Translating Laurence Benaïm’s masterful biography Yves Saint Laurent (forthcoming from Rizzoli) was a fascinating and intense experience. For one thing, upon delving into the world of French fashion translation, I discovered more kinds of fabric than I had ever known existed. One saving grace was that for many of these fabrics, the English translation is the same as the French. One then just has to decide whether to write crepe de Chine or crêpe de Chine. The language of French fashion has many specific and descriptive terms that reflect the vast range of creative techniques that are used in this field. In this post, I’ll discuss some discoveries about words for clothing in both French and English that I made while translating Yves Saint Laurent — including potentially confusing terms, interesting etymologies, and cross-cultural connections.

A Tuxedo by Any Other Name…

Yves Saint Laurent's tuxedo at the de Young Museum
Yves Saint Laurent’s tuxedo at the de Young Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A lot of history, including place names and origins, is embedded in words for clothing. One of Yves Saint Laurent’s signature accomplishments was the tuxedo for women, which is called le smoking in French. In American English, the word tuxedo comes from a swanky country club in Tuxedo Park in New York’s Hudson Valley, and originally referred only to the jacket. It was worn there in 1888 as a substitute for a tailcoat and soon caught on. The garment seems to have originated not long before in London, where it was called a smoking jacket because it resembled Victorian smoking jackets that were suddenly being used in more formal evening settings. This term then entered French as le smoking. While some English-language sources do refer to Yves Saint Laurent’s design as a smoking, I opted for tuxedo, since I think it brings up a clearer image for American readers.

Don’t You Step on my Chaussures de Suède Bleu

The blue suede shoes that inspired the song.
The blue suede shoes that inspired the song. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The word suede also has a geographical origin. It was originally used for women’s gloves and comes from gants de Suède or “gloves from Sweden,” from where they were first imported into France. Suède is still used in Canadian French, but in France the term daim is generally seen. Although it means “buckskin,” daim can now be used to refer to suede leather of other animals as well. Suede has a unique texture because it is made from the soft underside of the animal skin, whether of lamb, goat, calf, or deer.

Mousseline Versus Muslin

Jean_Dessès evening gown in blue silk mousseline, 1950
Jean Dessès evening gown in blue silk mousseline, 1950. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Other fabrics whose French name is used in English include faille (a light-woven fabric with a ribbed texture, generally of silk), ottoman (a heavy silk blend), and mousseline (a very fine, semi-opaque fabric that is light and floaty). We’re still in the realm of geography and foreign influences here, since ottoman clearly refers to the Ottoman empire, and mousseline gets its name — dating back, it seems, to the Middle Ages! — from the city of Mosul in modern-day Iraq. Mousseline and muslin are false friends: mousseline could also refer to a lightweight cotton, which was then adapted into English as the word muslin, but while muslin is a plain, low-cost cotton fabric, mousseline refers to an expensive silk used for high-end clothing. We sometimes see mousseline de soie in French just to make this perfectly clear, and can specify silk mousseline in English if needed.

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