STYLE and to work we have conducted


and Sociolinguistic Variation , Style as distinctiveness: the culture and
ideology of linguistic diverentiation

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1          Introduction: style as distinctiveness

gives a woman style? asks a recent New Yorker advertisement for The Power of
Style, a book in the Condé Nast Collection (the fall collec-tion of fashionable
books, perhaps?). The ad continues:

nothing to look at,º the Duchess of Windsor admitted. Rita de Acosta Lydig paid
no attention to what was ªin fashion.º Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had none of
the attributes of the ideal American girl, and Diana Vreeland never had money.
Yet each of these women had a personal magnetism and allure so strong that she
could ªdominate a room from a footstool.º How did they do it? And what can you
learn from them?

answers the advertised book may oVer to these questions, they are likely to
have more to do with the fashion industry’s notions of style than with a
sociolinguistic de®nition. Still, some aspects of the conception of ªstyleº
implicit in this ad are worth the sociolinguist’s attention. We ignore the
everyday meanings of terminology at our peril; and style in lan-guage should
not be assumed a priori to be an utterly diVerent matter from style in other
realms of life. So, if the ad’s discourse represents some popular conception of
style, we might draw several inferences about that conception: ªstyleº
crucially concerns distinctiveness; though it may char-acterize an individual,
it does so only within a social framework (of wit-nesses who pay attention); it
thus depends upon social evaluation and, perhaps, aesthetics; and it interacts
with ideologized representations (the ªideal American girlº; ªin fashionº). In
this particular ad the ideologized themes revolve around gender, and they
implicitly contrast several visions of what female distinctiveness might be
based upon.

paper is heavily indebted to conversations with Susan Gal (University of
Chicago) and to work we have conducted jointly. See Irvine and Gal 2000 and Gal
and Irvine 1995.

the ad denies that money and position play a crucial role in female
distinctiveness, instead proposing that distinctiveness lies in some mysterious
ªpersonal allure.ºThe ad also suggests that the most widely available images of
a female ideal (ªthe ideal American girl,º ªin fashionº) are actually too
common to provide the basis for true distinctiveness, which