Clothing terminology comprises the names of individual garments and classes of garments, as well as the specialized vocabularies of the trades that have designed, manufactured, marketed and sold clothing over hundreds of years.
Clothing terminology ranges from the arcane (watchet, a pale blue color name from the 16th century), and changes over time in response to fashion which in turn reflects social, artistic, and political trends.
At its broadest, clothing terminology may be said to include names for:
Despite the constant introduction of new terms by fashion designers, clothing manufacturers, and marketers, the names for several basic garment classes in English are very stable over time. Gown, shirt/skirt, frock, and coat are all attested back to the early medieval period.
Gown (from Medieval Latin gunna) was a basic clothing term for hundreds of years, referring to a garment that hangs from the shoulders. In Medieval and Renaissance England gown referred to a loose outer garment worn by both men and women, sometimes short, more often ankle length, with sleeves. By the 18th century gown had become a standard category term for a women's dress, a meaning it retained until the mid-20th century. Only in the last few decades has gown lost this general meaning in favor of dress. Today the term gown is rare except in specialized cases: academic dress or cap and gown, evening gown, nightgown, hospital gown, and so on (see Gown).
Shirt and skirt are originally the same word, the former being the southern and the latter the northern pronunciation in early Middle English.
Coat remains a term for an overgarment, its essential meaning for the last thousand years (see Coat).
Names for new styles or fashions in clothing are frequently the deliberate inventions of fashion designers or clothing manufacturers; these include Chanel's Little Black Dress (a term which has survived) and Lanvin's robe de style (which has not). Other terms are of more obscure origin.
Clothing styles are frequently named after people—often with a military connection:
Another fertile source for clothing terms is place names, which usually reflect the origin (or supposed origin) of a fashion. Modern terms such as Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and Fair Isle sweaters are the latest in a long line that stretches back to holland (linen), damask ("from Damascus"), polonaise ("in the fashion of Polish women"), basque, jersey (originally Jersey frock), Balaclava, Capri pants, mantua, and denim ("serge de Nîmes" after the city).
Costume historians, with a "rearward-looking" view, require names for clothing styles that were not used (or needed) when the styles were actually worn. For example, the Van Dyke collar is so-called from its appearances in 17th century portraits by Anthony van Dyck, and the Watteau pleats of the robe á la française are called after their appearance in the portraits of Antoine Watteau.
Similarly, terms may be applied ahistorically to entire categories of garments, so that corset is applied to garments that were called stays or a pair of bodies until the introduction of the word corset in the late 18th century. And dress is now applied to any women's garment consisting of a bodice and skirt, although for most of its history dress simply meant clothing, or a complete outfit of clothing with its appropriate accessories.
A notable trend at the turn of the 21st century is "cute" short forms: camisole becomes cami, hooded sweaters or sweatshirts become hoodies, and as of 2005, short or "shrunken" cardigans are cardies.
The much-older term shimmy for "slip" is most likely a false singular from chemise.