Dictionaries and dress


A current project by fashion researcher Femke de Vries has identified some interesting limitations to dictionary definitions of garments, in her native Dutch language. De Vries’ Dictionary Dressings identifies dictionary definitions of garments that are open to misinterpretation. The Dutch dictionary, Van Dale, defines a bra (in English translation) as:

“Support for the bosom.”

This definition succeeds in identifying the function of a bra, but fails to mention that the bra is a garment. It refers only to function, and not to shape, style or construction. It is therefore a definition that could be equally applied to any number of other non-clothing objects that have the potential to “support… the bosom”. A mantlepiece, strategically placed hands, or perhaps serving tray held at a particular height, would serve equally well in this function and, according to the Dutch dictionary, could be defined as a ‘bra’. Other non-clothing objects such as body tape or the Kush breast pillow could equally fall within this definition.


The Kush breast pillow falls within the Dutch dictionary definition of ‘bra’.

The Oxford English Dictionary fares slightly better, by narrowing the definition to artefacts in the category of “undergarment”:

a woman’s undergarment for supporting the breasts.”

This definition succeeds in identifying the function of the bra, as well as a category of clothing. But although there is less room for misapplication here, the OED definition could apply to other undergarments, including corsets and bustiers.

The Dutch definition of ‘glove’ is equally vague:

“Covering for/of the hand.”

Yet again, this definition fails to identify the category of object. It might apply equally to a mitten, an extra-long sleeve, or even objects that don’t fall into the category of clothing, such as a bandage. De Vries observes that, by this definition, it would be possible to transform any object into a glove by merely placing the hand inside it, including, for example, a pocket.


Femke de Vries’ research notes that, according to Dutch definitions, any covering for the hand fulfils the criteria for being a ‘glove’. This allows fro the possibility that any other object may be transformed into a glove when a hand is placed inside it, including, for example, a pocket.

Once again, English dictionaries provide slightly more detail, but are still lacking. The OED’s definition of a ‘glove’ describes is as:

“A covering for the whole of the hand, usually one with a separate sheath for each finger.”

Dictionary.com acknowledges that the thumb also has its own sheath:

A covering for the hand made with a separate sheath for each finger and for the thumb.”


The Dutch definition of ‘glove’ would cover mittens, bandages and other sorts of fingerless hand coverings (left). The OED definition mentions separate ‘sheaths’ for the fingers, but fails to mention t he thumb. An artefact designed according to this definition might resemble the thumbless glove here (right).

The Dutch definition of trousers succeeds in identifying function, location and category, but not the features that distinguish the shape of trousers from other garments worn on the lower body. This definition could equally be used to describe a skirt, or indeed, as de Vries observes, and garment that is held in front of the lower body:

“A piece of clothing to cover lower body and legs.”

The OED definition is again more detailed:

“Any two-legged outer garment worn by both sexes, and extending from the waist usually to the ankles.”


The Dutch dictionary definitions are flawed, not only because they are brief, but also because they rely on words that are also ambiguous. In Dutch, the same word, ‘dragen’, can mean either ‘to wear’ or ‘to carry’. The definition of clothes refers to “textiles” that are “worn/carried on the body”, and thereby potentially extends to clothes that are being carried in someone’s hands. The Dutch word ‘voor’, as used in the definition of ‘bra’ (see above), can mean both ‘for’ or ‘in front of’, meaning that by the Dutch definition, a bra could be an object that sits away from the body’s surface.

Although it is tempting to look at these definitions as flawed, it is also worth considering their potential to inspire creativity. I have written previously about how linguistic determinism limits designer’s ideas. But when one has a more vague understanding of what constitutes a particular garment, one is free to experiment. Design that is unconstrained by a strict definition might introduce new garment possibilities. If, for example, a blouse can be any “wide piece of clothing for/in front of the upper body”, the creative possibilities are endless. By this definition, a blouse might be any number of weird and wonderful upper-body coverings.


This garment is suspended around the upper body, and, as in the Dutch definition of a blouse, it is “wide”. Can we define this garment as a coat, a blouse, or perhaps it is neither?

Preconceived notions of the shape, function or features of a garment, likely result in predictable designs, but by freeing ourselves from precise definitions, we open ourselves up to new design possibilities. The garments created by Rei Kawakubo evidence what can be achieved if we look beyond fixed definitions of clothes. Perhaps the next generation of fashion designers should bear this in mind when briefs to design a particular category of garment.


Innovative garments like this, by Yanko Designs, cover the body in new ways. They do away with many of the features that are often assumed to be essential parts of clothing, such as seams.


Dictionary Dressings will consist of an image archive of newspaper photo’s and translations into textile objects, films, photo’s, workshops, collaborations with designers and theoretical reflection. The book is due to be published by Onomatopee in summer 2017. www.femkedevries.com




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