When we say French twist, French manicure, French cuffs etc. are these truly French fashions? French people call the chic hairstyle we know as a French twist or French roll a chignon banane (banana bun). On the other hand, a French braid or French plait has the same name in France – tresse française – or sometimes tresse paysanne (peasant woman’s braid) or even a tresse africaine (African), though that one means tight afro braiding too.
A French manicure is not a French invention. Translated as french manucure (don’t miss the different spelling – with u where we put i), it’s an American beauty treatment hardly seen in France until about 10 years ago. Most commentators think they know why US cosmetics company Orly gave this look its name in the mid-1970s. In the ‘land of the Big Mac‘, says one site, the French used to be associated with ‘fashion, taste, and style’, and maybe still are today.
The right name can persuade us that a style is fashionable or even seductive. The undies called French knickers or French-leg knickers in 1920s England were slinky satin garments for stylish women. After doing some research, I suspect this is not a special category of garment in French fashion, and has no special name. (If you know different please tell us in the comments section.) Some modern versions are sold as a boxer or short, but these words describe other styles too.
The habit of using the word ‘French’ for extra chic goes back a long way. One of my favourite expressions is the swashbuckling musketeer’s cuff, poignet mousquetaire, found on shirts tailored with a doubled-back cuff that’s been called a French cuff for 200 years at least. Other dressmaking terms include the French seam, known as an English seam, or couture anglaise. The French knot, a trendy new embroidery technique four centuries ago and still going strong, is point de noeud, a plain old knot point.
And what did a French maid suggest before her name was given to a kind of fancy dress? She was a high-status lady’s maid who was hired to bring her mistress all the latest Parisian hair-styling and dress-trimming tips. The change in meaning over the years reminds us that the English-speaking world not only sees French style as elegant, but also risqué from time to time.
We haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of fashion-related words taken directly from French. Some are familiar – like couture or brassiere, while others are more for readers of historical fiction, like fraise or tournure. And we’ll have to think about non-fashion “French something” expressions another time.
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