What Not to Wear in the U.S.

(Reality TV Fashion)

When is it okay to wear white — ever? (Reality TV Fashion)

Clothing has been known to cause confusion and laughter for Brits in America, partly because although we use the same words, we’re not always talking about the same thing.

For example, an American vest is a British waistcoat, while a British vest is an undergarment worn on the top half of the body. Anyone in the UK can wear jumpers, since the word means a sweater and not a dress (pinafore) often worn by little girls. A Sloppy Joe in the U.S. is a messy meat sandwich, and not an over-sized baggy sweater popular in the 50’s and 60’s. Similarly, while Hush Puppy shoes are sold here, the phrase is more immediately associated with food – a savory ball of cornmeal batter that is deep-fried or baked.

Sometimes there’s potential for embarrassment, as when Americans talk about suspenders, and Brits don’t realize they mean braces. What they call knickers, a Brit would call plus fours or knickerbockers; British knickers are American panties, (a word reserved solely for under-five year olds in the UK, if used at all). Pants, in the U.S., refers to long trousers, and is never used to describe something that’s absolutely rubbish, as in “That film was pants.” American tourists often wear fanny packs, (bum bags) a name which might shock Brits who aren’t used to the non-offensiveness of the word fanny (bum). Thongs are everywhere, and worn by men and women, because in the U.S. the name is often used in lieu of flip-flops. (It can also refer to skimpy underwear by the way.)

There are many clothing names that aren’t used in the U.S. Expect blank looks from most listeners when you mention anoraks (and the implications when calling someone an anorak), cagools, court shoes, Jesus sandals, plimsoles, pop socks, and sandshoes to name but a few. Americans will also bandy a few odd names about, such as a Derby (bowler hat), pocketbook (handbag), pumps (court shoes), slicker (thin rain coat), Fedora (trilby) and pin (brooch).

Are you still with me?

The laughter comes when you see your first embellished sweater on a fully grown adult. Oh yes, you may think only fictional characters wear Christmas attire (think Colin Firth in the Bridget Jones movie) but you’d be wrong. And it’s not just limited to Christmas either. Out come the cat silhouettes at Halloween, and a thousand red hearts on Valentine’s Day. And try not to laugh when you first see a family in matching shirts or sweaters. The Mitt Romney family photo creeped me out a little but I don’t recall too many people commenting on the matching shirts.

(The Blaze)

Former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney in his coordinated family photo. (The Blaze)

And then there are the “rules”; the most well known, observed mainly in the south these days, being the ban on white after Labor Day. As a new arrival many years ago, I once wore white sandals in mid September in Texas, where it was still a searing 102 Fahrenheit. “Oh you’re lucky, you can get away with it being a foreigner,” one colleague remarked after she’d picked herself off the floor. Fortunately, according to Time Magazine, “more people than ever are breaking this role,” although Michelle Obama caused a few ripples only this year when she wore — gasp — white pants (sorry, trousers) at Easter. That’s before Memorial Day, the official start of summer. Michelle, Michelle.

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • Estrellita

    Panties is an odious word. There are many Americans who do not use it. The ‘no white after Labor Day’ rule applies in some circles, but after a trip to any Walmart, you will see that 99% of the people in this country don’t follow any rules when it comes to attire. The best piece of advice I am able to give is bring plenty of pajamas for your children. The pajamas (made of flame retardant fabric) you will find in the U.S. are atrocious.

    • karlsbad

      Neither ‘panties’, nor ‘fanny’ are odious words in the southern United States. Just do a search for ‘panties’ on the Walmart website. ‘White after Labor Day’ is a joke.

      • Estrellita

        Did I say all? The southern United States is a different animal as is the godforsaken Walmart. Odious is in the ear of the beholder.

        • comics360

          The US has WalMart, Brits have ASDA, Same thing…

          • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

            Except ASDA doesn’t have a gun rack.

    • Bebe1000

      In my family growing up with four sisters, we never used the word panties. Makes my skin crawl. My daughter and her friends speak of ‘panties’ families and ‘under-pants’ or ‘underwear’ families. She, like I always did, has good friends in both camps. The women in”underwear” families do tend to think of “panties” as a little vulgar, but it’s not a friendship breaker.

  • Chris

    Not sure where you did your research, but hush puppies are a cornmeal batter fried goodness here. They are generally served with seafood. And it is not just the south that adheres to the rule on white clothing, The Midwest also follows the rule.

    • expatmum

      I dunno – I’m wondering around Chicago right now and there’s lots of white.

    • kitINstLOUIS

      Yeah, that old chestnut has been officially retired. The only folks who conform to no-white-between-Labor-Day-and-Memorial Day are a bit old-fashioned. http://www.wltz.com/category/207449/the-dee-armstrong-show

    • Tonya Lynn

      My mother was raised in the Midwest and she always said no white after Labor Day until Easter. I never heard it going on through Memorial Day. We always got shiny new white patent leather shoes for Easter when we were young.

  • Sandy

    Not wearing white after Labor Day harks back to Queen Victoria, who shed her white summer mourning for black at the end of the summer. Fewer and fewer savvy women eschew white, even at midwinter.

  • delores_in_wa_state

    Funny. USA is such a large country that there may be several names for ONE item. It all depends on the location you were raised in. IE: Pocketbook, handbag, purse. I’ve heard them all. ;-)
    Another oddity: Carbonated soda can be called, pop, soda, road-pop, or Coke. Down sound they referred to any flavor of carbonated soda as Coke.

    • karlsbad

      Your last sentence should read: Down South, some people refer to any flavor of carbonated soda as ‘Coke’ (although ‘cola’ is more common).

      This use of ‘coke’ is rarely overheard being chiefly ethnical vernacular and it is perhaps more colloquial betwixt juveniles and family. Tonic and seltzer may also be heard occasionally, especially true for cocktails. There is no such commodity as Ginger Beer, so we make do with Ginger Ale.

      • delores_in_wa_state

        I h ave indeed seen Ginger beer bottled and sold in the US. As I stated, it all depends on where you were raised – not to mention how many states you’ve lived in.

        Another oddity of the US, is a Heparin lock (used in medicine to keep a vein open without an IV line attached). Some states call it a Buffalo plug – for whatever reason.

        • karlsbad

          The big difference between ginger beer and ginger ale is that ginger beer is brewed (fermented) but ginger ale is just carbonated water that’s been flavored with ginger. That Ginger should get himself a lager. You’d be hard-pressed to find made-in-the-USA Ginger Beer widely sold in supermarkets available in the South. Shelf space is always at a premium.

          • delores_in_wa_state

            You said there is no such commodity as Ginger beer, I said I have seen it for sale in the US and go off in a different direction about the difference between Ginger beer and Ginger ale.

            At this point I am wondering if you are just lonely, or if you have Asperger’s Syndrome.

            At any rate – you contradicted yourself, but it really doesn’t matter. I think you just like to post comments.

          • Boocat Butterbee

            Making the clarifying point is good enough, thank you Delores. The snarky bit doesn’t add anything and it might hurt karlsbad’s feelings.

          • delores_in_wa_state

            Since you cannot hear my tone of voice or see my body language, please do not just to the conclusion that I was “snarky”.
            Merely making an observation.

          • RedBengalTiger

            Most people around here (Pacific Northwest) refer to carbonated drinks as soda(s). I suppose some call it pop, but mainly, restaurants are the only ones who call them ‘soft drinks’. I’ve never heard anyone call a soda a Coke if it wasn’t actually a Coke (as in the brand).

          • Cheryl

            It was however mean spirited.

    • Keri in KY

      Actually in the south and midwest too, the most common way to refer to carbonated drinks is “soft drink”. But basically anywhere in the US you can use “soft drink” and people will know what you talking about. It’s evolved as the American generic word for it. It’s replaced Coke as the generic word because Coke is a particular brand of soft drink, and there’s a lot more brands available than there used to be back in the 1970′s.

      • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

        I was chatting to a friend whose family is from Philly. They all call any fizzy drink “coke”; if it’s fizzy orange, they call it orange coke. Definitely regional. I lot of my mid-west friends say “pop” but it comes out like “pap” to my ears, LOL.

        • Lisa Jones

          In Philadelphia? Wow, that’s the furthest north I’ve heard of “Coke” being used for all carbonated soft drinks! I hear it here now and again, but I can see Kentucky from any tall building in town.

    • hillbetty

      I know this is a little late but I’m in Arkansas and “coke” is used for everything from actual Coca Cola to Diet Dr. Pepper. (and ginger beer is fairly easy to find) :)

    • Lisa Gail Bridges

      I am from the south and can verify that all soda is called coke down here. It confused me a lot as a child.

  • deborah

    I don’t know where you are from but the term “Fanny” in the US may mean “BUM”, but in England, the term “Fanny” means a little girls vagina!!!!!!!!

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Exactly – shocked Brits. it says ” American tourists often wear fanny packs, (bum bags) a name which might shock Brits who aren’t used to the non-offensiveness of the word fanny (bum). “

    • RedBengalTiger

      Oh, yikes. If you said bum here (US), you’d probably get some weird looks, but it sounds like ‘fanny’ is even worse over there!

    • R K

      Interesting–only little girls? I thought “fanny” in England pretty much meant ladyparts of any age.

      • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

        @ RK It does.

  • karlsbad

    At least in the southern U.S. where I live, knickers = panties or whatever would suffice as that particular undergarment for females.
    I have heard of plimsolls for women only, I mean, they do more commonly name ships with female names, and plimsoll originates with the Plimsoll line on ships, and these shoes typically are canvas dock siders. There are so many alternate names for shoes, it hardly bears the making of distinctions. Merchants will always try to be different, and what not? And now there are Mackintoshes and Macintoshes, and wellies and galoshes, and some hie there and some hide here. And I honestly had to look this up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cagoule.
    Sheer socks = pop socks. No biggie there. And lord, Jesus Sandals – get them while they still tread water.
    And pants are short for pantaloons__ I guess that the Pilgrims and Puritans, the 17th century Englishmen and the Scots-Irish never got the memorandum consigning pants to Balderdash’s hamper (Oi! there’s another).

    • RedBengalTiger

      Really? Wow, I’m only Pacific Northwest, and from the sound of it, we’re worlds apart! Knickers = pants (not a common word, though), those shoe names are nonexistent, etc.

  • skeptic

    “Pumps” in the U.S. are ladies dressy shoes with high heels.

  • R K

    I haven’t heard any Americans use “thongs” to mean “flip-flops” in years. I remember it from my childhood in the ’70s, but ever since the meaning of “thong” shifted to skimpy underwear, nobody calls the shoes anything but “flip-flops.” Though I have occasionally heard the word used to describe a leather cord for tying up a (usually man’s) ponytail.

    • Susan Koscielski

      It’s like the person said before, it depends on where you live. I have heard flip flops mostly called sandles or zoris which is japanese but I believe also spanish. In So. California we have people from everywhere so you get used to things being called something different depending on which household you are in. My spouse is Japanese, my son-in-law is Korean, I am Scots Irish; most people I know have mixed families. My dog hated baths so much he understood the word and would hide so we started using the japanese word and he soon knew that so we started spelling it and damn if that dog didn’t learn the spelling.

      • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

        Ha ha ha ha. Our dog can now spell WALK, LEASH, TREAT and also knows when it’s 3pm and time to do the school run! Pah!

    • RedBengalTiger

      I’ve only heard it maybe once as meaning flip-flops, but I have heard it quite a bit (usually in books) as meaning a leather cord, for a variety of purposes. It’s usually come to mean underwear.

    • Lisa Jones

      I was going to say the same thing, right down to the leather cord. Been a very long time since I’ve heard it used that way.

  • Cheryl

    Being a Canadian, we’ll use both the U.S.A. and British version for the same object. Bowler/Derby, both good words. And then there are the odd words that neither the Brits or U.S.A.sians understand, like Toque.

  • Jenn

    The term “fanny pack” was quite a shock when my family moved to the southeast (I’m german not brit)because we had been living in New York for two years and “fanny” was very much used to refer to lady parts. So, we began calling them a “tourist tote”! The term is still used by my family (close and extended) however, I have heard it used by other people out in public, which makes me chuckle. ;)

  • Frankie Herron

    I think the main difference between America and Britain is that America is HUGE in comparison, and it’s customs are extremely diverse even from one town to the next because of the scores of immigrants who settled in America, each one bringing a very unique flavor to their area. Even across California there are so many dialects it’s not always easy to understand what a person means. A great tip for travelers: If you’re unsure of what a word means, politely say “I’m sorry but I’m not familiar with (that) word. Would you mind explaining it?”. Most people are happy to clarify.

  • dp

    The way I always heard the white/black rule was, “no white after Labor Day, no black after Easter” and it referred merely to shoes and the main color of your outfit (presuming you’re not a bride or attending a funeral).

    A bit more specificity on the jumper thing: it refers exclusively to a dress designed to be worn over a blouse (acceptable on all ages and extremely common on adults as recently as the 90s). A pinafore here is a fancy apron (often trimmed in lace or made from border print fabric) designed to be worn over a plain dress to spruce it up. This does tend to be exclusively the domain of young girls. I had a dress when I was a kid that had four different pinafores- one for each season of the year- that could be changed out to keep it looking appropriate year round.