblings. That was a long time ago. In fact, I can’t remember hearing any form of to kipe since, oh, 1975. And I don’t recall ever seeing it on page or screen until I read the Baffler story—whose author, it seems relevant to add, appears to be a youngish person.
Driven by equal parts nostalgia and etymological curiosity, I decided to investigate.
“There seems to be no leading candidate for Word (or Phrase) of the Year,” writes Allan Metcalf, executive director of the American Dialect Society, in the Lingua Franca blog. That lack, he maintains, “will make discussion and voting more lively” at the ADS’s annual meeting in Portland next month. No question that the discussion will be lively—it always is—but I beg to differ about “no leading candidate.” It may not be as controversial as the 2013 selection, because, or as social-media-friendly as 2012’s hashtag, but it’s still the clear front-runner.
My submissions to the ADS vote, to be held January 9:
This sense of titch* was new to me until very recently, when I encountered it in a brief New York Times Sunday Magazine story about Fatyo, a Japanese retailer that specializes in apparel that is—quoting directly now from the Fatyo website—“Metropolitan, tough. Real and daily, casual clothes. Identity always on the street. Representing Tokyo. FAT.” (Not phat: FAT.)
The Times story, in full:
Euphemism-averse sneakerheads might consider buying clothes from Tokyo-based Fatyo, a tell-it-like-it-is streetwear brand that sizes not with traditional words or numbers but with more descriptive terms: “titch” and “skinny” on the small end of the spectrum, “fat” and “jumbo” on the other. The website burbles: “Being Fat. Wanting to be FAT. Being more like you, to be FAT.” It might be a tough sell in Japan, where the obesity rate is an enviable 3.5 percent.
This illustration accompanied the story:
In English-speaking countries, when sizes aren’t expressed numerically they’re usually given as Extra-Small, Small, Medium, Large, and Extra-Large. J. Crew, the American retailer, caused a bit of a furor earlier this year when it introduced clothes with an XXXS label. (For more on this move, and on “vanity sizing” in general, read “Who’s Buying J. Crew’s New XXXS Clothes?” in the New Yorker; for a larger historical perspective, read Kathleen Fasanella on the history of women’s sizing.)
I’d read (and tweeted) about Fatyo’s unusual size categories in June, but back then only the “fat” and “jumbo” designations had made headlines and raised eyebrows. Now titch piqued my curiosity. Did it have a Japanese origin, like skosh (from sukoshi, meaning “little”), to which many Americans were introduced via Levi’s ads in the 1980s? (Levi’s even trademarkedthe phrase “with a skosh more room.”)
The original was Little Tich, a famous music hall performer whose real name was Harry Relph. He was born in 1867 with slightly webbed hands that had an extra finger on each. He stopped growing at age 10 and as an adult was only 4 ft 6 ins tall (about 1.4 m). As a child, he was nicknamed Tichborne because he was short and stoutly built, like Arthur Orton, the famous fraudulent claimant to the Tichborne inheritance.
Little Tich himself, via World Wide Words.
In case you’re not up on your Victorian legal scandals (I certainly wasn’t), the Tichborne casecentered on Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne baronetcy, who was presumed to have died in a shipwreck in 1854.
World Wide Words has this to say about the spelling of titch:
At some point — it’s hard to be sure when, though presumably long enough after Little Tich’s death in 1928 for the link to him to be broken — the spelling largely shifted to titch to match that of rhyming words like itch, pitch and stitch.
I still don’t know how titch made its way to Japan. A British or Australian copywriter? One of those quirky borrowings with a lost history? I await the wisdom of the Internet.
* I’d occasionally heard titch in the sense of “a small amount,” as in “I’ll have a titch more coffee.” This sense may be related to touch.