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.
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.