Costume: The Language of Fashion


Welcome to the Endless Knot! As we prepare for Hallowe’en, let’s take
a look at the custom of costumes. Costume and custom are ultimately the same
word, costume being merely the custom of how one dresses, but these two forms of the word
came into English through different paths. Both are from Latin consuetudo meaning “custom,
habit” tracing its source back to a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “oneself”, which also gives
us the words self, suicide (killing oneself), idiom (one’s own way), and ethnic (a band
of people living together). At bottom, then, costumes and customs are
ways we define ourselves. So I’m going to take a look at some of the
language of fashion, and also at how fashion can function as a language, communicating
your status, background, identity and more to the world around you. Custom came into English first, in the 13th
century, through Anglo-Norman French in the sense of “habitual practice”. Costume on the other hand came through Italian
and then French to arrive in English in the 17th century as a technical term in the fine
arts to refer to the style of painting or sculpture of a particular historical period. Costume gradually came to refer to clothing
instead, not only in the general sense (as in bathing costume), but also the specialized
sense of clothing of a particular culture or time (think custom), as in a national costume. Of course the sense of costume we tend to
think of first is the outfit worn for particular occasions such as Halloween, Mardi Gras, or
a fancy dress party. Another recent phenomenon is cosplay, a Japanese
portmanteau of the English words costume and play, in which participants dress up to recreate
characters from a variety of media including comics, video games and films. Cosplay is more than just putting on a costume,
though—it has developed into a highly elaborate culture with distinct subgroups, in which
the choice and type of costume signals allegiance to a particular fandom, can be an outlet for
creativity and for challenging stereotypes and cultural norms, and can even indicate
aspects of your value system to other members of the community. But it’s not only what we think of as costumes
that can perform this function. Fashion has always been important in marking
ingroups and outgroups, such as whether you’re part of a particular social, religious, or
political movement, if you belong to a particular subculture, or simply how cool you are. One extreme example of this is the macaroni. In and around the 18th century it was fashionable
for young men of means to go on the so-called Grand Tour to Europe to soak up the finer
points of European culture and history. In the 1760s a group of such tourists became
enamoured of Italian culture, hence the “macaroni club”, and took to wearing outlandishly
exaggerated styles of clothing and fashion, with bright colours, much lace, gold embroidery,
and comically oversized wigs. In succeeding generations there was both an
outgrowth and a backlash to this trend called dandyism, led in part by the most famous dandy
Beau Brummell, which was equally obsessed with matters of style, but instead moved towards
a highly refined look with dark colours, exquisitely tailored clothes, long trousers instead of
breeches, and elaborate neckties. This style set the trend for the formal men’s
suit that we still know today. These fashion trends became immortalized in
the song “Yankee Doodle”, in which the uncouth American, obviously not part of the
ingroup, rides into town on a pony rather than a horse, and considers the mere ornament
of a feather in his cap enough to qualify him as “macaroni” — making him a Yankee
Doodle dandy! Now, it’s no accident that costume and custom
come from the same root, as we can tell by looking at a parallel pair of words, habit
and habit. That is, habit meaning ‘custom’ and habit
meaning ‘clothing’, as in a nun’s habit. The word, which etymologically means “what
one has”, comes through French from the Latin verb habeo meaning “to have”. Both the English habit and the Latin habitus
could refer to the exterior, so one’s appearance or in other words clothing, and to one’s
interior condition or character, and from this develops the sense of “habitual behaviour”. Latin habeo goes back to a Proto-Indo-European
root which means “to give, receive” (notice the reciprocal nature of this word), and in
fact gives us the word give, though surprisingly not the word have, though the two roots do
share a similar semantic development — indeed behaviour, related to have, mirrors habit
in the sense of “habitual action”. While the word habit used to refer to clothing
generally, today it’s mainly restricted to the clothing of monks and nuns. Another element of a nun’s habit that used
to be common to women in general was the wimple, a sort of cloth that covered the head and
neck up to the chin, as it was considered immodest for a woman to show her hair. Of course fashion changes and the wimple was
dropped by everyone except nuns, and instead other adornments were found for the necks
of women, such as the gorget or gorgias, a kind of throat covering which derives its
name from the French word for throat. This new apparel was considered so fashionable
that we get the word gorgeous from it. Unless you believe the alternate theory that
the word is a reference to the Greek philosopher Gorgias who was apparently really into luxury
and showing it off. He was particularly known for praise rhetoric
and wrote a praise piece for Helen of Troy, whose gorgeousness kicked off the Trojan War,
exonerating her from any blame. Another neck covering that became popular
in the later middle ages and early modern periods was St Audrey’s lace, so called
because it was sold at St Audrey’s fair. St Audrey, or to give the original Anglo-Saxon
version of her name Æthelthryth, used to enjoy necklaces in her youth, and when later
in life she got a horrible tumour on her neck, she took it as divine retribution for her
vanity, a story mentioned by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the
English People. So I guess these St Audrey’s laces were
thought of as modesty preservers. Only once again, fashion changes and by the
17th century these laces came to be thought of as cheap and gaudy, and so St Audrey was
shortened to our pejorative word tawdry. Poor Audrey, what a legacy! But getting back to those wimples, the source
of the word wimple is not certain, but it may come from a Proto-Indo-European root which
means “to turn” (as in a cloth wrapped around the head), a root which also gives
us the words wipe, whip, and vibrate. This root also gives us the word gimp. No not that gimp, but a kind of braided cord
used for trimming fabric and in lace–like St Audrey’s lace, I suppose. Though speaking of that other type of gimp
(not to mention whips I guess), this might remind us of another aspect of fashion, clothing
fetishes, though perhaps the less said about that the better, particularly in the context
of nuns! Getting back to those nuns, while they were
covering their hair for modesty, the monks were doings something altogether different
with theirs. Tonsure, from the Latin for “barber”,
is the shaving of some part of the hair in order to show religious devotion. Different religious traditions have different
patterns of shaving, like for instance in the Roman church where the very top of the
head is shaved. The Irish church in the medieval period, on
the other hand, had a different pattern of tonsure, a point of much contention. Indeed the Venerable Bede (remember he wrote
about Saint Audrey) connects this difference to the corresponding difference between the
Roman and Irish ways of calculating Easter, and the great climactic moment of victory
in his history is when the English definitively adopt the Roman practise over the Irish. An instance where hairstyle really did decide
ingroup and outgroup! No one now really knows what that Irish tonsure
was like as descriptions are vague, but one suggestion is that the hair was shaved at
the front ear to ear but allowed to grow at the back. So business in the front, party in the back? Actually there may be another candidate for
the medieval mullet. In the 6th century Procopius wrote of this
hairstyle in Constantinople where it was known as the Hunnic look. By the way, the modern word mullet for the
hairstyle seems to go back only to the Beastie Boys 1994 song “Mullet Head”, though some
sources also point to the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke in which the term mullet head is used,
though it’s not entirely clear that this is a reference to shaggy hair. The expression mullet head goes back to the
19th century in the sense a stupid person, and comes from the fish mullet, whose name
can possibly be traced back to a root meaning black. So clearly hairstyle like clothing is an important
marker of fashion and thus costume and custom. There have been of course many notable hairstyles
over the years, many with interesting etymologies. Well-known perhaps are sideburns, named after
the the US Civil War general Ambrose Burnside. In the 17th century when King Louis XIV of
France began to lose his hair possibly due to syphilis, his donning of a wig kicked off
a fashion for wigs. Even those who weren’t thinning on top began
to wear them. This is what we might now call a celebrity
fashion trend. A similar fashion trend sparked by disease
around that same time was the fad for wearing artificial beauty marks, initially to hide
scars left by smallpox, but soon as a fashionable item in itself. Another celebrity hair fashion was the pompadour,
named in honour of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis the XV. This fashion trend would eventually return
some 200 years later on the heads of the greasers in 1950s America, most famously exemplified
by Elvis Presley. Well trends do come and go. Of course clothing as a marker of culture
has been around ever since it moved beyond the purely functional, but the quickly moving
fashion trend had to wait until the late middle ages and early modern period to really take
off. Professional tailors began to appear in Europe
in the 14th century. And although the button had been around since
ancient times, believe or not it wasn’t until the 13th century in Germany that the
buttonhole was invented, allowing the button to be used as a fastener. Both of these developments, the tailor and
the button, led to more form fitting clothing, rather than the loosely draped style of previous
eras, and this was the real impetus for fashion trends. Slight variations in cut and form could change
rapidly, going in and out of style. Perhaps the first great runaway fashion craze
is slashing, in which cuts are made in an outer garment to reveal the lavish fabrics
of the clothes underneath. This trend started off with Swiss soldiers,
after defeating the forces of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, threading bits of
fabric taken from the tents and banners of their enemies through the holes in their own
ragged clothing. After they returned home, the style caught
on and soon spread through Europe. This showing off of extra fabric is an example
of conspicuous consumption, basically showing off your wealth, like the prominently displayed
designer logos of today. Of course to be able to show off by means
of clothing you had to be of the upper classes. In fact during the middle ages and early modern
period, laws were passed to prevent lower class people from dressing above their level. You see at this time there was the rise of
the middle class — suddenly non-nobles had disposable income, made from trade and manufacture
rather than the land owning of the noble classes. So these so-called sumptuary laws were passed
restricting what people could wear at different levels of society. This wasn’t of course the first time such
restrictions existed. In ancient Rome, for example, only Roman citizens,
in other words free-born Roman males, were allowed to wear togas. It was a marker of status and rank. I somehow don’t think those Romans would
approve of the toga party! Speaking of which, that college tradition
began it seems in 1953 at Pomona College, and later became famous in the film National
Lampoon’s Animal House. However, before this there is a story of First
Lady Eleanor Roosevelt throwing a “toga party” to spoof the criticism of her husband
FDR as being like a Caesar. Once again, the politics of fashion. As for clothing as a marker of status, even
after those sumptuary laws were dropped, it wasn’t really until the advent of ready-to-wear
clothing, with standardized sizing that you could buy off the rack without need of tailoring,
that fashion really began to be democratized. Finally the middle class could be fashionable
as well. Although those prominent designer logos of
today, and the whole haute-couture world, show us that fashion and status are really
still a thing. Getting back to France, the home of fashion,
another fashion-setting elite was Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI, who is the ultimate
example of over the top extravagance. Apparently she preferred being called the
queen of fashion to the queen of France. Her dressmaker Rose Bertin, who is the first
famous fashion designer, created the fashion doll in order to disseminate the “in”
trends to Marie Antoinette’s family and friends, and this was kind of a precursor
to the fashion magazine as we know it today. Actually the very first fashion publication
was Castilglione’s The Book of the Courtier from the early 16th century, which dealt with
etiquette at court. The magazine Mercure Galant from the late
17th century began to give advice about the latest trends, and by the late 18th and early
19th century there were numerous such publications often with fashion plates demonstrating the
styles. Marie Antoinette’s successor as fashion
trend setter was the Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. Rejecting the lavish styles of Marie, Josephine
took a page from the neoclassical trends of the day and wore dresses similar in style
to the peplos of ancient Greek women, cinched high above the waist. We now know of this as the empire waist in
honour of Empress Josephine. In addition to being belted at the waist,
the ancient Greek peplos was fastened at the shoulders with broaches known as fibulae. Actually the fibula is similar to the modern
safety pin. The safety pin was reinvented in modern times
by a man named Walter Hunt, whose other major fashion claim to fame is inventing the lockstitch
mechanism that makes the sewing machine possible. The sewing machine is actually the combined
work of a number of different inventors coming together. The one to really make it practical, viable,
and popular was Isaac Singer, who put into practise the latest factory production techniques
to mass produce the machines. Singer was subsequently sued for the patent
by inventor Elias Howe, who had designed his own lockstitch mechanism, Walter Hunt having
declined to patent the idea as he was afraid it would put seamstresses out of work. But in any case, it was Singer’s sewing
machine that helped to democratize fashion, not only making manufacturing of clothes cheaper
and easier, but making it possible to do the work in the home. As for Elias Howe, his other fashion claim
to fame is coming up with the first “automatic, continuous clothing closure” in other words
the zipper. Strangely, Howe made so much money from his
lawsuit against Singer that he never bothered to market his zipper, and it wasn’t until
the idea was later reinvented by Whitcomb L. Judson at the end of the 19th century and
further developed by Gideon Sundback that the public got the zipper as we know it today. Incidentally, the word zipper originally referred
to the boot it was designed for, not the fastener itself, but the term soon transferred over. Today the zipper is the fastener of choice
on many other types of clothing, such as jackets and almost always on trousers, except on buttonfly
jeans, where the button remains as a quaint holdover of days past. Speaking of jeans, this staple of contemporary
fashion was invented for the 19th century gold rush, as the miners needed tough durable
trousers for working in. The tailor Jacob Davis had the idea of constructing
trousers with rivets to reinforce the seams. He got the tough denim fabric from wholesaler
Levi Strauss, and eventually the two went into business together, and Levi denim jeans
were born. But the language of this fashion predate this
invention and comes from far afield. Jean is an old 16th century word that comes
from the city name Genoa, and came to refer to a rugged type of cloth that came from there. The word denim is derived from the French
de Nîmes meaning “from Nîmes”, a town in southern France. And to top it off, dungaree, another name
for jeans, comes from the name of a village in India, Dungri. So this icon of American fashion actually
comes from all over the world! And indeed as the globalized 20th and 21st
centuries have become increasingly fragmented and uncentred we can no longer talk about
a single fashion, and there are far too many trends, styles and subcultures to mention
here. But perhaps one of the most striking that
borrows from the past is the goth style. Combining retro Victorian styles with the
gloominess of gothic horror fiction, the trend was taken up by those feeling isolated from
and wishing to rebel against mainstream culture. And that brings us nicely back to Halloween
costumes. There seem to be a number of traditions that
contributed to dressing up in costumes at Halloween—which I discussed in some detail
in my video on “Jack-o-Lantern”. One aspect of this custom is that it gives
licence to misrule, dressing up in taboo costumes, and breaking normal social boundaries. In more recent years there is the unfortunate
trend of dressing up in the (often stereotyped or caricatured) national costumes of other
cultures, reducing those cultures to a sort of costume that can be put on by anyone. Furthermore there’s the sexualized costumes,
particularly where it creates a sharp contrast, as in the sexy nun costumes. A long way from that modest wimple! If fashion is a language, perhaps we should
think about what we are saying with these costumes—and not make a habit of it! Thanks for watching! If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations
and cultural connections, please subscribe to this channel or share it; you can also
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can make a contribution to help me make more videos Leave a comment or question, or tweet
@Alliterative; you can also read more of my thoughts on my blog at alliterative.net

23 thoughts on “Costume: The Language of Fashion

  1. I strongly disagree with the concept of cultural appropriation. Wearing costumes of another culture shows adoration, not "reducing the culture to a mere costume". This quick-to-be-offended culture is more scary than any Halloween costume.

  2. iam not a prude but homeschool my kids and i want to use your vids. is there a way you can put out a gimp free version of this vid?

  3. have you ever considered to write a dictionary?
    a one that represents information as a graph.
    a great novelty i could be, although not possible to be printed on paper.

  4. Greetings from Spain!
    Congrats on your great video and channel!
    I am surprised you don't have many views/followers (yet).
    A friend of mine recommended it to me and I'll do the same!

  5. I've only recently discovered your channel, but it's safe to say that I've already been converted to the position of diehard fan! Great video; keep up the good work!

  6. this is amazing!!!! your research is related to what others are studying of the words in the legal realm. government obviously means to govern the mind. treatment – treat the mind, statement, etc. delving into these areas brings out greater information. person = a mask one wears in public. people rule the government, it rules over persons. (its own creation) the gold fringed flag in a court room is a maritime flag (the law of the sea). the room is layed out as a ship. the man in the black gown is a priest the lawyers pray to. the bailiff represents baal. the "judge" says "all rise" when he enters the room – hes raising the dead. summoning someone to court – you can only summon the dead. you appear in court, only apparitions "appear". all "persons" are corporations. corporeal/corpse. good mourning! are you awake or are you at a wake. earning/urning a living. the week/weak end. many many words are related to death/ the sea, water and prison terms.(whats your cell number?( tatoos, pants down below the butt means yr ready for sex in prison) this is social engineering, also a method used to raise the dead or wake people from their their hypnosis.
    road/rowed. mailbox/male box. invoice = inner voice. liability = ability to lie
    person =per/by the sun/son. blacks law book is a good place to start, legal words are defined in "terms", not by our common definitions.
    how the words change often are completely opposite of current meaning, such as to discriminate, which now has a negative connotation but used to mean "to discern"

  7. great episode! This really shows off the "Burkean" (sp?) connection style. Your research and how you build the links are impressive. One suggestion for the graphics. If an etymology is unsure or highly speculative, maybe use a dashed line or something. It might help visually. It's not a big deal, but just a thought.

  8. if you consider "cultural appropriation" costumes unacceptable in a civil society then this is exactly the reason we must put them on for Helloween.
    if you consider them unacceptable for Helloween then you must be considering those offensive costumes a social norm.

  9. Funny to speak of Gorgias as a word, not a name. In the banquet Plato plays on the homophony Gorgias-Gorgon, the latter being the Greek word for Medusa, implying Gorgias' speech turns the listener into stone.

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