Umberto Eco's Dope Fit

On the semiotics of menswear.

Image: Rob Bogaerts/Wikimedia Commons

When Umberto Eco died a year ago last week, the field of semiotics lost a mind that didn’t shy away from fully expositing on whatever pop culture curiosity gripped his attention. Or, in the case of his 1976 essayLumbar Thought,” the jeans that literally had him by the balls. This gift (or compulsion) earned him loyal readers outside of academia, and the scorn of others like Ian Thomson who called Eco’s bestseller The Name of the Rose a “baggage of arcane erudition … designed to flatter the average reader’s’ intelligence.”

On the anniversary of his death, I’ll remember Eco for his contribution to the menswear genre. “Lumbar Thought’”s thesis, that “syntactic structures of fashions also influence our view of the world” seems tailored to men’s streetwear, in which the double entendre of ‘fit’ (both ‘outfit’ and relationship to body) pervades. The essay frankly concludes, “A garment that squeezes the testicles makes a man think differently.”

I spent an evening tracing the origin of ‘fit’ as shorthand for outfit, and I like to think Eco would approve of this activity. On 12-year-old reddit, ‘fit’ appears three years ago. LurkersFC asks in r/malefashion, “Where do you draw the line between dope fit and cosplay?” (He really was a lurker, it’s the only post that the redditor ever made.) On Twitter, the first major streetwear blog to employ ‘fit’ was Hypebeast on May 29th, 2009 with a tweet about the new Budweiser x Supreme collection. Hypebeast had joined Twitter just nine days prior. In contrast, Complex– which joined Twitter in February 2008– did not have its FUF (First Use of Fit) until 2011 when Terrell Owens “[rocked] an unforgivable ‘fit at Sundance.” And Four Pins, tonally best described as an anime character that’s into clothes and also about to drop a mixtape, had its FUF in 2014– two years into its Twitter presence. Trust me, they are making up for lost time now.

Online arbiter of slang Urban Dictionary has had ‘fit’ on the books since 1999, the year of its founding. Meanwhile, the editors of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 2005) credit two white academics with recording the usage—David Claerbaut, author of Black Jargon in White America (1972) and Connie Eble, a UNC professor who mined her students for campus lingo and is best known for propagating “shit happens.” But the oldest usage of ‘fit’ I could find, and the most illuminating, is in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (1998) where it’s traced to African-Americans in the 1950s- 60s: “a suit of clothes, esp. a well-cut garment.”

Eco would have had a field day with the whole concept of rating someone’s fit. When it came to denim, he was chiefly concerned with its effect on his “interior-ness.” The shape of the pants, and the way they constricted his movement, changed the way Eco carried himself. “I lived for my jeans, and as a result I assumed the exterior behavior of one who wears jeans. In any case, I assumed a demeanor.” This led Eco to empathize with any woman “enslaved chiefly because the clothing counseled for her forced her psychologically to live for the exterior.”

So, where do you draw the line between dope fit and cosplay? Is any article of clothing that requires a certain “demeanor” therefore inauthentic to one’s true self, or is forced posture the very nature of clothes? “A human race that has learned to move about in shoes has oriented its thought differently from the way it would have done if the race had gone barefoot,” writes Eco. Before, we were callused barbarians; now, we are thin-soled ones. “I guess when we get down to it, everything we wear is a costume of some sort,” one redditor replied to LurkersFC. To invite outside critique of one’s style is to allow intrusion into the constructed self—but to interrogate one’s own style? Well, that’s just good semiotics.

So what does Four Pins have in common with “Lumbar Thought?” Heteroconsciousness. No really, it’s the word Eco uses to describe his preoccupation with “the relationship between me and my pants, and the relationship between my pants and me and the society we lived in” anytime he puts them on. It’s a sneakerhead’s Vagina Monologues. Four decades ago, Eco perfectly captured the interior/exterior division that fuels so much of men’s street style today. You can sleep on someone else’s fit, but you can’t sleep on your own.

Daisy Alioto’s work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Wallpaper* and Curbed.