A couple of weeks ago I was idly watching an opera in period costume on television when the thought popped into my head, "There's a bustle in this program." I didn't even know what a bustle was, but I was pretty sure it was in the show. It was a pretty disturbing experience - for all I knew, any moment one of the actors could be leaped upon by a slavering bustle (whatever that was) and ravenously torn limb from limb. Though, in fact, I checked later and found out that a bustle was a type of clothing.
Clothing perplexes me. I've put a lot of it on in the past few decades, but I'm still not quite sure what it's all called. (Sometimes, I'm not even sure where it's supposed to go.) Even now, I see names of items of clothing popping up in books and I have no idea what they actually are. What's a dirndl? It sounds like a random series of constonants that are missing two vowels, though, in fact, it's not. A few weeks ago David's internet boon-companion Nottlesby described to me what spatterdashes, or spats were: I promptly forgot. (They're something to do with shoes, although they are not, in fact, shoes.) Cummerbunds sound like something you go gathering in May, like nuts or strawberries. And homburgs sound like a type of regional German food (they are in fact related to the pork-pie hat). In fact, the whole area of hats is fraught with second meanings: Trilbys (a bird?), boaters (ship workers), Yarmulkes (the kid at school who aces the maths homework), beehive (apparently a hat, though why you'd want to have something like that on your head, God only knows), and chupallas (what the hell?). Then there are wimples, which sound like the sort of thing that wimps wear; and snoods - perhaps what snobs wear?
Underwear you'd think would be simple, but not so. There is perilously little difference between a brassiere and a brasserie. I'm sure many native English speakers visiting France have made the mistake of saying, in French,
"I'm just popping into the local underwear for some coffee."
Which, you know, makes some sense of its own.
And then there are farthingales (surely a type of fence?) and pantalettes (pants for hire, perhaps?). When I visited New York in the winter I was advised to get myself some thermal underwear, but the name sounded horribly alarming, as if people wanted me to wear an oven. So I just ended up wearing my trackies under my jeans.
Perhaps one of these days I'll get around to working out what all of these items of clothing are, and wear one wears them exactly. In the meantime, I'll just have to content myself with living in a world wear people gather cummerbunds in May, chase squatters out of their pantalettes, drink coffee out of women's underwear, and fend off ravening bustles at every turn. It's a dangerous world, but we all have to learn to live with it.
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