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shameless pleading

Fashion plate

A dedicated follower of mozzarella.

Dear Word Detective:  A steak dinner is riding on your answer, so no pressure, okay?  I have long heard the term “fashion pate” to describe a person who dresses in the height of current style.  Lately I hear this term as “fashion plate.”  I contend that “pate” is the older original term and “plate” is a modern (last twenty years or so) lazy corruption.  My friend says “plate” is correct, or at least both terms are equally used.  I’d rather buy you the steak than him, so who is correct? — Lloyd Formby.

OK, but can we make it pizza instead? I gave up eating beef almost 20 years ago. It wasn’t much of a sacrifice; even as a kid, I never actually liked the taste. Now I eat a much healthier diet, mostly pizza and doughnuts. And broccoli. I seem to be going through a broccoli phase at the moment. Broccoli pizza would be awesome.

Unfortunately, our hypothetical menu is moot, because your friend is correct: the idiom is “fashion plate.” But the good news is that the explanation for “plate” may prove sufficiently interesting to lure your friend into a second bet to reverse the first. Just challenge him to explain what the “plate” in “fashion plate” originally meant. Hint: it has nothing to do with dinner.

Incidentally, and here’s a bit of a consolation prize, your rendition of the phrase as “fashion pate” actually makes a lot of sense, speaking, as we are, of a person who devotes a great deal of attention to the cut of their clothes. “Pate” is a very old word meaning “head” or “top of the head,” or, by extension, “mind, intellect.” So a “fashion pate” might be a person whose mind is consumed by attention to current fashion, much as a “gear head” is devoted to things mechanical or technological. Making this even more of a close call is the fact that the origin of “pate” (which first appeared in the 14th century) is a mystery, but it may simply be a modified form of “plate,” referring in particular to the top of one’s head.

“Fashion plate” first appeared in print in the mid-19th century, but the word “plate” is, of course, much older. The original meaning of “plate” when it appeared in English in the mid-13th century (ultimately from the Greek “platus,” flat or broad, also the source of “place”) was simply “flat sheet,” as of metal or glass. The use of “plate” to mean “eating dish” was a later 15th century development.

“Plate” has since developed hundreds of meanings, but for our purposes here the most important is “plate” in the sense of “printing plate,” a sheet of flat metal etched or engraved for use in printing onto paper or another surface. From this use developed “plate” meaning the printed page itself, especially a high-quality, heavier sheet of paper used to print illustrations and then either framed or inserted as a separate page into a book.

Such high-quality printed “plates” were also used on advertising placards, in magazines, and wherever eye-catching quality was needed. This made such “plates” a natural for the fashion industry, allowing the latest clothes, etc., to be advertised in upscale magazines and store windows with fine detail and something close to color fidelity. Thus was born the 19th century “fashion plate.”

The extension of “fashion plate” to mean a person who takes great pains to always wear the latest fashions was natural (“You look just like a fashion plate!”), but the term has come to carry a connotation of superficiality and perhaps a implication of desperation in the “plate’s” attention to the latest designer gear. A few years ago, a reader asked me whether a similar phrase for someone obsessed with couture was “clothes horse” or, as she believed, “clothes whore.” It’s “clothes horse” (originally a wooden rack for drying clothes), but we agreed that “clothes whore” was probably more to the point and a lot more fun.

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