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Fedoras to mullets: decades of fashion words

It can be pretty difficult to keep track of current fashion trends; it seems as soon as you finally become accustomed to one (and have incorporated it into your own wardrobe), another style invariably comes along to replace it. However, even decades after the trends themselves are no longer to be found behind storefront windows or on red carpets, the names of these trends—and the stories they relate—remain behind.

Here, we take a look at three time periods of the 20th century and the fashion words that have come to characterize them.

1900s-1920s

The trench coat—a look so classic and practical, it has arguably never gone out of style—made its first popular appearance during the early 20th century. The loose, belted, double-breasted raincoat of the 1920s was intended to be reminiscent of an earlier “trench coat”, a type of lined or padded waterproof coat worn by soldiers during World War I in the trenches. As Humphrey Bogart could certainly have attested, the trench coat was frequently paired with a fedora or homburg hat; the former takes its name from the 1882 French drama Fédora by Victorien Sardou, in which the lead actress wore a soft felt hat which would become a ubiquitous look in the early 20th century (and beyond). The homburg, on the other hand, is a similar hat named after Bad Homburg, Germany, where such hats were first worn.

It’s also impossible to talk about this portion of the 20th century without mentioning the ever-present women’s haircut of the time: the bob. A style in which the hair is cut short and evenly all around the head so that it hangs above the shoulders, the bob provided a stark contrast to the long, time-consuming hairstyles women tended to wear. Indeed, the bob may have even served a practical purpose at first; as more and more women were called upon during WWI to work, any haircut longer than a bob could have been impractical and even dangerous. The word comes from late Middle English, denoting a bunch or cluster, but is ultimately of unknown origin.

1930s-1950s

Nothing is more characteristic of this period than the bikini—not least because of the waves this skimpy swimwear made at a time when women’s clothing tended to cover most of the body. Though more recent fashion developments like the monokini point to the (mistaken) theory that the etymology of the word bikini involves the prefix ‘bi-’, the word actually comes from Bikini, the name of an atoll in the Marshall Islands where an atomic bomb was exploded in 1946. Indeed, the bikini is so-named because of the supposed “explosive” effect it created.

In addition to the bikini, we can’t forget the zoot suit! Though now it seems to be worn chiefly as a Halloween costume, the zoot suit—a suit characterized by a long loose jacket with padded shoulders and high-waisted, tapering pants— experienced its heyday in the 1940s. There are many theories as to the origins of the unusual word “zoot”, but it is probably a rhyming formation on “suit”. This oversized, baggy style was not typically found in women’s fashion at the time. Instead, what became known as the wasp waist—especially as part of Christian Dior’s New Look—was the order of the day for the feminine silhouette: a very narrow, or tightly corseted waist, so-called given its resemblance to a wasp’s skinny “waist”.

1960s and beyond

Who thinks of the 1960s and doesn’t think of those tall, low-heeled, shiny white go-go boots? Often paired with a miniskirt (gone were the days when the bikini was considered scandalous), go-go boots take their name from the adjective ‘go-go’: relating to or denoting an unrestrained and erotic style of dancing to popular music (“go-go dancer” is another common collocation involving the word). Go-go is perhaps influenced by a gogo, meaning “in abundance; galore”, from French à gogo, from Old French gogue meaning “fun”.

The mention of the word paisley might also take your mind back to the late 60s and early 70s. This design—often found on shirts, dresses, and ties—features a distinctive, intricate pattern of curved, feather-shaped figures, based on a pine cone design from India. However, despite its connections with India, the name actually comes from the Scottish town Paisley, where it was originally manufactured.

And, as long as we’re discussing this side of the 20th century, I think one more hairstyle warrants mention: the mullet. Often humorously described as “business in the front, party in the back”, this hairstyle was (and, sometimes, still is) worn especially by men, and features the hair cut short at the front and sides while being left long in the back. Its origins are, sadly, uncertain, though it might be an extended use of mullet-head, a colloquial term for a stupid person (as well as the name of a song by the hip-hop group the Beastie Boys, who largely popularized the word “mullet”).

When it comes to fashion, it can be said with certainty that what goes around comes around, so it is unlikely that any of these words will fall out of use. After all, it’s surely only a matter of time until we find ourselves dusting off those homburgs and go-go boots once more (though hopefully not at the same time)!

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