Brief mention: the chamois shirt

For winter warmth, today I moved from lighter shirts to L.L. Bean’s Chamois Cloth Shirt — in red, illustrated here:

Whoa, you say, why is this called a chamois cloth shirt? What dies it have to do with chamois leather?

(In passing, I note that chamois cloth has the truncated variant chamois, so that chamois cloth shirt has the variant chamois shirt, which is what I call mine, just because I like the sound of /ʃǽmi ʃŕt/.)

For chamois, OED2 (of some considerable vintage now) lists the pronunciations /ʃǽmɔɪ/, /ʃǽmi/, and /ʃamwá/, while the more recent Wikipedia entry for chamois leather lists only the second (the most nativized pronunciation, which I believe now predominates heavily) and the third (the closest approximation to a French pronunciation).

The sense development starts with the animal:

a capriform antelope [Rupicapra rupicapra, native to the mountains of Europe] … Originally, a leather, prepared from the skin of the chamois; now applied to a soft, pliable leather prepared from the skins of sheep, goats, deer, calves, and the split hides of other animals.

As Wikipedia tells us,

Chamois leather …, sometimes known as a shammy, is a type of porous leather that is favored for its gentle, non-abrasive composition and absorption properties. It has a range of uses

(This covers both the mass N and the count N referring to a piece of chamois cloth, used for washing or polishing, for instance.)

The final (metaphorical) step — from chamois leather to a type of cotton flannel resembling chamois leather in texture (though not otherwise) — is one L.L. Bean takes credit for in its advertising copy:

Eighty years ago, Leon Leonwood Bean introduced a warm cotton flannel shirt to wear on hunting trips. He named it the Leatherette Shirt because of its remarkable resemblance to high-grade chamois leather. It was a hit with our customers and soon became known as Bean’s Chamois Cloth Shirt. (link)

Let’s face it: chamois (with its French resonance) sounds a lot tonier than leatherette (which suggests cheap imitations).


5 Responses to “Brief mention: the chamois shirt”

  1. bratschegirl Says:

    What? No mention of the Sham-Wow?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, I really should have inserted a Shaw-Wow commercial, for its value as a document on language in advertising. I’ll look around for a YouTube clip. I even think I’ve posted about it.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        This posting mentions pitchmen Ed Valeti, Ron Popeil, Bill Mays, and, yes, Vince Offer of ShamWow! fame. On the last: this Wikipedia entry summarizes the ShamWow! story, with a clip of the relentless commercials:

        Offer “Vince” Shlomi (born April 25, 1964), also known as Vince Offer, the “ShamWow!” Guy, or Headset Vince, is an infomercial pitchman, writer, director, and comedian. Offer’s first major work was the 1999 comedy film The Underground Comedy Movie. In the late 2000s, Offer began appearing on television commercials for the products “ShamWow!”, a super-absorbent towel, the “Slap Chop”, a kitchen utensil, and a lint roller called the “Schticky”.

  2. Jan Freeman Says:

    I’m sure you weren’t endorsing Bean’s claim to have coined the term “chamois cloth,” but I was curious enough to Google. Here’s an 1877 British reference to “chamois cloth” as manufactured fabric:

    “One of the latest introductions we saw there is a beautiful soft woollen material called chamois cloth. Messrs. Benjamin are the sole manufacturers of this article … .”

    Baily’s magazine of sports and pastimes – Page 185

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Certainly not endorsing the Bean puffery, which I found amusing. Nice, though, to have the extension attested so early; it should go into the revision of the OED.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: