Harry S Truman was once a haberdasher.

So I learned from a book in my childhood. The president with the ornamental S snaking in the middle of his name like a cloth measuring tape was once a purveyor of gentlemen’s sartorial quincaillerie: bespoke four-in-hands, cufflink-and-button sets, collar studs, cut-to-measure bowties, and perhaps seersucker, gabardine, and herringbone suits. All the items, in short, for a well-turned-out gentleman in the Kansas City of 1920. And then a recession hit and his store folded like a silk pocket square.

The English lexicon will not face a recession. Even as the front shop loads up with the latest shiny buttons, string ties, and Trilby hats, and as lapels widen and narrow like the strand from tide to tide, there will always be wooden drawers at the back of the shop with bits and bobs from ages past bequeathed by prior owners, awaiting their turn to be sought and produced for some unanticipated need or fancy.

Haberdasher – and the haberdasher’s shop, haberdashery – is one such age-scented piece of furnishing, a sort of lexical bowtie made of ancient fabric. Who goes to one now? It’s all men’s wear departments and gentlemen’s clothing stores and (as Harry Rosen calls itself) men’s suits and fashion. Habits are hard to dash, but when I walk into the shiny spacious store in the shopping mall and buy one more little seven-dollar-seventy-five-cent plastic box of “twenty-eight collar stays” from under the glass counter, I hardly have the feeling of being in a haberdashery. When I bought my most recent two suits at an American department store, no one took a soft measuring tape to my inseam. Perhaps if I nip into the nearest bespoke men’s clothier I will be more lexically satisfied. But while my vocabulary might feel richer, my bank account will not.

British people reading this may feel confused, or feel that I am confused. In England (and, I suppose, other countries that follow its lexical lead), a haberdashery is a store that sells little pieces for sewing: buttons, ribbons, zippers, and such like. But in North America, a haberdashery is a men’s furnishing store. And why should men deserve such an old-school word? Well, it’s not as though men’s fashions change too rapidly either. Besides, women have milliners (another classic clothing word, taken originally from Milan being a centre of women’s hat fashions – yes, Milaner became milliner).

We have had this word, in any case, for a long time. Its origin may be Anglo-Norman hapertas, but, as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, “the English word [haberdash] may, from its date and sense, be a back-formation < haberdasher n., and hapertas may be only a bad Anglo-Norman spelling of it.” So we don’t really know; it’s one of those allsorts that have been in the back drawers so long the original inventory records have converted to dust. What we do know is that Geoffrey Chaucer used it:

An Haberdasshere, and a Carpenter,
A Webbe, a Dyere, and a Tapycer,—
And they were clothed alle in o lyveree
Of a solémpne and a greet fraternitee.
Ful fressh and newe hir geere apiked was;
Hir knyves were chaped noght with bras,
But al with silver; wroght ful clene and weel
Hire girdles and hir pouches everydeel.
Wel semed ech of hem a fair burgeys
To sitten in a yeldehalle, on a deys.

They were, in short, five well-dressed and well-to-do tradesmen. How well-to-do? They brought a cook with them:

A Cook they hadde with hem for the nones,
To boille the chiknes with the marybones,
And poudre-marchant tart, and galyngale.

Haberdasher may have a sound of hamantashen, of which I would not turn one down if it were offered, but never forget its faint hint of galingale and other old spice.

One response to “haberdasher

  1. Indeed there are many clothing words which, while they’re clothing words in both US and UK dialect, can be quite hysterical if you’re speaking – or listening – in the other dialect. Jumper and Vest are ones that usually cause puzzled faces!

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