10 Iconic Fashion Pieces Named for People or Places

If you’ve ever hit the ski slopes rocking a warm garment that covers your face and neck, you’ve worn a balaclava. Brigitte Blättler/Getty Images

If you've ever hit the ski slopes rocking a warm garment that covers your face and neck, you've worn a balaclava. Firefighters, police officers and military personnel often wear the piece as well. But few people realize this handy item was named for Balaclava, a Crimean village near Sebastopol. Soldiers who fought in the Crimean War — sometimes referred to as the Battle of Balaclava — were known to keep warm with the knitted headgear.

From tweed to tuxedos, jeans to cardigans, the contents of your closet may have a lot more history than you realize. It turns out some of the most common clothing items are actually named after notable people and places, even though many of the words have long been disconnected from their original meanings. Take for example, the balaclava.


And the balaclava is just the tip of the iceberg; there are tons of other clothing pieces that take their names from people and places. Curious to learn more? Sit back, relax, rock a bikini if you really want to get into the theme of things, and discover the origins of your wardrobe namesakes.

10: Denim Jeans

Americans love denim, but neither the word or the product got its start in the U.S. LaylaBird/Getty Images

Believe it or not, this one's a twofer. The term denim has roots in southern France, where twilled wool called serge was manufactured in the town Nimes. The product was known as "serge de Nimes," but in the late 1600s, English speakers began combining "de Nimes" into one word. By the mid-1800s, Americans were using the term to talk about the cotton fabric we now know as "denim."

The term "jeans" has foreign origins as well. Italy's Genoa (literally) made a name for itself by producing pants from a twilled cloth called "fustian." French people began calling the trousers "jene fustian" (aka, Genoese fustian), and by the early 1800s, good old English speakers had condensed the terms into the shorthand "jeans" [source: Kelly].


9: The Tuxedo

British model Cara Delevingne (second from left) proved she could rock a tuxedo just as well as, if not better than, her male counterparts at the wedding of Princess Eugenie of York and Jack Brooksbank at Windsor Castle in October 2018. Alastair Grant/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The history of the tuxedo is just as posh as you'd expect. The name tuxedo dates back to the late 1800s, when wealthy men in Tuxedo Park, New York, began donning the black and white ensemble [source: Etymonline]. At that time, Tuxedo Park was a residential club made up of rustic mansions that required white-tie and tailcoats as the dress code for its annual autumn ball. Apparently, millionaire James Brown Potter brought back the concept of semi-formal dinner jackets after visiting Britain and once he debuted the look back in NYC, it picked up popularity and was dubbed, a tuxedo jacket [source: Loveland].

"The tuxedo might have started as a crucial black tie ensemble for men, but has since become a staple in most women's closets — lest we forget Diane Keaton or Angelina Jolie red carpet moments," says celebrity stylist, editor and owner of MGKStyle, Mary Gonsalves Kinney. "The tuxedo defines power and elegance. Female designers like Gabriela Hearst, Stella McCartney and Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen got the memo and we like it."


8: The Bikini

1960s bikini
A model walks the runway wearing a 1960's French swimsuit during the Bikini Restrospective at Piscine Molitor in July 2015, in Paris, France. Richard Bord/Getty Images

Our favorite itty-bitty swimsuit didn't get a proper name until the 1940s, but historians say the two-piece bathing staple actually has roots as far back as Ancient Rome where 4th-century mosaics depict gymnasts adorned in separate tops and bottoms. Despite the early introduction, flesh-exposing female clothing went out of favor for much of modern history, and swimming uniforms in the early 20th century were about as modest and all-concealing as you can imagine.

Slowly, however, well-known women made waves by wearing less and less to the beach, and by the 1940s, screen sirens like Rita Hayworth, were showing off a once-scandalous strip of flesh above their belly buttons. During that time, when the world was acutely aware of nuclear lingo, attractive women were commonly called "bombshells" and anything of intensity was referred to as "atomic."


It's no wonder, then, that when two separate two-piece swimsuit designs debuted in France in the summer of 1946, one was named the "atome." The second, designed by Louis Reard, hit the scene on July 5, 1946, just four days after the United States started atomic testing at the Bikini Atoll. Reard figured it was highly appropriate to call his design "le bikini," and the name stuck [source: Turner].

7: The Birkin Bag

Birkin bag
This one-of-a-kind orange Hermès Birkin bag belongs to Comes With Baggage founder and owner Lori Levine. Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Comes With Baggage

When an entire "Sex and the City" storyline revolves around a particular type of handbag, you know it's a fashion must-have. In an episode titled "Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda," Samantha Jones risks her career and besmirches her star client's good name to jump a five-year waiting list and get her hands on an Hermès Birkin. The famed Birkin bag also has played a major plot point on the TV show "Gilmore Girls," and appeared on the arm of celebrities like Kim Kardashian and FLOTUS Melania Trump. The notoriously pricey status symbol (ranging from $11,000 to well into the six-figure range) is named for English actress Jane Birkin.

"Nothing quite defines fashion like Jane herself," Kinney says. "According to legend, Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas was seated next to Jane Birkin on a flight from Paris to London in the 1980s. She had just placed her straw travelling bag in the overhead compartment for her seat, but the contents fell leaving a mess." Apparently, according to Kinney, Birkin told Dumas that it was difficult to find a leather weekend bag she liked and so he and Birkin designed the Birkin bag together on an airplane sick bag and he named it in her honor.


"The Birkin was born a bag of elegance, effortless chic, and according to Jane Birkin herself, the only bag a girl should need," Kinney says. "Years later, the bag has remained one of the most defining status symbols in fashion. There is nothing comparable despite how hard others might try. Unlike Jane, however, I actually covet too many bags to own just a Birkin!"

6: Argyle

argyle socks
Zara Phillips, granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II, walks her dogs while wearing a fun pair of argyle socks during a break from competing in the Aston-le-Walls Horse Trials in Daventry, England. Indigo/Getty Images

According to The Washington Post, argyle didn't actually start out as the strait-laced preppy staple it's become over time. In fact, the pattern we know today started out to be indicative of rebellion and revolution. The diamond pattern originated in 1940s Scotland, but drew inspiration from the tartan of the 17th-century Clan Campbell of Argyll in western Scotland.

Reportedly, after the dissolution of Mary, Queen of Scots' marriage to Lord Darnley in 1565, the fifth Earl of Argyll, Archibald Campbell, remained Scotland's only rebel at large. He returned to his castle at Dunoon, but the tartan of his lineage had since become associated with anti-establishment ideology. By the time clothing company Pringle of Scotland picked up on the pattern after World War I, the once alternative style became tied to royalty and leisure, and eventually a popular look for golfers galore [source: Urken].


5: The Ascot

older man wearing ascot
The ascot is actually a type of cravat, which is really any type of neckwear worn by a gentleman. Digital Vision/Getty Images

Another posh piece of clothing with an interesting name history is the ascot, that tucked-in necktie thingee you may have seen in paintings draped across the throats of 19th-century British gents. It always seems to be employed in movies to signify upper-class snobbery, too. The ascot is actually a type of cravat, which is really any type of neckwear worn by a gentleman.

The ascot, like a tie and a bowtie, evolved from the cravat during the 19th century, but the term ascot, specifically, comes from the men who attended the Royal Ascot Race which took place in a town outside of London called — you guessed it — Ascot. The cravat was part of the morning dress and was both a functional and decorative accessory.


Because the Royal Family regularly attended the prestigious events, men dressed to the nines and added the drapey "ascot tie," to their dapper duds. The piece of clothing became popular in the 1950s and the name was shortened simply to "ascot." Today the ascot tie is worn to spiff up casual looks, but can also be worn formally, as well [sources: Kelly, Croom and Flood].

4: Capri Pants

Audrey Hepburn
Style icon Audrey Hepburn was one of the first women to wear capri pants on-screen in several of her films. Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Long before three-quarter-length pants made a major comeback in the early 2000s (along with bedazzled jeans and halter tops), these were all the rage in the 1950s and 1960s. These mid-calf pants earned the name capris thanks to European fashion designer Sonja de Lennart who named the look after the Italian island of Capri, where ladies were rocking the shorter look in droves.

Lennart's original capri pant became a sexy alternative to lady's trousers, which were basically identical to men's pants at that time. She slimmed down the silhouette and gave women choices of two lengths: one for summer and one for winter. Whether it was fate or sheer luck, Academy Award-winning costume designer Edith Head loved the look and put screen darling Audrey Hepburn in a pair for the film "Roman Holiday," and the rest, as they say, is history [sources: SpeakFashion, FashionTrendsDaily].


3: The Jersey

New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils fans would likely love to believe the ubiquitous athletic item was inspired by their state team, but, well, it's not. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

New Jersey Devils hockey fans would likely love to believe the ubiquitous athletic item was inspired by their state team, but alas, the history is a bit more complex than that. The garments are actually named for the United Kingdom island of Jersey ... well, sort of.

Warm sweaters with a tight weave were traditionally produced on this island for centuries as protection for its seamen. Americans adapted the term to apply to thick wool uniforms intended to protect football players in the early 1900s. As time passed, athletic "jerseys" gradually had less to do with their original namesakes and are now, instead, typically lightweight tops made of nylon or spandex. But "jersey" still means sweater in the U.K., while Canadians call sports "jerseys" "sweaters" [source: Mancini]. Confused yet?


2: The Leotard

Jule Leotard
Jules Leotard (seen here) became known for inventing the flying trapeze routine in the mid-1800s. New York Public Library Digital Collections

Whether you've worn it in dance class or just as part of a kitschy Halloween costume, you know the unmistakable skin-tight silhouette of the leotard. But did you know the garment is named for a French guy?

Jules Leotard was the man responsible for inventing the flying trapeze routine in the mid-1800s. He was reportedly a big hit with female spectators because the knitted onesie he wore during performances really showcased his muscle tone. That stretchy suit, which allowed freedom of movement, was originally called a maillott, which is French for "shirt." But after Leotard's untimely death in 1870 from an infectious disease (probably small pox) the name slowly changed to pay tribute to the athlete [source: Upton].


1: The Cardigan

twins in cardigans
These 8-month-old fraternal twin boys are the only thing cuter than the brightly colored cardigan sweaters they're wearing. Jill Lehmann Photography/Getty Images

Who knew the preppy sweater actually had roots in battle attire? Seriously. The 7th Earl of Cardigan, James Thomas Brudenell, was supposedly a pretty vain leader who chose to wear a collarless, waist-length, wool jacket to lead his soldiers in the Crimean War at the Battle of Balaclava (remember?).

Lord Cardigan left Russia just a year into the Crimean War because of his health. But back home in England, he enjoyed the already exaggerated stories of his heroism on the battlefield, despite claims to the contrary, including one staff officer who alleged in his memoirs that Cardigan survived the Battle of Balaclava only because he abandon his men, leaving many to die.

That didn't stop merchants exploiting the war from selling Cardigan's arrogant accounts of his valor, complete with photos of him on the battlefield in his favorite knitted waistcoat. The coat soon became not only fashionable but also gained the title "cardigan" in his honor.

Since knitting was also craft that started to take off in the mid-1800s, many families felt it was fitting to send their soldier sons similarly styled sweaters to stay warm at battle sites.

The cardigan has had several makeovers through since Lord Cardigan first sported his on the battlefield. In 1908, Vogue promoted a cardigan-like sweater for women to wear while playing golf and tennis, and in the 1920s, French fashion designer Coco Chanel created her iconic cardigan suit for women [source: Le Zotte].

Lots More Information

Related Articles
More Great Links

  • Etymonline. "Tuxedo." (Nov. 26, 2018) https://www.etymonline.com/word/tuxedo
  • Kelly, John. "14 Articles of Clothing Named After Places." Mentalfloss. March 15, 2017. (Nov. 26, 2018) http://mentalfloss.com/article/93174/14-articles-clothing-named-after-places
  • Le Zotte, Jennifer. "When Cardigans Were Battle Attire. Racked. Oct. 3, 2017. (Nov. 26, 2018) https://www.racked.com/2017/10/3/16380180/cardigans-history
  • Loveland, Mariel. "How Weird Sportcoats From History Led To The Modern Tuxedo." Ranker. (Nov. 26, 2018) https://www.ranker.com/list/the-history-of-the-tuxedo/mariel-loveland
  • Mancini, Mark. Why Do We Call Athletic Uniforms "Jerseys"? Mental Floss. Jan. 31, 2014. (Nov. 26, 2018) http://mentalfloss.com/article/54751/why-do-we-call-athletic-uniforms-jerseys
  • Speakfashion. "Fashion History Classics: Who invented the Capri Pants?" (Nov. 26, 2018) http://www.speak-fashion.de/fashion_history/classics/fashion-history-classcis-capri-pants
  • Turner, Julia. "A Brief History of the Bikini." Slate. July 3, 2015 (Nov. 26, 2018) https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/07/history-of-the-bikini-how-it-came-to-america.html
  • Upton, Emily. "Why Leotards Are Called That." Today I Found Out. Jan. 8, 2014. (Nov. 26, 2018) http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/leotards-called/
  • Urken, Ross Kenneth. "You thought argyle was a preppy staple? Wrong. It's a statement of rebellion." The Washington Post. March 18, 2015. (Nov. 26, 2018) https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/03/18/argyle-isnt-the-preppy-staple-you-think-it-is-thats-why-its-the-best/