During a contentious day-before-school-starts faculty meeting several years ago, problems occurred when the principal announced a last-minute change in the dress code: sandals would no longer be permitted as footwear at the high school.
Female faculty members, who had already purchased sandals for themselves and their children, protested loudly. An entire lexicon of shoe styles began to bounce off the walls: flip flops and espadrilles and clogs. When the word “mules” popped up, one uninformed male teacher commented to another uninformed male teacher: “I thought we were talking about shoes…”
Their confusion was not at all surprising. Clothing and accessories often carry odd names that easily confuse people of either gender. Thus, my male colleagues could be excused for not knowing that “mules” – in terms of the fashion world rather than the barnyard – are today casual, backless shoes. The “mulleus calceus” originally worn by Roman magistrates and later as bedroom slippers in Europe, became fashionable when Marie Antoinette dared to wear them in public.
A few misguided souls may not realize that “pumps” are shoes as well as mechanical devices for air and water. Equally misleading are the disparate forms of pumps: comfortable, low-heeled ones known as “kitten heels” and the hardcore “stiletto” style that shares its name with a dangerous type of knife!
Even I was confused in the 80’s when “jelly shoes” became all the rage. The inexpensive, colorful footwear with a jelly-like sheen has been around since plastic became commonplace in the 50’s and 60’s. Mostly, I remember warning my female students against frostbitten toes when they insisted on wearing the cheap plastic things even in the dead of winter!
These days we all surely recognize the term “penny loafers,” although we may not know the penny slot was designed for “mad money” – the 1930’s price of a pay phone call. And it is not difficult to grasp that the name of “saddle oxfords” describes the shape of the dark piece over the instep. They were my least favorite shoes because Mother bought them for us every year. I was totally unimpressed by their historical popularity with golfers and jitterbug aficionados.
The oxford name also referred to another staple of clothing for men and women. During high school I loved my light blue, long-sleeved “oxford shirt.” The name of the timeless style alludes to the special, luxurious double weave accomplished by Scottish fabric mills of the 19th century that produced different versions for major universities, including Oxford and Harvard. Polo players liked the button-down style that prevented the wind from blowing up their collars, and the loop on the back yoke resembled loops sailors formerly used to hang up their clothing.
Having worn many a “car coat” in and out of automobiles, I never knew the first versions were full-length garments designed for drivers and passengers in the open cars of the early 1900’s. Heavy fabrics used in their construction provided warmth during frequent breakdowns of those early autos. My car coats were always thigh-length outerwear made in fabrics more suitable for the cool temperatures of spring and fall.
There were other long coats in the old days. I made a “duster” one year in 4-H, a kind of robe, to coordinate with a nightgown. But originally, “dusters” were popular in the Wild West to protect the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday from trail dust. And “trench coats” began as long raincoats for Army personnel fighting in the trenches of the First World War.
The most puzzling names for clothing probably occur in the pants category. I guess it all started with “bloomers” introduced in the 1850’s by none other than Amelia Bloomer. However, the reason for the name of a pants style in the 80’s may not seem as direct. “Parachute pants” were not designed for airplane jumping, as suggested, but for breakdancing. The tough nylon fabric similar to parachute material made the pants durable, while reducing friction with dance surfaces.
There were the calf-length, clearly-named “clam diggers,” also known as “pedal pushers,” popular with cyclists who wanted to avoid catching their trousers in their bike wheels. Another version, “capri pants,” gained fame on the fashionable Isle of Capri – and on Mary Tyler Moore as the TV wife of Dick Van Dyke.
As for even shorter pants, ultra-abbreviated cutoffs, known as “Daisy Dukes,” were popularized by a character of the same name on The Dukes of Hazzard. Another island provided the name for “Bermuda shorts,” walking shorts of a more conservative length, designed for businessmen who had to work in the tropical climate there.
Another 1980’s short pants fad carried a curious name. It seemed that almost every boy at GHS donned “jams,” longish surfer pants in bright colors and wild patterns. “Jams” was a brand name, a shortened form of clothing that provided the comfort of pajamas.
“Interesting” names for past and present fashions abound. My elementary classmates wore “poodle skirts” and “Mary Janes,” while I observed with ladies in hairstyles named after “beehives” and hats shaped like “pillboxes.” During my adolescence, girls wore “Peter Pan collars” and guys sported ducktail haircuts. As I started my teaching career, “granny glasses” and “bell-bottoms” were in vogue.
Of one principle we Boomers can be certain: most fashions will eventually repeat themselves in some form. Whether we recognize their names when they come around again is a completely different discussion!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.