top of page

Why are Clothing Idioms so Popular in the UK?

If you have lived in the UK or even just spent some time visiting, you will probably know that the British like to ‘pull each other’s leg’. This means to we like to make fun of each other in a harmless way over appearance, mannerisms, and other things. This type of humour – something we call friendly banter - accounts for the evolution of many idioms that refer to clothing and appearance.

For example, have you ever been told that your words hit someone ‘below the belt?’

The origin of this phrase is from the world of boxing, where to hit someone below the waistline is seen as ‘dirty fighting’ or bad sportsmanship. In general use, to hit someone below the belt means to say unfair, hurtful things that might feel like a punch to the abdomen.

This is just one of a whole host of idioms you might hear around the UK. So come with us on a little journey to find out the meanings and fascinating origins of ‘Clothing Idioms’!

1. To keep something under your hat.

Firstly, the meaning: to keep something secret. “Brian is going to be made redundant at the end of the month but keep that under your hat.” In other words, do not tell Brian this bad news!

So where does this idiom come from?

Most scholars of English agree that it comes from the early 20th century, found in literature such as P.G. Wodehouse’s Inimitable Jeeves, 1923. At the time, it meant to keep something in your mind but don’t speak of it.

2. This brings us to an opposite sentiment – to wear your heart on your sleeve.

People say you wear your heart on your sleeve if you are open and you find it hard to hide your feelings, especially in love. The origin of this idiom lies in the Medieval era when knights would tie a lady’s scarf around their sleeve (armour) before entering into a jousting tournament. In this way, they were showing their affection for the lady for all to see.

3. To be in your birthday suit

From armour to a complete absence of clothes! This idiom simply means to be as naked as the day you were born. When might you hear it? Hopefully not often, as Britain can be a cold place and we don’t tend to walk around without clothes.

4. At the drop of a hat

Meaning: to do something instantly. This phrase comes from the early 19th century when it was customary to signal the start of a race or a fight by dropping a hat. These days, the meaning has broadened, and it can also be used to refer to someone who makes decisions without thinking first – “Giles will leave a girl at the drop of hat.”

5. The girl that Giles leaves at the drop of a hat may then ‘fall apart at the seams’.

Meaning: to deteriorate physically or emotionally. Usually, a thing or person comes or falls apart at the seams over time, rather than instantly. This idiom comes from the seams of clothing which, if badly stitched or worn, can come apart. It can be applied to many situations, for example:

"The company is falling apart at the seams, despite the new bank loan."

6. To do something like it’s going out of fashion.

“She’s eating ice cream like it’s going out of fashion!” This means the person is doing something a lot and perhaps it's not going to end well!

7. Lastly - Dressed to Kill.

This doesn't mean you come home to find your girlfriend dressed like an assassin. The phrase is a compliment and it means that a person (male or female) looks stunning in whatever they are wearing.

Where could this phrase have originated from? Apparently, it was coined in the 1800s to refer to a well-dressed person who looks so alluring, they might be dangerous (presumably as a temptation to others).

What’s your favourite idiom from this small selection? Comment below to let us know, and if there are any more clothing-related idioms you want to share, please do!

The topic of Clothes and Fashion is truly fascinating because it covers so many aspects of the English Language and popular culture too.

If this blog has sparked your interest in learning more idioms to use in real life, why not subscribe to IQ Global and enjoy a FREE taster session on the same topic? You’ll also learn about the past perfect continuous and how to use gradable adjectives.

Sign up now for this exclusive offer from our signature course, English Voice. And don’t keep the offer under your hat – the more the merrier! (That’s another idiom that you can look up 😉).

The benefit of trying out a free taster is that you get to see what a course like English Voice has to offer before committing to more lessons, and the best part is that you can choose the topics which interest you the most.

We hope you have enjoyed this blog. As always, you will progress more by reading, listening and practising your English so make sure you check out IQ Global for free resources and our YouTube channel. See you next time!

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page