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History of American Fashion Terms


An expensive variety of wool textile (or "woolen") from the West Country in Britain, densely textured and with an almost incandescent texture, used in England and colonial America for gentlemen's suits.

Corset, Corsets, Stays

Known in the eighteenth century by the English term, "stays," this undergarment originally consisted of right and left halves that laced up the front and the back. It was created with two layers of fabric, which formed pockets to hold narrow strips of whalebone to stiffen and strengthen the garment. The "whalebone" was not actually bone but baleen. In the eighteenth century, stays functioned to shape a woman's upper body like an inverted cone, and they also enabled an ample amount of cleavage by pushing up the breasts so that they were at least partially visible at the neckline. But by the mid-nineteenth century, corsets became more tightly laced and were utilized to minimize the waistline as much as possible. Longer stays were in fashion in the early eighteenth century and again in the 1840s; these extended down past the waistline and contained a pocket in the center front for a busk (a two-inch-wide board of ivory or wood, extending the same length as the stays). These longer corsets prevented women from being able to bend at the waist, and forced them to assume an upright posture and bend at the hips and knees, which was considered more elegant.


Probably a corruption of the French serge de Nimes, a twill-weave fabric made in Nimes during the seventeenth century.

Foppery, Fop, Foppish

The dress or manner of a fop, or a man who focuses attention on his clothing and overall appearance.


Fabric made from a cotton, linen and/or wool blend. Fustian became known as 'jean' after the sailors of Genoa, Italy, who wore it. By the eighteenth century, along with the development of slave labor, jean cloth was being made entirely of cotton and was valued for its durability. Indigo blue, a dye extracted from plants in the Americas and India, became a familiar color for working clothes.251


A long linen piece with short sleeves, resembling a very simple nightshirt. This was used as the basic undergarment for women up until the 1830s, when other underwear was added. The shift was a simple item that prevented subsequent layers from chafing the skin; in the late eighteenth century it was made from plain woven linen and sewn with flat seams for comfort. In the 1790s, shifts had low necklines—about level with the armpits—to accommodate the cleavage-friendly fashions of the period. Women also slept in shifts; they might have one for nighttime and one for daytime wear, but only wealthy women had more than two shifts. There was no concept of nighttime-specific wear (that is, clothing made expressly for sleeping in) or pajamas until the nineteenth century. Shifts were used throughout the nineteenth century, when they became known as chemises.


A sleeveless and collarless vest that men (primarily in England and colonial America) wore over their shirts and under their jackets. The waistcoat replaced the tight red leather doublet in popularity around 1700.

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