By Mark Sundaram
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 cloththat 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!
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