This is a word for something you may see on a woman but you won’t likely see on a man.

It does sound like a not-well-known name for a common bit of connecting tissue, like philtrum or perineum, doesn’t it? But it’s not anatomical.

No, think hard about where you may have heard or seen this word. Perhaps in a growly-voiced narration from The New York Times’ Cathy Horyn overtop a video of the latest fashion shows from the runways of Milan, Paris, or New York. Peplums are a big thing these days. There’s even a little spat between Horyn and Oscar de la Renta that has some relation to whether he was the first to pair a peplum top with cigarette pants.

If peplum top with cigarette pants is a meaningless string of words for you, you’re in good company. Fashion is sort of like poetry: a collective hallucination that is all-consuming for those within it but makes about as much sense to those not in its psychedelic grip as the amazements of acid trippers or giggle fits of stoners do to those in more constitutive states of mind. I mean, yes, of course we pretty much all follow fashion to some extent; it’s inescapable (even the sartorially clueless and indifferent still wear clothes from something like their time and place). But the world of people who toss around words like peplum and gusset (not the bookbinding kind here) is to the daily-wear world rather like the world of bullfighting is to the world of farming.

High fashion is a form of modern art – it really is; it is a form of modern art that follows its own fascinations (as they all do) and delights in what some would call grotesquerie, and also to some extent in self-torture and especially the abuse of stick-thin young women (when people dress their dogs this way it ends up on humour blogs with captions like “Now we know why dogs turn on their owners,” but dogs don’t get lashings of champagne before hitting the spotlight), and it has its own detailed vocabulary and idiom that are Greek to most people.

This terminology arises out of its difference from other forms of modern art. Paintings, for instance, don’t all have a lot of little standardized bits because they don’t all have to fit on human bodies one way or another. Also, when you make a painting you make a painting; when you design clothes you need to get people to make them for you, in quantity, and you need to talk about them to the people who will evaluate them and buy them and write about them for all the people who would like to buy them or wish they could afford them. Painting has terminology, to be sure, but fashion has a lot of terminology. Fashion has every bit as much in-group geekery of terminology as you’ll get among the most unfashionable metal-listening physics-loving RPG-playing nerds out there. But this is terminology that somehow you the “normal” person manage to feel like you should have known (at least if you’re not an ordinary male). You don’t know what a peplum is? Next you’ll say you can’t tell mules from pumps!

So of course you know what a peplum is. You wouldn’t admit it if you didn’t. Everyone knows it’s that skirt-like bit that some tops have attached to them at the waist! (Or, as the OED puts it, “a short flared, gathered, or pleated strip of fabric attached at the waist of a woman’s jacket, dress, or blouse to create a hanging frill or flounce.”) It can be plump or limp, like an apple or a plum; it can add pep or amplitude. It can be as hierophantic as a phylactery or as puerile as pablum. It may resemble a pimple or a lamphsade. A top with a peplum is shaped rather like the sound of peplum, with two parts, connected at the top, attached in the middle, and then hanging soft. The peplum is, in its way, a modern answer to bustles and hoop skirts – much reduced.

Only the peplum is not modern, really. I mean, yes, peplum tops with cigarette pants are – next year they’ll be “so last year,” so that’s modern – but what we now call peplums have been around since Victorian times at least. And the original peplum is what the Greeks called πέπλος peplos (peplum being a Latinized version of the word), a long garment that was foot-length and folded over at the shoulder so that a second layer hung to the hips, with a belt at the waist – well, see the Met Museum on the subject.

But beware! If you want clothing names that are Greek to you, presented with diva-like pronouncements about what is and isn’t what, the Met gives you these gems: “a garment is not a peplos unless it has been draped with an apoptygma”; “Of all the identifying characteristics of a peplos, the fastening of its shoulders with fibulae is its single defining detail.” Well, zing! Darling, where are your fibulae? You call that an apoptygma? Please. Suddenly peplum tops with cigarette pants worn by anorexic over-made-up champagne-addled 15-year-olds don’t seem so daunting, now, do they?

Thanks to my mom for suggesting I do this word.

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