Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a leading light in the field of fashion theory, tells a story about the F word. Back when she was a grad student at Yale, she was talking to an eminent history professor and he asked about her dissertation. She said it was on “fashion,” and he replied, “Italian or German?” Steele corrected him. “Not fascism. Fashion. As in Paris.” He walked away without a word.

How things have changed. In the last 25 years, the world—and academia along with it—has embraced fashion as a spectator sport, a symbolist drama, a semiotics of the street. Fashion exhibitions are bringing blockbuster crowds to museums that once sniffed at shows of “old clothes.” And la mode itself—on the runway, in the office, at the gala—is a subject anyone can discuss. Why? Because fashion is aesthetics, history, sociology, poetry, politics, feminism, and gender study all rolled into one. It begs for analysis. For words.