Sunday, October 17, 2010

Drapes Is a Verb

Just as I wrote in my post When Is a Vase a Vahz? that one never pronounces "vase" to rhyme with anything other than "place," one also never refers to "curtains" as "drapes."  It's just not done.  The use of that word to describe one's curtains is a genteelism that MD abhorred.  She instructed young Reggie never to use it when referring to what one hangs at one's windows.  That's because "drapes" is a verb and not a noun.  One drapes fabric, one does not hang drapes at one's windows.  There are no circumstances when such use of that word is acceptable.  And I mean none.

These are curtains and not drapes
Image from Authentic Decor: the Domestic Interior, 1620-1920, by Peter Thornton

When Reggie hears someone refer to curtains as "drapes," it's as if he's being subjected to the sound of finger nails screetching across a blackboard.  It makes him cringe.  And that's because it is so obviously wrong.

Designer Jacques Fath drapes himself with fabric
Paris, 1951

Image courtesy of LIFE Archive

I once saw an ad on television when I was a boy that hilariously demonstrated why it is that people educated in such matters do not refer to curtains as "drapes."  I thought it was very clever, and I have remembered it ever since.  The commercial (I think it was for a window manufacturer) amusingly portrayed the progression of a woman's interaction with a household domestic over time, as she moved up the socio-economic ladder from rather humble beginnings to a far richer and more sophisticated existence.

Those are not red drapes at the windows in this dining room,
those are curtains
Image from Authentic Decor by Peter Thornton

The first scene in the advertisement shows the woman and the maid, both wearing plain outfits, in a small attached house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, where the woman, who is clearly feeling her way through such matters, somewhat self-consciously instructs her maid, "Maggie, draw the drapes!" while pointing to a window dressed with frilly, inexpensive curtains.  The maid responds by rolling her eyes and a "Get her!" shrug.

Alphonse Berge, "the Great Drapo," drapes fabric 
on a model, New York, 1940
Image courtesy of LIFE Archive

The second scene shows the same woman and maid, five or so years later, in a larger, meant-to-impress house in the suburbs, where both are more expensively dressed than before, with the lady of the house wearing a cocktail dress and the maid in a full parlor-maid uniform.  In the scene the woman instructs the maid, "Margaret, draw the draperies, I mean curtains!" while pointing to windows dressed with elaborate, swagged curtains.  The maid again responds by rolling her eyes and giving a shrug.

That diaphanous fabric at the window?  Curtains!
Image from Authentic Decor by Peter Thornton

The final scene takes place yet another five years later in a super-modern, enormous, severely decorated penthouse apartment in Manhattan, where the woman, now wearing capri pants with a scarf rakishly tied around her neck and smoking a cigarette in a long holder, Auntie Mame style, instructs her maid, who is wearing a Courrege-type white outfit, "Margot, do your thing!" while pointing to a wall of plate glass windows dressed with plain curtain panels.  And the maid, yet again, responds by rolling her eyes at her mistress and giving a shrug.

Curtains do not require swags or jabots
Image from David Hicks: Designer, by Ashley Hicks

The advertisement humorously acknowledged that referring to one's curtains as "drapes" (or "draperies" for that matter) was considered to be less than desirable, and that people of sophistication refrain from doing so.  And Reggie thought it was a scream.

They may leave you speechless, but they are curtains
Image from Colefax & Fowler, by Chester Jones

But the advertisement, for all its clever humor, was correct:  People who are knowledgable about such things do not refer to curtains as anything other than curtains.  And they never use the word "drapes" as anything but a verb.

Whether elaborate or plain, they are still curtains 
Image from Van Day Truex, by Adam Lewis

Over the years Reggie has polled various people whom he has heard use the word "drapes" when referring to curtains, asking them why they did so.  And he learned that, in many cases, they thought "drapes" sounds nicer than "curtains."  In other words it's more refined.  Actually, it is anything but.  It is a misguided and pretentious genteelism, much like extending one's little finger while sipping from a teacup, or pronouncing "vase" as "vahz" (at least on this side of the pond).

Ungainly?  Yes.  Drapes?  No!
Image from Authentic Decor, by Peter Thornton

Other people he has asked have said that they believed curtains are simpler, less elaborate versions of drapes, such as one would have at the windows in one's kitchen or bathroom.  They reserve the use of "drapes" to describe the more elaborate, and more expensive, curtains found in a house's more public rooms.  Reggie understands how some people could come to have this impression, but it is a mistaken one, and it is to be avoided.  Curtains, whether hanging at the window of a modest kitchen or in a Duke's lavishly appointed drawing room, are still curtains.  They are never "drapes."  Ever!

To whit:
  • Jimmy Cagney, in the film Angels With Dirty Faces, did not snarl "It's drapes for you!" as he pulled the trigger on the gun he was pointing at his hapless victim
  • Winston Churchill did not famously describe the division between the free Western world and the repressive Communist one as "The Iron Drape"
  • Talulah Bankhead, when curtseying to her audience at the close of a play was not taking a "drape call," nor is the lowering of a stage's curtain at the end of a play or musical performance referred to as "the final drape"
  • Dorothy, in the film of The Wizard of Oz, was not ordered to "Pay no attention to that man behind the drape!" when beseeching the wizard to send her back home to Kansas, and
  • The mail order business that sells ready-made curtains of dubious taste seen in kitchens across America is not called "Country Drapes"
Because they are curtains, and they are not, nor will they ever be, "drapes."

And with that, Reggie rests his case.


  1. Reggie - another tour de force posting. I am reminded by its reading that MD used to refer to one of my Yale roommates as "Drapes" but then that was because he was a Draper. Tangentially yours, Frecky

  2. Not even when inquiring if they match the carpet?

  3. raina took the words from my mouth!

  4. Reggie, as you know, the Privilege[d] household believed much as you do. We were politically and intellectually liberal. Another race? Wonderful. A different sexual orientation? Fab. But use a word like drapes and all the High WASP rage would come roaring out in a single, freezing, lift of the eyebrows. An entire credo contained in the language of aesthetics. No. No, of course one NEVER said drapes. And one never wore gowns while discussing one's curtains, if one needed to talk about them at all one was apt to be wearing a dress.

  5. Reggie,
    I have vase down pat and have not strayed.

    As far as curtains, I have failed miserably! I say drapes and drapery rods all the time. I'm with that group who used to say curtains and thought it was common or wrong.

    Magazines and design books use the term drapes all the time. I even wrote a post on "Drapery Rods: What's In Style" and had someone contact me from a luxurious curtain company and ask if they could put the link on their web-site! I know you are dying right now. I just hope I have not caused you too much ache from eye rolling and that I along with the masses will be forgiven!

    Let me say, I throughly enjoyed this post and will try hard to break myself of my incorrect usage!!!

  6. Oh Reggie...I think your stand comes too late, General Custer.

    I have never ever called curtains drapes, and never will, but a quick search of several dictionaries and glossaries regularly turns up drapes as a noun. It has irrevocably entered the language. The most hair-raising (but that I had hair) definition is this one: "Matching pair of fabric panels that hang from a curtain rod for privacy and/or decorative effect. Also known as window panels" Oh dear, Oh dear, Mr. Darling. The war is lost.

    May I add to the list of fingernail on blackboard words, the use of 'home' when house is meant, and 'vehicle' which seems to be the new word for car?

  7. Oh, my sainted aunt!!
    Thank you, dear Reggie.
    A particular pet peeve of mine, shot down dead by your elegant words!!
    Curtains! Once and forever.
    And, don't even get me started on the dreaded "Window Treatment"!!

  8. LA: Why, thank you.

    Frecky: Thanks, it was much fun to write and put together. MD was, if anything, playful with her use of language and pronunciation. I remember said roommate well. But didn't you share digs with him at both Exeter and Yale?

    Raina: Reggie is most amused!

    DH: It's tough to keep up with this crowd . . .

    LPC: You had Reggie howling!

    A&A: Thank you, Reggie is pleased to be of even modest use to his readers on such matters. He is gratified that there will now be one fewer person poisoning the world with the use of "drapes" as a noun.

    DED: Reggie is well aware that certain degraded dictionaries and resources have accepted "drapes" as a noun. However, simply because misguided editors may have done so, Reggie will never sway on such a matter of vital importance as this! Oh, and stay tuned, as this post is but part of a series on the misuse of language in today's debased world.

    PT&E: Thank goodness someone else still has standards!

  9. One time I was advising a potential new client on "window treatments" for her Colonial Revival house.

    In the front hall, there was big window with an old-fashioned steam radiator directly below it. Full length functioning curtains were out, and the existing sill-length curtains just looked weird, but I knew that long curtains fixed in the open position, and hung over wide-slat Venetian blinds with tapes would provide both privacy & the traditional look she wanted. But as soon as I said "What this window should have is dress curtains..." she interrupted me with a horrified look on her face "Oh, no! Like Gone with the Wind?"

  10. Curtains, certainly, and headings or valances for the elaboration at the top. For a bed I prefer hangings, though that term might be archaic.

    "Drapes" as a noun is something I hear all the time, even from professionals. The only people I correct are students but I know I'm fighting a loosing battle if, when they go to to-the-trade showrooms, they hear exactly what I tell them is wrong.

    "Couch" is another bugbear. Sofa, dammit, sofa not couch!

  11. Dear Reggie, For those who are unknowing in these kinds of situations, then I think that there is nothing better than to point them in the direction of Nancy Mitford's 'Noblesse Oblige'.

  12. Back when we first purchased our home, now 10 years ago, I was of course, 10 years younger, very naive...and new at home ownership...I hired a fancy decorator (or is it designer!?) to come to our house...I know for sure I referred to my window treatments as curtains, (not b/c I knew anything of the above!) and she corrected me with DRAPES!..not once, but several times! UGH! I wish I could go back in time with this info. She was greatly affected and awful to work with! And, I tend to say "window treatments" and/or "panels"...whenever I can, as to avoid ever being "corrected" again! Did I mention she was awful!?

  13. Magnaverde: If only your client had seen the Carol Burnett Show "Gone With the Wind" episode . . .

    Blue: Emily Evans Eerdmans wrote the definitive sofa vs. couch post, I believe, on her marvelous blog.

    Edith Hope: Ah, yes! That is one of Reggie's favorite discourses, and the subject of a post that he is working on at the moment. Do, please, stay tuned . . .

  14. Absolute and utter perfection! Draped with just the right amount of humor!

  15. Oh, and couch reminds me of crouch. It was always a sofa in our house!

  16. I feel the same way when I hear couch or purse-we were taught to say sofa or handbag. Thank you!

  17. MD never would have willingly had a swag, jabot or valance. In fact, I think she would have chosen to dispense with curtains if it weren't for privacy. Not because she was a dogmatic Modernist but because her personal aesthetic was inclined to a Shaker-like efficiency. She disliked pretension in language and decoration. Sometimes that meant throwing the baby out with the bath water, as in her lack of appreciation for fashion, but in general it kept her choices from looking foolish in retrospect.

  18. Oh grief and a big huge sigh of recognition at how carefully we were taught in the lauguage of signifiers. The worst crime was to be aligned with new money [where they spoke of the drapes and the vahz and the melody of vegetables and the chase lowwnge]. Reggie should make this a series using categories such as Clothes & Dressing, Food and Dining, Money and The Workplace. To quote Little Augury, why don't you?

  19. Another word we were never to utter was mansion. Considered very low class. Oh, this is a funny memory when all women did some type of needlework. Knitting was considered upstairs and crocheting was downstairs. Funny though when the servants would crochet the beautiful lace edgings on sheets and pillow cases upstairs people would have no difficulty sleeping on it.

  20. I grew up with curtains, and now have only shutters, which I prefer, but I do hope you'll expound on rug or carpet. I have some nice old rugs, but my sister-in-law has "Persian carpets." Naturally.

  21. i have a dear decorator friend who uses "draperies" every time. makes me cringe.

    but i've never understood the hate for "window treatments"- how else to collectively refer to shades, blinds, shutters, curtains, etc?

  22. Sir Reginald,
    Kindest appreciation for your research and clarity on this subject -- curtains, never drapes. Got it!
    Just thinking...what was Dorothy Draper's description/reference to/of drapes (?)
    Best wishes,

  23. I was just arguing about curtains this very weekend! And sofas! Reggie, darling, we are on the same wavelength.

    Let us all also remember that the only acceptable word for "stockings" is "stockings". (I can't even TYPE the alternative....)

  24. Zhush: Such ignorance and rudeness on the part of your decorator does a disservice to the profession. Reggie would have politely shown the baggage to the door, post-haste!

    Anon 4:45-4:49: Reggie is assuming that you are one and the same (please correct him if he is in error). Thank you for your kind words. And yes, of course, one uses "sofa" and "handbag" rather than the alternatives you cite, which Reggie cannot even bring himself to write, much less say.

    MD: There were times that Reggie thought that MD was better-suited for a cloistered life, where she could live a life stripped of all extraneous fripperies, which she considered so much cheap tinsel.

  25. Dear Brother -

    While young Draper and I lived in the same dorm at Exeter, we only roomed together at Mother Yale. While on the subject of sofa vs. couch, you are probably too young to remember a family visit with Southern cousins, the only memory of which I have is astonishment that they called their sofa a "davenport." Perhaps Sister recalls this too? Your Getting Long in the Tooth Brother, Frecky.

  26. Flo: "Chase Lowwnge" is a particular favorite of Reggie's, who is pleased that you reminded him of it. Stay tuned, as Reggie will be posting additional essays from time to time on the misuse of language that is unfortunately too prevalent in our degraded culture at this time. Thank you for the suggestion.

    Anon 9:47: Yes, "mansion" is to also be avoided. And you are absolutely correct in drawing the distinction between knitting and crocheting, which Reggie only came to fully appreciate with your comment (he is not handy with the needle and therefore has not given much thought to the subject heretofore). It all makes sense to him now. The mania for crocheting as being chiefly concentrated within the lower orders explains why kits for luridly-colored afghans made from acrylic yarns are not generally found in the better stores that Reggie is acquainted with.

  27. Conjure the illustration of the poor soul outstretched over water with one foot on the dock and the other foot still on the boat, this is my life having descended from my elegant, eloquent northern father, Yale'32, and my exquisite southern genteel mother who, we think, graduated from high school but no one is sure, she who crocheted edges around washcloths, by the way I'm sure you know nevah to evah say 'washrag.' I am laughing so hard at Brother Frecky's memory of the Southern cousins. My poor father, his NE family looked upon us as having been reared in tragic circumstances, at least we got sofa and curtains right. This has been a/an hilarious can of worms you've opened, young man.

  28. Dear Mr. Darling, I am a first time commenter and have been enjoying your musings on some of my favorite topics since discovering your blog recently. I cannot wait to read your other posts on the misuse of language. Please include the word "unique" and its correct usage. Each time I hear someone say "very unique" I want to scream!

  29. The things I learn from reading this fabulous blog!

    The word "drapes" shall never cross my lips again...unles I need it as a verb. Then again, I'm not sure I've ever uttered that word anyway. I was never quite sure what made curtains different from drapes (or draperies), so I tend to avoid saying either word. Both Edith Wharton and Elsie De Wolfe used the words "curtains," "drapes" and "draperies" within their decorating books, although not interchangeably. This has always been confusing to me and, being poor white trash, I had no MD to guide me.

    On a happier note, today's youngsters seem to prefer using the word "curtains," at least from what I gather. On several of my ventures through the darker recesses of the interweb, I've recently run across the term "meat curtains," which is used to describe...well, you can figure it out. Anyway, this charming new term simply wouldn't have the same bite if the word "drapes" were substituted. So perhaps there is still hope for America's youth!

  30. 'Curtains' it will forever be Reggie...As for 'vase'....I am not convinced that the pronunciation is not a question of accent rather than etiquette? A little like 'tomato' and 'tamato'...
    What's your position on 'sofa' v's 'couch' v's 'lounge'?? For has and always will be sofa...
    Fabulous post, loved it, xv.

  31. as English is not my first language, it is good to know. But I always say 'curtains' not 'drapes', because 'curtain' sounds to me, should I say, grander like in a theater.

  32. Frecky: This is news to Reggie, who does not remember this delightful story at all. "Davenport"? How delicious. Let's take this off line, as Reggie would like to know more about this . . .

    Flo: Why, thank you, Reggie is most pleased that you have enjoyed this post, and its delightful and varied comments, too (which Reggie is enjoying, as well).

    Liza E: Thank you for commenting,and welcome! Reggie is most amused at the use of "very" before "unique," and applauds that it is a pet peeve of yours. Have you heard, as Reggie has, someone say "For all intensive purposes?" He finds that one to be an absolute show stopper!

    Anon 3:49: Thank you for your delightful, and interesting comment. Reggie is heartened that you have noticed the youth of today favor the correct use of "curtains." While it does not, in his view, compensate for their preference for wearing pajamas in public, it is good news nonetheless.

    Vicki: Reggie only uses "sofa" when referring to the upholstered seating for two or more persons, except when referring to what many refer to as a Recamier, which is the only piece of furniture that one should ever refer to as a "couch." As to "vahz," the only acceptable pronunciation of it as same is when the speaker was born in one of the Commonwealth countries, or when they are joking, as Reggie sometimes does.

    Irina: Thank you. Even though the route you took to the consistent use of "curtains" was somewhat circuitous, in Reggie's opinion, the destination you have arrived at is entirely correct. Reggie wishes that he had your facility with another language, which he is somewhat chagrined to admit that he does not.

  33. Oh, dear, I see that I missed responding to several commenters, which I am correcting here:

    T&CMom: I believe that "rugs" are movable, whereas "carpets" are not, at least without ripping them up. One buys a pre-made rug (or has it custom-ordered), often in pre-ordained sizes (such as 9X12), with bound or tied edges. Carpeting is bought by the yard and (semi-permanently) tacked down to one's floors. In this matter you are correct.

    Maison21: Reggie shares your perplexity.

    Barbara: Interesting that you should note Dorothy Draper. I consulted her book "Decorating Is Fun" and found only one reference to the "drapes" in the book, which she termed to be a "mis-calling" of curtains, as follows: " . . . curtains (mis-called 'drapes') . . . "

    Irretrievablybroken: When Reggie uses the word "stockings" he is referring to what others call "socks," a most degraded word indeed.

  34. Dear Mr. Darling,

    "For all intensive purposes" is indeed a show stopper. Might I also add the use of "Irregardless" - shiver - like fingernails on a chalk board.

  35. Not even one glass of wine and I'm already fussy. I knew it would be safe to come here to vent. Malapropisms make me chuckle guiltily because I know they're uttered in such sincerity, I'm the first to adore them [today in WalMart: "My dough-ter uses this kind of more-stir-i-zer"], but may we permanently retire "pretty much," amaaazing," and "clearly."

    Another glass, please.

  36. Reggie is so right to bring up the awful "d" word-curtains cover it all. Personally, I can't help but think of the phrase "she was draped over the sofa" to imply less than moral fiber, or that someone had just tossed her there-neither quite the mood that curtains conjure up. Being half English and having lived there as a child, I cannot conjure up the same energy for vahze, having heard it for so many years from some of my favourite people -all of whom ridiculed people who said drapes.
    Another phrase worthy of contempt is "very unique" - high on the ridicule list of said loved ones and I follow suit.
    And when we get back to putting on airs, there is the false French group. Who ever mangled chaise longue-a long chair-into chaise lounge? Then there are those who say coup de grace and pronounce it as coup de gras-as if they had cut into their foie gras. While the French pronounce this 'c' despite their tendency to drop the last consonants, the manglers do not.
    Personally, I find "passed away" one of those euphemisms for died that make it no better that this has happened, but even allowing for that, to shorten this phrase to "passed" I find impossible-it really sounds like passing gall stones or other unmentionables.
    I won't go further-you brought it on with your blackboard scraping reminder of drapes!

  37. Love this post and discussion. On the language side of it: when did "so fun" become acceptable in common usage? It should be "so much fun", as in: this discussion is so much fun. That one drives me crazy.

  38. As long as those drapes are still hanging up there, I suppose we may continue the discussion. "So fun," I think, arrived along with "I am so not going to do that/go there/wear that/etc" for which we have the sitcom "Friends" to thank. Those kids on that show reinvented "so" and the effects have lingered.

  39. I've arrived at this discussion late in the game, and no one will be interested in these finer points, but nonetheless: it seems to me that
    "drapes" is shorthand for "draperies" which was and always will be
    a genteelism for window curtains. Reading an American edition of the book about English designer Roger Banks-Pye, I noticed that the text
    has altered the word curtains and replaced it with "draperies"~something that would make Roger turn in his grave. Yet "draperies" is accurately applied to the swags and tails going on above curtains. The design logs of John Fowler, who made the loveliest examples, always referred to "curtains and draperies". See anything by John Cornforth if you don't believe me!

  40. Wow, I see I've missed a great party, though being late sometimes has its advantages. I can put up with all of the above but what absolutely makes me cringe is the use of "off of" with "yacht" a close second. The worst part is hearing it from news commentators who should know better!

  41. Liza E: Yes, "irregardless" sets me off, too.

    Flo: I'd add "like" and "you know" to the list.

    Sally Sloane: Welcome, and thank you for your most amusing comment. Reggie finds the use of "passed" as you note it to be cringe-making. In fact, he may just have to write a post on the subject. Thank you.

    Kathleen and Flo (again!): Reggie prefers to say "such fun" himself...

    Toby Worthington: Of course, Reggie acknowledges that you are correct here in the technical use of "drapery." It is the fake-fancy use of it and "drapes" to refer to curtains that drives him mad.

    Lindaraxa: Thank you. Reggie feels the same way about "limousine" when "car" will do, too.

  42. If a word comes into common usage when does it become pretentious to make a correction? If someone said, 'couch potato' should you say, 'Oh, no. It should really be sofa potato.' Even though we surmise the person eating potato chips would be the type to sit on a couch rather than a sofa?

    There is a story about a guest at Frank Sinatra's house who accidently broke one of a pair of vases. The guest was mortified. Sinatra picked up the other vase and dropped it and said, 'it's only a vase.'

    It's only a curtain.

  43. What an amusing post. I have never referred to curtains as drapes or draperies, but I may do so from now on just for the hell of it. Besides, it's wonderfully evocative of what the fabric actually does. And of course, drape is also used as a noun when referring to the manner in which a fabric hangs.

    As for the extended little finger when sipping from a teacup, that seems to me less of a pretention than a practicality. Because only one finger can fit through the handle of a teacup, the weight of the cup when tilted can feel awkward; extending the "pinky" is a natural reaction to provide some balance.

  44. Also, "drapery" reminds me of "frippery", and who could object to such a delightfully dismissive word as that?

  45. LOL, well done Mr. Darling...I love the examples...

  46. Chiming in again, and rather late:

    There were all sorts of things one grew up with that one trotted out in public only to realize that one was in the minority, and when one was sleeping with Marxists in college, one felt rather ashamed when they surfaced. For instance, my mother taught me that pulling the bedspread up when one slept was common. She also taught me the notion of "common". My Marxist paramour did not appreciate my accidental corrections--I did not MEAN to correct, per se--when he talked about davenports and chaise lounges.
    All this is simply by way of saying, Reggie darling, that it is somehow comforting to engage in these discussions, and long may your website flourish.

  47. WAIT! Just a second! I don't have a blog! But I do comment a lot! Didn't you respond to my comment about "drapes go on coffins"! And you said........."Drape is a verb"???? Was that YOU?

    I cannot believe I signed up and I have missed all this.

  48. Most wonderful post ever! I got the snarkiest comments when I corrected "drapes"; and "couch" with "curtains" and "sofa"! All from the anonymice. I was wrong about the coffin. The coffin is draped.
    My favorite funny term for died I heard in New Orleans. I asked a man when his father died. He said; "my father 'went up' in 1985."
    I have my eyes peeled for more of these posts!
    Do "home" vs "house" next!!! I beg you!!
    It is driving me totally insane. Diane Dorrans Saeks (le style saloniste) too!!! We beg you!


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