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wardrobe malfunction

noun [countable]

the accidental exposure of an intimate part of the body because of a problem with an article of clothing

'Tara Reid says she had no idea she was flashing the paparazzi when the strap of her dress slipped off her left shoulder … The 29-year-old actress said she was upset at the photographers' reaction to her wardrobe malfunction.

CBS News 21st January 2005

'Chances are pretty good that this year's Super Bowl halftime performer will "let it be" and not have any "wardrobe malfunctions." That's because the NFL has tapped legendary rocker Paul McCartney to perform at the halftime show.'

NBC News 24th January 2005

the term wardrobe malfunction has quickly caught on as a euphemism in the US, so much so that the US Global Language Monitor named the phrase as 'Hollywood's Top Word or Phrase for Impact on the English Language' in 2004

The next time you discreetly need to do up a disobedient zip on something you are wearing, you might want to retrieve the following new entry from your mental lexicon – what you are trying to deal with is a wardrobe malfunction! This term emerged from the US in early 2004, and was subsequently seized by the media on both sides of the Atlantic as a way of describing those situations where people, especially celebrities or others in the public eye, inadvertently expose themselves because of some kind of problem with what they are wearing.

The term wardrobe malfunction has quickly caught on as a euphemism in the US, so much so that the US Global Language Monitor named the phrase as 'Hollywood's Top Word or Phrase for Impact on the English Language' in 2004. Its popularity is thought to derive from the humorous impact of using a rather formal, quasi-technical phrase for description of such comical 'exposure' incidents.

There is also evidence for use of wardrobe malfunction with the sense of 'an error in fashion judgement'. A particularly clear example of this use was in the press coverage of 20-year-old Prince Harry's highly controversial attendance at a fancy-dress party wearing a Nazi uniform, subsequently described by the media with headlines such as: 'The (Nazi) Party Prince, or Harry's Wardrobe Malfunction' (Los Angeles Times, 14th January 2005).

Background – wardrobe malfunction

The expression wardrobe malfunction was coined by singer Justin Timberlake after an incident during the 38th Super Bowl (American football) tournament in February 2004. During the controversial half-time show, Timberlake and singer Janet Jackson were performing a duet containing suggestive dance moves. As the song reached the final line, Timberlake pulled off part of Jackson's costume, and in doing so revealed part of her right breast, cameras immediately cutting to an aerial view of the stadium. In a subsequent statement, Timberlake is quoted as saying: 'I am sorry that anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance of the Super Bowl … It was not intentional and is regrettable.' The whole incident proved highly controversial however, leading to an investigation by the US Federal Communications Commission and prompting speculation that it had been an intentional publicity stunt.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 4th April 2005.

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