October 2012

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October 2012

The Last Word:

Pronouncing 'Couture'

Catherine Bradley

Warning: don't read this article in a crowded place.

Many intelligent people have a secret fear: mispronouncing words. I, myself, am unusually quiet when we work on plays by Brecht. It's not because I have nothing to say, but because I am terrified of mispronouncing his theory of distancing the audience, or "Verfremdungseffekt."

In the costume biz, we are rich with words whose pronunciation may be mystifying. For many, the trickiest seem to be terminology that originally comes from French. I am here to propose a solution: the use of barnyard noises and other assorted nonsense sounds as a way to pronounce those fancy French couture sounds. So please read this article with a willingness to say "grrrrr," "cooo." and baaaaaa." For best effect, say them right now just to get in the swing of things.

First, don't be afraid of sounding silly. You will sound like your intelligent, poised self by the time we are done. Let's start by creating the sounds that we are looking for and save the impressive terminology for later.

A building block to fancy French accent status is rolling the letter r. Here's where you say "grrrr." You may want to say it a few times... Good... That sounded terrific (except for the few of you who are reading in the bus and didn't actually say anything out loud). Now just drop the "g" and say "rrrrr." Congratulations. You just rolled your r.

Next, let's tackle the word "couture." You are saying it fine right now, but if you want to separate yourself from the masses, you can elevate the word. If it sounds like "coo-tewer" right now, there is room for improvement. A beautiful word like that should not rhyme with anything resembling a storm drain or "sewer." We want to eliminate the "w" sound from the second half and add a little breath of air. Keep the first part just the way you do it normally. "Coo." Keep it soft like a dove's cooing noise. Now add a t for "coot." Give another "ooo" as before. "coo-too." Now add your fancy rolled r -- "coo-too-rrrr." That was impressive. You can now host a fashion television program. With practice, the "rrrr" will start to flow into one fluid breath that caresses gently in the back of your throat. For now, though, we consider that we've mastered the word couture. I, for one, feel better already.

Now let's try some randomly chosen words from our canon. The draped muslin, or toile, is a good one to know. It's pronounced like a sigh of contentment: "aaah." Pretend you are on a fainting couch while saying this one; "twaaahl." I can just see you now, happily walking around your costume shop making toiles for the rest of the season, just because you now know how to say it so well.

Some words, like the beautiful 1890s shaped bodice called a "cuirrasse" only seems like it is difficult to pronounce. You actually already know how to pronounce this one perfectly using ordinary words that you don't usually use in the same phrase: queer + ass. Say it fast a few times in a row until it doesn't sound like a derogatory remark. If you really want to push this one over the top, use your rolled r again: "quee-rrrrrass." You can even linger on the "s" like a snake hiss: "quee-rrrrrasssss." Cuirrasse is a word you can really throw yourself into full force. It will be the highlight of your costume history course.

Anything that you want to make sound small and cute can have "ette" added to the end of the word. I like the word "pantalette." It literally means "small pants," so I use it to denote the little knickers worn under petticoats. You can make anything small and cute. "Collarette" is a small collar. You can see how this can become addictive.

Next let's use your knowledge of Russian gleaned from old Cold War spy movies. Everyone knows how to say "no" in Russian: "nyet." Let's use the "ny" from "nyet" to do bigger and better things like pronounce the word "paniers." Again, it's really made up of two words that you already know: "pan" + "yay." Let the Russian "ny" sound seep into the middle of the word: "panyay." Now for the glory part: in French, the final "s" is silent. So "panier" and "paniers" sound exactly alike. Just for kicks, you may also want to know that "panier" is the French word for basket, so the two protrusions that extend out from the sides of 17th century skirt are quite logically paniers, which you can now pronounce fluently.

Each of us will be emulated in our field whether as students, stitchers, cutters, or designers. Costume shops each have their own vocabularies, their own special names for things. Let's make sure that we are using words in a way that honors their meaning and their heritage. And let's not be afraid to make some barnyard noises along the way.

Since there are so many beautiful words that defy the space of one article, I will happily give pronunciation tips on any French costume terminology as needed. Just contact me at catherine.bradley@mcgill.ca, and I will gladly break the word down into easily pronounceable nonsense noises.

Catherine Bradley runs the costume shop at McGill University. As an anglophone living in Montreal, Catherine is bilingual and often works in both official languages. She learned her costume terminology in French by being corrected frequently while working on theatre, films, television, and opera for the last 25 years.