Fleeting fashions, long-lived words
For a fossil record of styles past, try the dictionary
Fashion Week in New York — the week when major designers show their clothes for the coming season — came to a close on Friday. As with every Fashion Week, it was all about the trends: new hemlines, sleeves, shoulders, heels, all with their own terms of art. Coverage included such terms as “bouclé parka lining,” “nip-waist suit,” and “Prince of Wales check” — and get ready for lots of shiny patent leather, evidently the new rage for fall.
It’s a truism that fashion is both always new and always recycling the old: There are only so many silhouettes and materials. That bouclé and that “Prince of Wales check” (supposedly designed for Edward VII, but popular with Edward VIII) are terms that date from the late 1800s and the 1930s, respectively. Though fashion words do come and go, we keep some filed away, like sketches in a designer’s archive, waiting for another turn on the runway.
Some of these words stay with us even though the styles they refer to will never be worn again. These words become fossils of fashion, in a way: ghostly skeletons embedded in the rock of the language. There’s the tablier (a skirt front resembling an apron) or the false engageante undersleeves, both popular in the 1850s. Engageantes were sewn to the oversleeves, not the bodice — think dickies for sleeves. (Dickies — false shirt fronts, worn under sweaters or jackets — are on their way out, if not already the stuff of historical costuming, but most fashion-conscious people still know the word.) We no longer put little boys in tight skeleton suits, their pants buttoned to their jackets under the armholes — you can imagine the rips and popped buttons needing repair daily. And despite their usefulness to “those who are obliged to walk out in all weathers,” as a 19th-century knitting book put it, very few people still wear gaiters — leather or wool coverings for the lower legs.
Some styles endure, but acquire new names, leaving the language multiply enriched as a result. We have muumuus and caftans; earlier eras called similar garments Mother Hubbards (from the nursery-rhyme character), slammerkins, and trollopees (the latter two connoting untidiness or slovenliness). There are only so many ways to cover your arms and torso with a jacket, but each version has many names. There is the jocular bum-perisher (or bum-freezer, bum-shaver, bum-starver), a coat without tails for men, and the short wool hug-me-tight for women; there is the petenlair of the 1700s, thigh-length and with elbow sleeves, and the casaquin of the late 1800s, long-waisted, and, according to a ladies’ magazine, “made of very dark, but not black, material.”
Changes in body fashions mean changes in the methods we use to achieve them: teen girls, for example, no longer strap themselves into redresseur corsets to force their floating ribs up and away from their waists. The tournure of the 1800s (according to the OED, “a pad worn round the waist or hips to give shapeliness to a woman’s figure”) gave way to the short waspie corset of the New Look, and has been in turn replaced by modern shapewear, like the Spanx “Higher Power” brief. The peascod-doublet of the late 16th century, with its stiff, quilted belly (bowing out, like a peapod) is unlikely to be revived as a desirable silhouette; the same goes for skirts held out with farthingales (hoops).
Changes in behavior lead to changes in clothing: Without armor, there’s no need for a haqueton (a stuffed jacket worn under or plated with mail) or gambeson (a tunic worn under a sleeveless mail jacket). Or, we might enjoy the same activities, but no longer think they need special clothes. Very few people enjoying brunch this morning are doing so in a brunch coat; people still play bridge, but not necessarily in bridge jackets, and we no longer buy coats, hats, and dresses specifically to wear in automobiles.
Some people achieve immortality through words for clothing: Jules Léotard and James Thomas Brudenell (aka the Seventh Earl of Cardigan) live on through their namesake garments. Others are still more famous than the garments that took their names: Guiseppe Garibaldi is better known than the Garibaldi jacket (a pleated jacket with a plain waistband). Charles Dickens’s Dolly Varden gave her name to gaily-colored dresses and to embellished hats, but neither has enjoyed as much popularity as “Barnaby Rudge,” the novel in which she appears.
Fabrics, too, have their day and fade away: the spandex and neoprene of today will eventually be the qianas, Dacrons, and Crimplenes of yesterday. The hard-wearing fabric blends worn by people who had to make garments last are no longer necessities in the age of “fast fashion,” which means no more wincey (linen/wool), tiretaine (wool/linen or cotton), or linsey-woolsey (wool and flax). A few fancier fabrics live on in beloved books: Anne of Green Gables delights in a new dress of brown gloria (a mixture of silk and wool or cotton); and tarlatan (a thin muslin used for ball gowns, less expensive than silk) still engenders sympathy for poor Meg, wearing a gown of it in “Little Women.” And some fabrics are just no longer commercially viable, such as the rare pinna wool, made from the fibers mussels use to attach to rocks.
Ten or 50 or 200 years from now, it’s likely that nobody will be wearing jeggings (deo volente). But, in dictionaries, or histories of fashion abominations of the early 21st century, the word itself may endure.
Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.