When we throw on an old pair of jeans or dress up in a tux, we’re not just wearing clothes. We’re wearing toponyms, or words named after their places of origin. Many common articles of clothing and general fashion terms have surprising geographic roots. Here’s a tour of 14 of them.
Tuxedo dons its name courtesy of Tuxedo Park, New York, home to an elite country club where men began wearing this style of jacket, later paired with pants, in 1886. The name Tuxedo itself may be from an Algonquian term for “crooked river.”
Jersey cattle, New Jersey, and basketball jerseys all hail, etymologically speaking, from Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy. There, they knitted a close-fitting garment that, by the mid-1850s, was morphing into the jerseys athletes, and their diehard fans, sport today.
If you associate ascot with posh British men, you’re not just stereotyping. You’re also doing etymology. The name for this tucked-in necktie trots back to Ascot, a town outside London that has long hosted a prestigious annual horserace the Royal Family attends. And one wants to look nice for the monarch, no? By the early 1900s, men were putting on the ascot tie for the event, shortened to ascot by the 1950s.
We can thank the Scots for the feathery, frilly swirls on our neckties and shawls. The paisley pattern honors Paisley, Scotland, which, inspired by Indian imports, printed the design on its famous textiles. The toponym is first attested in a 1790 poem by Robert Burns, fittingly, while the teardrop pattern itself may depict a type of Indian pine cone.
And we can thank other Scots for the argyle on our socks. The diamond design is based on the tartan identifying the Argyll branch of Clan Campbell in western Scotland. Luxury knitwear clothier Pringle of Scotland helped popularize the modern pattern when the Duke of Windsor wore some of their argyle in the 1920s.
Denim literally comes from Nîmes, a town in southern France that manufactured a kind of twilled wool called serge. In French, this textile was known as serge de Nîmes: “serge from Nîmes.” English zipped de Nîmes into one word as early as 1695, but it was mid-19th-century American English that applied the word to the coarse cotton so common today.
Genoa, Italy historically produced a sort of sturdy trousers the French called jene fustian, or “Genoese fustian,” a twilled cloth. English had slipped into jene fustian by the 16th century, the phrase eventually shrinking into our everyday jeans by the early 1800s.
From blue jeans we head over to blue suede shoes. In French, the name for Sweden is Suède. Suede originally appeared in gants de suède, or “gloves from Sweden,” made out of the velvety leather. Suede had ditched its “gloves” by the late 1800s.
Every time you sling a duffel bag over your shoulder, you’re paying homage to the Belgian town of Duffel. By the 17th century, Duffel was known for a coarse cloth it produced, hence duffel (sometimes duffle). Before we were lugging the bags, though, we were wearing duffel coats.
Capri pants owe their name to the island of Capri, a long-fashionable resort just off the Italian mainland—and they may owe their design to Prussian fashionista Sonja De Lennart, who released a Capri collection of womenswear in the late 1940s, the pants specifically in 1948.
Before we leave Italy, let’s stop in Milan. The northern Italian city lends its name to milliner, a maker or seller of women’s hats. In the late 1400s, Milliner referred to a resident of Milan, extending over the centuries to a vendor of fancy wares, especially fine hats made in Milan.
12. POLKA DOT
The polka hit Prague in the 1830s and soon after hopped its way across Europe. The dance may honor a failed Polish uprising against Russia in 1830-31, which is why some etymologists suggest polka is the Czech for “Polish woman.” The dance became so popular, apparently, that marketers slapped its name in front of everything from food to articles of clothing printed with dots.
Calico sails all the way from Calicut (Kozhikode), a major port city on India’s Malabar Coast. Europeans imported a cotton cloth from there which came to be called calico by the 16th century. The textiles were often printed with multicolored designs, hence calico cats or horses.
The modern bikini, introduced as le bikini by French designer Louis Reard in 1946, is named for Bikini, an atoll in the Marshall Islands where the U.S. tested atomic bombs that same year. It’s often said the swimsuit took its name from Bikini because of its “explosive” effect on men. But evidence for the claim is, well, scanty.