Cummerbunds are not. Sorry folks, there’s no two ways about it. Cummerbunds are a bit elitist and unreservedly silly. I love them, though, if only because the word is so much fun to say. Cummerbund, cummerbund, cummerbund… I enjoyed doing a theme etymology week so well last week that I’m doing it again. This week, my inspiration will come from that classic institution from which modern steampunk takes its cues: 19th century British fashion.
I have found great detail on how the cummerbund entered the world of western fashion, but the etymology gives me a good guess. It’s a new path this time, one we haven’t trod a hundred times together already. “Cummerbund” comes from the Persian word kamarband, which is a compound of kamar (meaning “waist”) and band (meaning “band”).
Wait, what? The Persians use the same word for “band” that we do, and that the British mixed it up when they imported the term? Yes, more or less. And no. The pronunciation was most likely not the same as you or I would pronounce it–kamarband is certainly not how the word would appear in the Persian writing system and is an approximation at best. But the words do hypothetically come from the same root *bhendh- in Proto Indo-European. Apparently, “band” is generally a good word to keep constant in your linguistic toolbox.
As for how the cummerbund came into western fashion, I would imagine they were a chic, upper-class import sometime after 1617, when the East India Trading Company was granted trading rights by the Mughal Empire. As usual, of course, that’s just a guess.