Today we still use a lot of phrases relating to fashion that date from many years ago. Some of these terms no longer even make sense without doing a bit of research. And, yet, they have such a ring to them and have so many references in modern culture that we all know what they mean- even if we don’t always know where these phrases come from. So, here are the back stories on 7 phrases that relate to clothing and fashion throughout history.

7) All Gussied Up

older woman in the 1920s all dressed up
Via: Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress

In the old days gussie was a term that was used to describe male dandies in Australia. Eventually the term traveled the globe and became part of the American phrase “to gussie up”, meaning to put on more adornments or finery than is strictly necessary.

6) Dressed to the Nines

illustration of an 1870s tailor shop
Via: L. Prang & Co./Library of Congress

There are conflicting origin stories about this phrase, but one of them goes that to make a 3-piece suit of the type that is traditional in European countries, the finest of these would require 9 yards of fabric to complete. Suits today need about 6 yards of fabric so this is a generous measurement, but perhaps they were including the shirt and tie in the equation as well. The phrase came symbolize getting dressed up and sparing no expense, though not usually in a mocking way.

5) Spit Shine

sailors preparing aerial photography equipment during WWII
Via: Joseph Steinmetz/State Archives of Florida

There was a time when getting your shoes shined was common part of life. Those who couldn’t afford the convenience of paying someone to do it had to do it themselves. And, if one was pressed for both time and money a spit shine would have to suffice. There are enzymes and binding properties in human saliva that make it a good cleaner for some circumstances. But, of course even back in the old days this was not considered a very polite thing to do. In the military this type of hasty method is used since inspections could be sudden and you’d need to present a well-shined pair of shoes or boots your commanding officer. Today, it usually simply means a very high gloss like patent leather.

4) Fancy Pants

1860s men's hat catalog
Via: Internet Archive

Today we use this term mockingly to describe someone who acts uppity or too formal for the occasion, but in its first incarnation this term actually referred to pants. An advertisement from Maine in the 1840s referred to “fancy” pants made from cassimere. This fabric was a very fine product made from merino wool imported from Spain. Very fancy, indeed!

3) Putting on Airs

cigarette card of what a dany in King Henry's time would have looked like
Via: NYPL Digital Collections

Much like sumptuary laws that were designed to keep the upper crust wearing exclusive designs, the concept of “putting on airs” has it origins in 16th century France when airs referred to clothing or appearance. To put on airs that were seen as being above your class, you were trying to be something you weren’t born into. The rising merchant class in Europe at the time had disposable income, but no titles or estates. This caused a conflict in the world of fashion since fine brocades, silks, laces, and velvets could be worn by people that just a few centuries before would have been considered (and dressed as) peasants.

2) Cat’s Pajamas

portrait of a 1920s flapper girl
Via: J.A. Migel/Library of Congress

In the lingo of the flapper era fashionable women were often called “cats”. This term expanded to eventually mean male and female hipsters and flappers, and it was considered a great compliment that something could be the “cat’s pajamas”. Similar seemingly-nonsense phrases were the “cat’s eyebrow’s” and the “bee’s knees”- both of which have the same meaning.

1) Feather in Your Cap

political cartoon of an international dandy
Via: NYPL Digital Collections

The phrase is referenced in the song, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, which malls out a macaroni, a foppish man who cared overly much about his appearance. However, feathers worn in hats or headdresses was common in many locations and cultures without any such connotations. Today, it means more of an accomplishment or even a superfluous prize of some sort, sort of liek the “cherry on the cake”.

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