Giving the full monty on famous fashion phrases

The sad news that Burton menswear is closing its doors in the city where it was founded 112 years ago has, for Sheffield natives, evoked a well-worn if unexpected phrase - the full monty.

Saturday, 11th June 2016, 8:04 pm
Updated Monday, 13th June 2016, 12:18 pm
The Full Monty

When hearing it, most of us think of the 1997 film of the same set around a struggling Sheffield steel mill and featuring a troupe of clothes-less steel workers, but the phrase originated not from birthday suits but Burton founder Sir Montague Burton’s three-piece Chesterfield suits, complete with waistcoat, which gave customers “the full monty”.

From “a feather in your cap” to “wear your heart on your sleeve”, we in the UK still like to talk about what we wear with selected fashionista sayings.

The Phrase Finder website, proves a profitable source of other such clothes-related idioms.

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A feather in your cap

This badge of honour derives independently from such disparate cultures as Hungarians and more familiar Native Americans. But children’s rhyme Yankee Doodle Dandy is probably best known source, citing “went to town, riding on a pony, he stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni”.

Dressed to the nines

Smart, nay flamboyant, attire description may derive from tailors using nine yards of material to make a suit. The more material you had, the more kudos you accrued. But nine yards seems generous for even the most foppish dandy.

More likely etymological explanations - as with cloud, whole yard and days’ wonder - is nine is simply a popular superlative

Men in suits

The oft derogatory term for convention-following corporate types has been part of our lexicon for as long as tailoring itself. First coined as specific, rather than general, meaning to refer to US sports attire before, it has since become common to our language since at least the 1930s. Famously Fab Four motormouth, late great John Lennon, branded The Beatles’ business advisers as such.

On with the motley

This let’s-get-going reference could originate from Motley cloth, made from two or more colours, referenced by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales “A marchant was there ... In motlee” and common stage costume of harlequined court jesters.

And, as with many modern day references, Shakespeare’s 1600 As You Like It references such garb ... not to be confused with 1981 misspelt rockers Mötley Crüe.

Too big for your britches

Or ye olde breeches or, indeed boots, has long conveyed conceit and elevated self opinion. It sounds like an American phrase. Because it is, first found in print among Davy Crockett’s 1835 account. Spin-off phrases include modernised ‘91 Right Said Fred’s hit single “I’m too sexy for my shirt” proclamation.

Wear your heart on your sleeve

Open display of emotions expression may derive from middle ages (not middle aged) jousting when knights wore, tied to their arms, cloths and colours of their chosen lady. Again first record can be attributed to Shakey in Othello when a treacherous aide feigned openness to appear faithful as with “... but I will wear my heart upon my sleeve, for daws to peck at, I am not what I am”. Indeed, Iago!