Fashion Plates and Spinsters
Whenever I stop to consider the derivation of certain words and phrases, I often wonder why I’d never thought before how they came to be part of our English language. “Fashion plate,” for example.
I knew, of course, that the term refers to someone, usually a woman, who is dressed in the latest style. Recently I learned its derivation while reading “Strapless,” a book written by Deborah Davis about the artist John Singer Sargent and his model for the painting Madame X. In the book Davis describes the life of upper-class women in Paris in the 1880s. She explains that new dress designs were pressed onto plates which were then printed in the local fashion magazines and newspapers.
And then last week during a lecture on the history of American women, I learned about spinsters. During the 19th Century, when the women who worked in mills as spinners of fabrics reached a certain age, usually thirty, they were regarded as being beyond the age of marriage. These “old” women were then referred to as “spinsters.”
It’s a different story today as “unmarried” has replaced “spinster” which earlier in this century brought to mind an old woman with wrinkled hands sitting in her rocking chair. Today you may call a woman a fashion plate and you’ll be met with a smile. Call her a spinster and she might hit you with her AARP card.