What in the World Are You Wearing?

Unravel the social status, historic figures, and far-flung places behind your clothes to go around the world in your closet.

What in the World Are You Wearing?

Royal Cravats Regiment soldiers stand at attention during the changing of the guard.

Photo by Shutterstock

History, economics, and politics all play roles in the clothes we wear. They also influence what we call items of apparel. Some attire is named for historic people: leotard, bowler, wellingtons. The names of many items also come from where they originated (fez, keffiyeh, astrakhan hat) while others their roots in class divisions, or more obscure origins. Read on for an A to Z (well, T) look at how some classic clothes got their name.


Back in the 1800s, the ascot got its name from its frequent appearance at the Ascot Racecourse in England. Also from English horse racing: the derby hat (aka bowler in Great Britain). Iconic for a century, it was worn by the likes of Winston Churchill.


The Crimean peninsula, surrounded by the Black Sea, is territory long fought over. During the mid-19th century, the Crimean War pitted Russia against an alliance of the U.K., France, and the Ottoman Empire. The Battle of Balaclava took place there on October 25, 1854. Balaclava headgear, originally knit in wool, resembles a ski mask and can be worn several ways to cover the face and neck. British soldiers stationed at the port town of Balaclava used them for protection against the cold weather, hence the name.


The working class gave us the bandana, which is derived from a Hindi word meaning “to tie.” (India is the source of many fabric names: seersucker, madras, and calico among them—in part because of trading in the British Empire.) The pattern on bandanas—often an ornate floral, teardrop shape—originated in Kashmir, though it’s named for Paisley, Scotland, where textile industries thrived. Read more about this classic kerchief.

Bermuda Shorts

These shorts did not originate on Bermuda; they’re one of several items adopted from the British military, including trench coats. The British may well have been inspired to make long shorts part of their uniform in tropical climates because of their contact with Gurkha soldiers of Nepal. (And Panama hats are made not in Panama, but Ecuador. Panama, however, exported many of the hats that came to the USA during the construction of the Panama Canal.)


The bikini—named for the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific’s Marshall Islands, where the U.S. tested nuclear weapons—was a sensation when French designer Louis Reard introduced it soon after World War II. But Reard did not originate it: Mosaics in a Roman villa from 300 B.C.E. show women athletes wearing similar skimpy two-piece apparel. Acceptance of the style took time in the USA—as the 1960 radio hit “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” suggests, wearing one was not for the shy. The scanty swimsuit has come full circle and is now the uniform for women’s beach volleyball.


You might not wear bloomers, but these days, you probably practically live in sweatpants. Think of bloomers—which debuted in 1850—as the ancestor of women’s sportswear. Bloomers were first called “Turkish dress” or “pantaloons” by Americans for their resemblance to harem pants. Back then, they included a knee-length skirt over long pants. Amelia Bloomer, a U.S. temperance and women’s rights advocate, promoted the style during the decade before the Civil War. She said that a woman’s clothing should be suited “to her health, comfort, and usefulness,” a novel idea at a time of floor-length dresses with hoop skirts, bustles, and corsets. This “dress reform” caused a sensation: Shorter bloomers, without a top skirt, became popular late in the 19th century as early athletic wear for women riding bicycles.


These slim, cropped pants generally end just below the knee or at mid-calf. Fashion designer Sonja de Lennart created them in 1948 and named them in tribute to the small island of Capri, a scenic outpost in the Gulf of Naples whose popularity as a resort dates back to ancient Rome. Although we often associate capris with actresses—Audrey Hepburn (who wore them in Roman Holiday and Sabrina in the early 1950s), Sophia Loren, and Mary Tyler Moore—men in warm climates also sometimes wear them.


The battle that inspired Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (“Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred”) is the source of another garment name. The cavalry’s commander, General James Thomas Brudenell, was the 7th Earl of Cardigan. His name was given to the button-down-the-front sweater known as the cardigan, based on a knitted waistcoat that British officers wore. Later, Coco Chanel popularized it; today, it’s the sweater we associate with Mr. Rogers.


A paisley cashmere shawl was high style in the late 1800s. Today, we usually wear cashmere, from goats of Kashmir, in sweaters. The recently popular pashmina, an extra soft fabric from cashmere, is often made into shawls. The name comes from Persian for “wool.”


A type of ascot, this apparel’s name comes from the French word for Croatia; Croatians at the court of a 17th-century King Louis popularized the style of elegant neckware and hence, their country’s name was hung on the article of clothing. Not to be confused with the frillier jabot.


These pants are named for their fabric, jean fustian, a heavy twilled cotton cloth made in Genoa, Italy, centuries ago. They are also known as denims, referring to “de Nimes,” a French town that manufactured the serge fabric, a hardy twill with a diagonal rib, used in many jeans. (An alternative history is that the Genoese textile makers copied the French and exported their product as “bleu de Gênes.”) An older name for these pants, dungarees, comes from the village of Dongri, India. Jeans (with copper rivets reinforcing seams) and sturdy, cheap dungarees began as clothing for laborers, most famously for miners; the California Gold Rush, which started in 1848, brought merchant Levi Strauss to San Francisco, where he later developed the pants familiar as “Levi’s.”


The distinctive riding breeches evolved from churidar, a style of pants worn in northern India that’s loose at the hips and snug around the calves, draping because of its bias cut. (This cut, diagonal to a fabric’s grain, gives a smoother fit. Those slinky gowns you see in 1930s and ’40s Hollywood movies? They’re often bias cut in silk or satin.) A son of the Maharaja of Jodhpur brought his polo team to England during the 1897 Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Those polo players got attention not only for their skill but also for the pants they wore, which other riders soon adopted. Jodhpurs also refer to the ankle-high boots worn with the pants.


In the late 19th and early 20th century, Tuxedo Park, near New York City, was a playground for high society. (A private country club for hunting and fishing, it is what we’d today call a “gated community.”) Some 40 miles north of the city, Tuxedo Park included large country houses—aka “cottages”—where etiquette expert Emily Post, author Mark Twain, and J.P. Morgan, one of the Gilded Age’s most powerful bankers, had homes. At the community’s inaugural Autumn Ball, several men wore jackets without coattails. This radical departure became associated with Tuxedo Park; originally, tuxedo referred only to the jacket.

>>Next: In a Medieval Swiss Town, the Art of Mechanical Timekeeping Keeps on Ticking

Pat Tompkins has written for AFAR about books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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