Clothing and Accessory Idioms

Ever wonder how some of the most popular sayings about clothes – like being “well heeled” and “take the gloves off” – came from?  Some have been around for centuries, others not so long.  If you’re a student of etymology (the study of words), you’ll find this particularly amusing.  For the rest of you, store this in your repository of fashion knowledge and trot it out at cocktail parties, dinner with friends, or a night out with the girls.  If English is not your primary language, well, you’ll finally understand what in the heck we’re talking about when we say these things.

Let’s look at them from head to toe:

Hats Off“Hats Off to You!”

Up until the 1960’s, a hat was part of every day attire.  While women kept their hats on indoors (unless they were blocking someone’s view), men would, as a sign of respect, take them off whenever they went inside or when they greeted women.  These days, “hats off to you!” is said as a show of respect or an offer of congratulations.

“Bee in Your Bonnet”

Ever noticed how some people – children in particular – freak out when there’s a bee buzzing around?  All they can think about it getting away.  Well, having a “bee in your bonnet” refers to becoming obsessed about something to the exclusion of everything else.

“Old Hat”

Back when people wore hats regularly, a new hat was a thing of joy as it sits prominently on your head and is noticed by everyone.  An old hat?  Not so much.  Therefore, anything that’s not new and fresh is often referred to as “old hat.”  It can also mean out of fashion.

“Hot Under the Collar”

People get all fired up when they’re angry so beginning around 1900, the term “hot under the collar” became slang for being in the heat of anger.

“White Collar” and “Blue Collar”

White collar refers to the “shirt and tie” professional set who earn higher-than-average wages doing non-manual work.  Blue collar workers are those who traditionally wore blue uniform shirts and use their hands on assembly lines in factories, plants, and mills.

“Stuffed Shirt”

Imagine building a scarecrow.  You take take straw and stuff into clothes and then paint a face to make it look like a person.  Does it have feelings and emotions?  Of course not!  Well, neither does a “stuffed shirt,” which is the term used to describe someone who’s stiff, formal, or overly pompous and lacking in emotion.

Lose Your Shirt“Lose Your Shirt”

A phrase all too keenly felt in recent years, “lose your shirt” means to face such financial ruin that you’ve lost everything you own, including your shirt.  From the early 1900’s.

“Keep Your Shirt On”

Ever been impatient, restless, or on the verge of losing your temper?  So have lots of others.  The term “keep your shirt on” became popular in the mid-1800’s as a way to remind others to stay calm, cool, and collected.

“Off the Cuff”

Ever been asked to give an impromput speech, one with no preparation?  So have lots of other people.  By the 1930’s, so many speakers had developed the practice of jotting down last-minute notes on the cuff of their shirtsleeves that “off the cuff” entered the vernacular to refer to something spoken, performed, or composed with little preparation or forethought.

“Bursting Out the Seams”

Seams burst when volume exceeds capacity, so “bursting at the seams” refers to something that’s overfilled.   It can refer to clothes, rooms, social gatherings, etc.

Come Apart at the Seams“Come Apart at the Seams”

When seams break in a garment, it falls apart.  When people “come apart at the seams,” it means they emotionally fall apart and become unglued, distraught, or extremely upset.

“Handle With Kid Gloves”

Kid leather is made from the skin of a young goat and is softer and more supple than other types of leather.  Gloves made from kid leather have always been expensive and only affordable by the wealthy, “genteel” class.  Thus the term, “to handle with kids gloves” – first coined in the 1830’s – means to handle something gently or tactfully.

The term “wore kid gloves” became slang in the 1850’s for someone who was dainty, effeminate, or avoided manual labor.

“Take Off the Gloves”

By contrast, “take off the gloves” comes from the world of boxing, and means to take off the padded gloves which soften the blow and give your opponent a rougher, bare-knuckled treatment.

“Fits Like a Glove”

Gloves hug every finger and fit the hand perfectly.  Something that “fits like a glove” refers to the right size or a good fit, as in, “That job fits her like a glove.”  From the mid-1700’s.

Buckle Down“Buckle Down”

“Buckle down” means to work hard, apply determination, and focus on getting something done.  Which is odd, when you think about it, because when something buckles, it gives way – the exact opposite of buckling down.  Go figure.

“Below the Belt”

What’s the easiest way to bring down an opponent?  Kick him in the crotch.  Which is precisely why it was outlawed in fighting sports because it’s very unsportsmanlike.  So when you hit “below the belt” figuratively, it means to say or do something that’s abusive, hurtful, or unfair.

“Under Your Belt”

This is a metaphoric expression from the early 1800’s that likens food that’s been consumed to an experience that’s been digested.  Once you learn something and master the knowledge, you have it “under your belt,” as in, “She has sewing under her belt.”

“Wear the Pants”

For centuries, only men wore pants.  Since they are biblically and historically the leaders of their households, “wearing the pants” refers to the one who leads, provides, and protects a family.  If there is no husband, the woman “wears the pants.”  If a wife runs roughshod over her husband, she is said to “wear the pants” in the family.

Conversely, a “skirt” is slang for a woman.  As in, “He chases skirts.”

“Ants in Your Pants”

What would you do if you actually had ants in your pants?  You jump around and try to get out of them.  Thus a person who has “ants in their pants” is someone who can’t sit still.  Often said of school age boys.

“Knickers in a Twist”

Knickers is the British word for underwear, and if your underwear’s all twisted up and digging in, it’s hard to think of anything else.  This expression refers to becoming unduly agitated, fixated, or angry about something.  Circa 1971.

“Burn a Hole in Your Pocket”

Are you a spender, not a saver?  Afraid if you keep your money in your pocket too long, you’re going to burn a hole through it?  You’re not alone and haven’t been for a long, LONG time – this saying originated in the early 1500’s.

Put a sock in the phonograph“Put a Sock in It”

Ever seen an old phonograph from the early 1900’s?  The sound comes out of a big horn, which alas, had no volume control.  The only way to muffle the sound was to ball up a sock and stuff it in there.  Therefore, “put a sock in it” means quiet down.

“Well Heeled”

Spices, noodles, fireworks – European adventurers brought back many treasurers from the Far East during the Middle Ages, including platform shoes that Chinese women used to traverse the mud.  French and Venetian women used them as status symbols as they were made of luxury fabrics, threw the wearer off balance, and required servants on either side to catch you if you fell.  Only the wealthy could be “well heeled.”  Five centuries later, “well heeled” still refers to wealth, as only the most wealthy can afford luxury shoes and keep them in good repair.

“Shoestring Budget”

Shoestrings are long and thin and only meant to fasten shoes.  A “Shoestring budget” refers to a small amount of money or inadequate capital.   “Bootstrapping” means to do-it-yourself with no outside help or capital.

“Dressing Down”

While “dressing down” has has been synonymous with informal attire since the 1990’s, it originally used in the context of reprimand or scolding someone, as in “He received a dressing down from his father for being late for dinner.”

Beward the wolf in sheep's clothing“A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”

In the Gospel of Matthew (7:15), Jesus warns his followers to “”Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.”  In other words, be on the lookout for those who pretend to be kind and have your best interests at heart when in fact, they’re extremely dangerous.  Sad that they’ve been around for millennia…

So, there you have – a brief look at how and why some of the clothing and accessory idioms have made it into our language over the years.  Interesting, huh?

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field

Security Code: