Above: One of the many paintings that show what a ‘piccadil’ looked like.
Piccadilly is used today for the name of a street running west from Piccadilly Circus. It was the street name that came first. Until the 16th century, the street had simply been called ‘The Way to Reading’ – meaning that the road led west out of London, towards Reading. Similarly, in those days, Oxford Street was just called ‘The Way to Uxbridge’.
The name was first used for a house that stood in the thoroughfare now called Piccadilly. It was lived in by Robert Baker, a tailor, who made a fortune selling ‘piccadils’ which were worn around the neck and can be seen in portraits of wealthy people who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. When Baker built an outsize house – so large that it was on the scale of a nobleman’s house – it was derisively called ‘Piccadilly Hall’. Baker died in 1623. It is believed that the house stood in the vicinity of the junction with Sackville Street.
The word comes possibly from Spanish ‘picadillo’ which in turn derives from ‘picado’ meaning punctured or pierced. In 17th-century Spanish, there was the word ‘picadura’ meaning ‘a lace collar’. Thomas Blount, in his ‘Glossographia’ published in 1656, wrote that ‘a Pickadil is that rounded hem or several divisions set together, about the skirt of a garment, also a stiff collar of ruff made in the fashion of a band”.
In case you are wondering, a piccadil may have looked rather splendid but it was no fun to wear. It was stiffened by soaking it in starch so it must have been quite an unpleasant experience to have such a rigid object around your neck. Silk was worn next to the neck but, even so, it was a most impractical item of dress. It was worn by men as well as women.