For a slight change from psychology, we welcome you to dive into Hubert Nadziejko’s exploration of the linguistic connotations of overdressed. The very word that is so dear to us proves to be one of a kind. Not only in its etymology but also in its meaning – overdressed seems to be unique. It proves to be strongly embedded in culture of English-speaking countries, but not others. When learning a new language, how does feel to discover novel ways of expression alongside?
Overdressed. A very interesting word it is. Only until one sees it on the cover of a magazine, does one consider it a perfectly normal English word. An adjective derived from a verb presenting an identical logic: overdress; the latter one formed with a verb, to dress, a perfectly natural, casual element of life, and a preposition describing an upward movement - as English as it gets. Saying it or seeing it written in any other situation would leave one unmoved. But seeing it on the cover of a magazine makes one wonder. One begins to study the word, thinking through and all around it, and one finds oneself lost. Seems like a perfectly reasonable word! Only, however, until one switches to thinking in a different language - that very moment the word comes back and leaves one amazed.
In the plurality of languages that exist and have existed all around the world, it is highly unlikely no other language has produced a similar adjective and a similar verb. But, after thinking very hard over a couple of days, I can come up with no analogical word in any of the languages I know, or pretend to know.
Obviously, it comes as a small surprise a certain language contains a certain word whose concept does not - or at least may not - exist in the corpora of other languages. But what a word?! It seems quite irrational for a decent language not to have a word for overdress. This is not to say this word is among the most needed or used ones - but taking into consideration the levels of aesthetics humanity has reached over the centuries and the widespread impact of fashion, it is quite fascinating a phenomenon.
In the common understanding, it means dressed in a way that is too elaborate, ostentatious, or formal for a particular situation
- Overdressed, as defined by Oxford Dictionary
Having noted that, one starts to wonder why - and to be able to determine why, one needs tounderstand the word’s meaning. What is it then? In the common understanding, it means dressed in a way that is too elaborate, ostentatious, or formal for a particular situation (Oxford Dictionary). Three quite different meanings hidden underneath such an innocent form.
The first question that came to my mind was "Okay, but can one be underdressed?" Indeed, one can - as Oxford Dictionary assured me; and that means the exact opposite of the original word. On the other hand, can one ever actually be overdressed? No - I thought instantly - absolutely not. If I were to be negative about someone’s looks, I’d perhaps go for maldressed, or better still missdressed. In any case, I'm always very appreciative of people who take care of how they look, what they put on and how well that fits them and each other. This is not to say I only value the looks on people, or only value the people I consider well-dressed. This is to say, I am envious of their having already found their style, that is both good-looking and comfortable for them.
Then, a thought followed more subjectively now, can one, in fact, be underdressed, then? Oh hell yes, so many examples.
Now, that reaction could be related to me originally coming from Poland, the country whose culture is based on negation, dissatisfaction and constant moaning - and such strong psychological influences are hard to get rid of, since a culture and a language of the cultureshape one’s perception. But then I realised there is no word for overdressed nor underdressed in Polish either.
To disrupt the order of the reasoning slightly, however, I would like to propose a leap to a different climate for a second - the languages of the countries associated with fashion, France and Italy. Neither French nor Italian seem to have a word expressing a concept of overdressed (nor underdressed.) In both of them it is possible to express a similar thought saying someone is trop habillé / troppo vestito, literally: dressed too much; or habillé trop élégamment / vestitoin modo troppo elegante: too elegantly dressed.
In another way one could say someone wears vestiti appariscenti / vistosi, meaning flashy clothes; in French we’d use tape-à-l'oeil/ voyant. The difference is in metaphors - overdressed focuses on dressing and overdoing it; the French and Italian expressions focus on the visibility of standing out. All of these options may be neutral, negative or positive, depending on thespeaker’s intention. One more option I love, negative, is sei abbastanza agghindato (where abbastanza = quite gives the negativeness; agghindato means well-dressed.)
One could obviously get even more detailed, but that requires using even longer descriptions, with all the words expressing excess. But neither of these contains the whole of the Englishversion’s meaning. Nor in any case is it just one, specific word. This is really interesting, taking into consideration the arts and aesthetics of Europe being created in those very places for a long time, fashion included. An analogical situation can be observed in Spanish, as far as I know.
An interesting thing happens in German.
A word created in the same way as the English one exists: überkleidet = über + kleidet (from kleiden) => over/above + dressed/covered. It uses the spatial metaphor indeed, identical to the one in English, but has a significantly different meaning - covered. It describes not being dressed in an inadequate a way, but simply beingdressed; and needn’t even refer to people. However Germans have found the way to say of someone, they are overdressed. Er/Sie ist overdressed. Just add the harshness of pronunciation, done.
To come back to Polish, a language completely different from all those aforementioned - I have found a word that partially fits: Odstawiony/Odstawiona. Literally, put off/put away, an adjective meaning dressed way too much for... the occasion? But also the person’s social status, and perhaps the social status of the speaker compared with the status of the described and of the described object’s clothes. Very judgmental, pejorative, very colloquial. Obviously may also be used as a joke. Nonetheless, contains more than the amount of contempt that is present in overdressed, and also, has no opposite/contrary word.
The questions I am now asking myself are: how has English developed such a word? Why was it needed? Because it was needed - someone needed it to express themselves, ergo it speaks of our way of thinking, conceptualising the world. And also, English being the current lingua franca, did it affect other cultures?
For the last one the answer is obviously: yes, at least partially - for me the concept of overdressedness is understandable and somehow obvious; as it is for my friends from other non-English-speaking countries. And with that in mind, is it possible to change the way of thinking now? To change the definition? To consider overdressed but dressed comfortably and in truth to oneself?
What it takes is to change the psychology through language - or language, having changed psychology. Perhaps Overdressed Magazine will be the new Runway? Or does it take a film?
It is the very fundament of human nature to distinguish between “me and my people” and “the others”. Such differences are cued via clothing, therefore subjected to judgment in social settings. We are thought to conform, in order to belong. Sadly, this is where a certain kind of oppression is placed on creativity and self-expression, when judgment and belonging to social groups are at stakes. However, every single person has gained a different human experience throughout their lives. Therefore, how can we be authentic when culture subjects brave or simply original choices to the harshness that is “being a little bit too much”?
As individuals move through life, we create our own meanings. We create culture and a part of us will choose where we are in life, what media we consume, what art we look at, and finally what we want to wear. Perhaps the name overdressed was chosen because it has a certain poetry to it, a quality that the Polish “equivalent” certainly lacks. As I discovered a new language I was suddenly equipped with a novel understanding to the world around me. We define ourselves with what we wear, therefore me and my team, we decided to redefine “our” overdressed alongside making fashion better, more human. As we see it, it’s an unapologetic expression of oneself, at its best, at its worst – always being true. T is what we are ought to be. Dressed in meaning, creating culture that allows overdressed be a praised characteristic. Seek the meaning that suits you.