Words and more

Scene from the film "Silence of the Lambs" where Hannibal Lector is wearing a Panama hat.

18-09-2019Agency

If you look up ‘clothes’ in Roget’s Thesaurus, you’ll find two pages of words for items of clothing and terms associated with dress. Most of them are familiar but a few are somewhat unusual. I had never come across ‘galligaskins’, a kind of breeches worn in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was later used in a jocular manner for any kind of loose trousers.

Th word has its origins in the Italian ‘grechesco’ (Greekish), the name given to a loose kind of hose worn in Venice. At one time these breeches were referred to as ‘galloscoins’, in the mistaken belief they came from Gascony in France. The English word ‘galley’ was also an influence because ‘galligaskins’ were thought to be like loose hose worn by sailors.

Another strange word, for me at any rate, was ‘subfusc’. In the early 18th century it was formal academic dress worn at some universities and it later came to mean any kind of modest clothing of quiet colours.

Dorothy L. Sayers, in her 1935 novel Gaudy Night, wrote: ”I notice we are both decently subfusc. Have you seen Trimmer in that frightful frock like a canary lampshade?”

Nor had I heard of ‘kirtle’, an old word meaning a man’s tunic or coat, usually reaching the knees or lower. It was also a woman’s gown or outer petticoat. Chaucer used it in The Canterbury Tales but spelt it ‘kirtel’. It comes from the Latin ‘curtus’ (short) and is found in several northern languages such as Icelandic (kyrtill) as well as Danish and Swedish (kjortel). A word I had heard of before, although only quite recently, is ‘pea jacket’, which I had always called ‘reefer jacket’. Where does the pea come from? It has nothing to do with the vegetable: this pea was borrowed from the Dutch ‘pij’ or ‘pije’, a coat of coarse woollen material.

In his Netherdutch and English Dictionarie (1658), H. Hexham defined it as: “Een pije, a pie-gowne, or a rough gowne, as souldiers and seamen weare.” As the Dutch pronounce ‘pij’ like the English ‘pie’, our word for the reefer should be ‘pie jacket’, as the term ‘pie-gowne’ suggests.

I had never heard of the ‘spencer’, a short double-breasted overcoat without tails that was popular with men in the 18th and 19th centuries, but guessed it had something to do with one of the Earl Spencers.

In Words and Place, L. Taylor quoted the epigram: “Two noble earls, whom, if I quote/Some folk might call me a sinner,/The one invented half a coat,/The other half a dinner.” The reference was to Earl Spencer and Earl Sandwich, meaning the coat was named after John Charles Spencer, the third Earl Spencer.

The reason I got involved with words connected with clothing was that a friend wanted to know where the ‘plus fours’ name comes from. Every time I see or hear that word I have an immediate mental image of Bobby Locke on the golf course because he always wore them.

There were three types of sporting breeches: knee breeches, plus twos and plus fours. Knee breeches ended just below the knee with a strap between the top of the calf and the knee. But they weren’t of much use to golfers, who need freedom of movement when swinging a club. Plus fours have a strap in the same place as knee breeches, but the trouser leg is wider and longer. The extra length forms an overhang at the knee, making plus fours ideal for golfers.

The length of these trousers is based on what is required for the wearer, plus four inches for the overhang — which is why they are called ‘plus fours’. Golfers who didn’t want such a baggy look had a two-inch overhang and their trousers were known as ‘plus twos’.

Like Earl Spencer, many people have left their mark in the world of fashion — often just by chance and sometimes without meaning to. President Theodore Roosevelt was involved in the completely wrong naming of a hat although the mistake had nothing to do with him — newspaper reporters were to blame.

Roosevelt paid a visit to Panama in 1906 to inspect work in progress on the Panama Canal. He was photographed wearing a white hat with a black band and the picture was published all over the world.

Journalists called it the panama hat and it became associated with President Roosevelt and the world thought the hat was Panamanian. But what no one realised at the time was that the hat was first made in Ecuador as long ago as 1630. Or perhaps they did realise the hat’s origins but didn’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story. Anthony Hopkins created a new interest in the panama hat when he wore one in a Hannibal Lecter film. He looked very good in it because it’s a hat that usually gives the wearer (a man or a woman) a touch of elegance and class.

The hat is made in a small area along the Ecuadorian coast near the town of Montecristi. The material used comes from the leaves of a trunkless palm tree. A genuine panama hat (one made in Ecuador) costs from €60 to €100. The difference in price depends on the quality of the vegetable fibre material and the finish. If you buy one in Majorca that costs less than that it probably came from Panama or Porreres — and is not the real McCoy.

The jacquard, on the other hand, was an invention by a French engineer called J.M. Jacquard. It was an attachment to a loom that enabled the pattern in a cloth to be produced automatically by means of punched cards. Manufacturers were able to mass produce multicoloured sweaters with intricate designs that became popular worldwide. Pantaloons came from a fictitious character. In Italian commedia dell’arte of the 16th century, Pantalone was a Venetian character represented as a thin foolish old man wearing spectacles, pantaloons and slippers. The same character is the butt of the clown’s jokes in modern pantomime.

Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It of “The lean and slipper’d pantaloon…His youthful hose…too wide for his shrunk shank.”

The name of the original commedia dell’arte character came from San Pantaleone, a 4th century doctor who became the patron saint of physicians and who was popular in Venice in the 15th and 16th centuries. The last thing Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-Tung ever wanted to be was a fashion icon — yet he became just that when he popularised an everyday suit for the Chinese masses. Like school uniforms, his suit was supposed to produce an air of equality. But it was drab and looked like what it was: a dowdy uniform. When it was introduced into the western fashion scene in the 1960s it became a hit with young trendies.

Remnants of the style can still be seen today on the catwalks of some of the top designers.

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