As Hip-Hoppers & Designers Eschew Excess, Jewelry May Just Be Jewelry Again
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
The word "bling" has been overused by every two-bit jeweler selling cubic zirconium. It has been worn out by virtually all fashion publicists -- who for the past five months have been chirping, "Bling in the New Year!" -- and by every morning TV host trying to make the umpteenth holiday shopping segment sound fun and nifty. Use of the word has become like a nervous tic, as persistent as a dry cough and as annoying as old people who say "phat" and "You go, girl!"
If the word "bling" is never again uttered by an aging cultural observer -- some well-meaning baby boomer or a mainstream news organization proud to have incorporated "edgy" lingo into its coverage -- then 2006 will be a fine year.
Bling -- as a noun and a verb -- originated in the early part of this century with hip-hop performers, those arbiters of cool and practitioners of the most exquisite forms of conspicuous consumption. It used to be that "bling" was reserved for jewelry, decorative wheel rims or gold teeth -- all of it excessively flashy and extraordinarily expensive. It was a terrific term because it had the quality of a sound effect. It referenced accessories so bold and glittering that looking at them was equivalent to staring directly into a thousand camera flashes sounding off. Click, whir, bling! The word described gewgaws and baubles so wondrously flamboyant that simply calling them jewelry failed to capture their essence.
From the beginning, folks exuberantly embraced the word. It quickly entered the mass communication lexicon: the pages of weekly magazines, newspaper headlines and the latte chatter of soccer moms. There was little concern for its correct usage. It was applied to anything with the slightest sparkle. A -carat diamond ring could be referred to as bling. So could a brooch sprinkled with cheap rhinestones. There was no self-editing, no recognition that with all of the bling-bling-blinging it was all starting to sound frightfully embarrassing. People were slinging urban slang like drunken suburban party boys.
Still, for a while, it was tough to argue with the overuse. It seemed to be called for. Everything coming down the runway, squeezed into overcrowded department stores or sold from the back of a panel van seemed to be encrusted with something that glittered. If the word didn't apply to a single garment, it certainly applied to the overall fashion of the times. The style industry was in a "bling-bling" mood.
In the past few years, designers such as Miuccia Prada were at the forefront in celebrating elaborate glitz during the daylight hours. Prada embellished grandpa cardigans and heavy cable-knit pullovers. She decorated tweed shoes, leather handbags, camisoles and dresses.
Hip-hop performers were consistently photographed in thug denim and eight-inch diamond-encrusted crosses: "Just giving thanks to God, from whom all blessings flow!" (Thump chest several times and then point dramatically up to the heavens.) Rapper 50 Cent was draped in so many diamond and platinum medallions that one felt compelled to paraphrase a line from the film "I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka," which in 1988 first documented death by bling. "How'd he go to the bathroom with all that stuff on?"
Jacob the Jeweler established his reputation by cramming as many diamonds as possible onto a timepiece. Mary J. Blige practically invented ghetto fabulous, a look that evoked a nouveau riche street style founded on diamonds, furs and designer labels.
But by 2005 fashion and hip-hop had changed. Where there was beaded everything on the runways, there is now basic black and demure white. Sequins have been exchanged for lace. This fall, 50 Cent attended a Giorgio Armani fashion show wearing clothes that barely whispered. The rapper-turned-actor has packaged himself in the dignified grays of Wall Street. Blige has scaled down her focus on chinchilla and carats. She has found the Lord and a stylist who understands the meaning of discreet.
Even Elton John, pop music's master showman, opted for a sober black suit for his wedding to David Furnish in Windsor, England, this week. Cash-money flash is in the past. Folks are still wearing chains and earrings. John had a diamond stud in his ear at his wedding. Rappers still like their watches encrusted with jewels and their cross charms visible from 20 paces.
But that's not bling. That's just jewelry. The artists have moved on. So has the fashion industry. It's time for everyone else to do the same.