What does the phrase dressed in white English pomp mean in the following sentence, which appears in an article in the New York Times?

Until my grandfather died, a slide carousel was a staple of family Christmases: the photographs of Nan, Pop and their five daughters dressed in white English pomp for a country show or the horse races were my own iconic images of this mysterious land. (source)

The only recent instance of similar usage of pomp I've been able to find is this:

By all accounts, the wedding was an elegant and traditional affair with the Gutshaus (more a squire's country seat than a simple farmhouse) of his parents-in-law lovingly bedecked with massed flowers, the wedding party all gaily dressed in full military pomp and civil finery. (source)

There are two more instances, from the early 1800s:

Yet it was obvious to every reader, even of the English Testament, that the songs of Mary, of Zacharias, and of Simeon, breathe the very spirit of ancient poetry; that they are not only dressed in the figurative pomp, but formed in the antithesis and parallelism, by which it is characterized. (source)

Upon this memorable day, the king appeared on his throne of state, dressed in all the pomp imaginable, and surrounded by his grandees, the magi, and the deputies from all the neighbouring nations... (source)

The problem is that the dictionaries do not seem to record this usage of pomp. Here is the full definition from the Oxford English Dictionary:

a. Splendid display or celebration; magnificent show or ceremony. Formerly frequently with negative connotation: ostentatious, specious, or boastful show; vainglory (frequently coupled with pride).

b. In pl. with same sense.
(a) In or with allusion to the various forms of the baptismal formula used in the catechism, as the devil and all his pomps, the pomps and vanities of this wicked world, etc.

(b) gen.

c. fig. Chiefly poet. Splendid or impressive display in nature.

a. A triumphal or ceremonial procession or train; a pageant; a splendid show or display along a line of march. Now arch. and hist.

b. literary. Any procession or sequence of persons or things. Also: an imposing movement of water, etc. Now rare.

3. concr. A splendid or showy ornament, appurtenance, etc. Obs.

4. magistrate of the pomps n. a sumptuary officer in Venice. Obs.

The closest that the OED comes is the 3. (and obsolete) usage, A splendid or showy ornament, appurtenance, etc. Here appurtenance means a possession or piece of property that is considered to be a typical feature of a particular way of living (see e.g. here). However, it doesn't make sense to say that someone was dressed in splendid ornament. Moreover, in this OED entry, pomp seems to be a count noun (a splendid or showy ornament), whereas pomp in dressed in white English pomp seems to be uncount, since there is no determiner before white.

I looked at all the hits for 'pomp' at www.onelook.com. Some alternative phrasings that could be relevant include:
ostentatious display (here)
Pomp is the use of a lot of ceremony, fine clothes, and decorations, especially on a special occasion <...the pomp and splendour of the English aristocracy> (here)
ceremonial elegance and splendor, a synonym of eclat (here) ('When you do something with eclat, you do it with great style or an amazing effect. A skilled magician performs all of her tricks with eclat.') (here)
Display; ostentation; parade; splendor; magnificence. (here)
pompous displays, actions, or things: < The official was accompanied by all the pomps of his high position. > (here)

This last entry seems promising because it has things. But I doubt the author of the NYT article meant to say that the five daughters were dressed in white English pompous things; I doubt he meant any negative connotation in that sentence, and pompous definitely has a negative connotation.

You might ask, why not ceremonial elegance and splendor? Two reasons. First, in this meaning, pomp is meant to be like eclat, and that word used as in entered with much eclat in a coach drawn by eight white horses (see e.g. here). It doesn't sound like you can be dressed in eclat (indeed, searching google books for "dressed in * eclat" produces zero hits). Second, the OED's definitions are characteristically quite fine-grained, much finer than that of the other dictionaries, and none of the definitions from the OED fit.

Nevertheless, my best guess is that the writer meant something like this: their five daughters dressed in white English ceremonial elegance for a country show. In particular, searching google books for "dressed in * elegance" does produce some hits, e.g. listeners found a competent lecturer of “commanding presence,” dressed in modest elegance; Lucinda herself was dressed in casual elegance in an expensive sleeveless blouse and slacks; People of Fashion dressed in high elegance would pass those in all manner of dress and undress.

But it still seems a bit strange usage to me, because of the presence of white English. I would have expected the word that follows white English to refer to some particular style of clothing, some fancy style of English dress.

Moreover, note that the OED's definition for elegance does have an entry that is (roughly) consistent with usage where elegance means an attire: As a count noun: something that is elegant; an elegant gesture, style of behaviour, etc. The fit is not perfect, because the OED says that it should be a count noun, whereas all the examples of elegance from I gave above seem to use it as uncount noun, judging by the lack od determiners. Still, note that there is no similar entry for pomp in the OED, where pomp could refer to an attire. The closest it comes is splendid or showy ornament, but, as I've said, it doesn't make sense to say that someone was dressed in splendid ornament.

Another possible source of confusion: the context of the text is Australian outback in times past, so there could be also racial connotations, i.e. the white could refer not to the color of the dress, but to the race of the people involved.

So, what does dressed in white English pomp mean, precisely? Also, do you find it to be unusual usage? Confusing usage?

  • Only as confusing as a quiet pint or a proud day. Transferred usages / metonymy is common. Jul 14, 2017 at 16:38
  • 1
    I'm giving +1 for your rigor, but I agree with Edwin. I think the answer to your question is in the many definitions you give for pomp. "Splendid display" may not mean clothing, but we certainly understand that "wearing a splendid display" does
    – Unrelated
    Jul 14, 2017 at 16:46
  • I'm guessing that white there is the same as in WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). That's to say, a style of dress associated with "pomp and ceremony" among de white folks (who are probably only English because that's where their ancestors came from). Jul 14, 2017 at 16:49
  • In fact, the article appears to refer to Australia. My guess is that it refers to white summer clothing in the style of English high fashion of the period. Jul 18, 2017 at 20:24
  • It sounds to me as though the grandfather was English and that the slides in the carousel were taken in England. This solves the 'English' part of the problem. The white pomp part would then be, as others have said, pale, formal summer clothing. The word pomp being used to mean finery. The fact that the photos were 35mm or 40x40 slides (I don't know of any other format used in projector carousels) suggests that they were from the 1950s or 60s, so not all that antique, really.
    – BoldBen
    Oct 23, 2017 at 8:18

2 Answers 2


The answer is simpler than one may think. The word pomp is used as a metonimy and must be put in context: in Ascot and other English races (and consequently also in Australia), the epitome of elegance for women has been to wear white dresses, with fine fabric and cut (long!), as well as hats.

Plenty of pictures of elegant white dresses at the races can be found on the web, but here is a press article, picked 'Google-randomly'.

'English pomp' thus refers here to the horse races ceremonial still in usage in England's upper classes, where respect of the dress code is paramount (and the opportunity for women to display their elegant attire as a status symbol).

Hence white English pomp would stand for a periphrase like:

classy white dresses in usage at the English horse races.

In my humble opinion, white English pomp is a splendid literary invention.


The closest it comes is splendid or showy ornament, but, as I've said, it doesn't make sense to say that someone was dressed in splendid ornament.

I can't see why that doesn't make sense.
Ok, not in a literal way if you insist on trying to imagine someone dressed in an ornament (although people may dress up as garden gnomes occasionally).
However, metonymy allows for a lot of (artistic) freedom. Who hasn't heard of the beehive on a woman's head or wouldn't understand the image of a person dressed up as, say, a wedding cake?

The image the author tries to paint is that of lavish coquettery, old fashioned high style with possible echos of extravagance.

Now, pomp may not be (much) in current use anymore, but pompous still is:

1 : excessively elevated or ornate ·pompous rhetoric
2 : having or exhibiting self-importance : arrogant ·a pompous politician
3 : relating to or suggestive of pomp or splendor : magnificent

And of course, there is this quite well-know piece of music that everybody who has ever watched the last Night of the Proms can dream: Pomp and Circumstance, March #1, better known to many as Land of Hope and Glory.

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