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.
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].
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."
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].
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!"
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].
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].
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].
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?
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].
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].
Swimsuits have undergone a tremendous overhaul over the last century or so. Dive into the history of swimsuits with the Dressed podcast.
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/