camisole

When I was a boy, I was a boy.

Not a girl. Which means I didn’t really know all the intricate insanities of women’s clothing. Adolescent boys know about bras and panties. That’s all. Oh, and wet T-shirts, and the usual outerwear. I was well into my adulthood before I knew, for instance, the difference between pumps and mules. And what the heck camisoles were.

I mean, really, what does the word camisole sound like? A canvas insole, some kind of camouflage, maybe something made of camel hair or, heck, for all I knew, some kind of sail a girl could unfurl so the wind could carry her away from the unwanted advances of a spotty-faced weakling… like me. What it did not sound like was any sort of soft, lacy thing that might be worn close to those chests I had spent so many cumulative hours inspecting sidelong.

I suppose, knowing what it refers to, you could hear the soft silk in the /s/, see and hear the mammaries in the m, get a whisper from the aspiration on the opening /k/ (and there are surely many aspirations that are mediated by camisoles), and end with that liquid /l/ that is like a touch of light fabric on skin. Sure, but that’s all post facto. It sounded more like military equipment to my young ears. Further evidence that girls are strange (if delightful and yet cruel) creatures deserving more of padded cells than padded undergarments.

But, then, the very idea was flummoxing. Why would anyone need another layer? Wot, there’s a bra, then a camisole, then a shirt, then a jacket, then… Well, now, of course, a married man, I know that some women may wear a half dozen layers at times (although my wife does not actually own any camisoles). “Warm” for dudes is the same as “freezing” for dudettes.

Still and all, if you have the idea that showing one’s underwear is rather outré, and a glimpse of a bit of lace is something you’re only supposed to get on the sly, the more recent trend towards having the tops of camisoles peeking out from behind outerwear tops can be a bit discomfiting. Is that proper lady in this formal situation really displaying her undergarment?

Well, is a camisole underwear or not?

Originally, the answer was easy: not. Originally, camisoles were actually jackets. Or, rather, originally camisole referred to a sleeved jacket or jersey worn by men – that was how it came to be in English in the earlier 1800s, from French, which took it from Provençal camisola, which in turn derived from Late Latin camisa “shirt” (from which, I am sure you have already guessed, we also get chemise).

Then it came to be “a loose jacket worn by women when dressed in negligée,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary. By the latter 1800s, the name had transferred to an underbodice – worn, as the Random House Dictionary puts it, “to conceal the underwear.”

Um, so it’s not underwear then? But it’s worn under…

And worn over, yes. And, honestly, some things now sold as camisoles look just like spaghetti-strap tops or even tank tops (do a Google image search on camisole to see the variety available, or if you just want some pretext to look at models in their underwear – or their not-underwear). I’ve seen some young women go by with three sets of thin straps over their shoulders, one for the spaghetti-strap top, one for the camisole, one for the bra. So, now, would they wear just the camisole with nothing on top of it? Or is this some special kind of garment where part of it isn’t underwear and part of it is?

Well, fine. I’m not going to try to delve deeply into the intricacies of women’s clothing. That way madness lies.

Which reminds me: there is another use of camisole. It also means – often but not always in the fuller phrase camisole de force – a straitjacket.

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