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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Clothing, Part 1 - Dress to Impress

So many words and phrases we use today involve our clothing and the act of dressing that it will take a number of articles to even partially address (there's one of the words) the issue. Does "costume" have anything to do with "custom"? When we "dress to the nines" is it just one step below "dressing to the tens"? These are some of the issues tackled in this essay.


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Getting dressed every day is probably something we don't think much about (unless we are attempting to impress someone or needing to wear clothing appropriate for specific tasks, like painting the house). Today, most of us have rather bulging closets, and still moan such things as, "I don't have a thing to wear." The chances are, our ancestors were far more literal when they made that remark. Many of the folks in the first centuries of America had few clothes – a set for every day, a "relief" set, and a Sunday set. "Sunday, go-to-meeting clothes" is a term rarely heard today (is that because people don't get dressed in their finest to go to Church or that they dispense with Sunday "meetings" altogether?). Anyway, it occurred to me recently that a number of our common sayings utilize references to items of apparel and I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of these for this, and next few months' articles.

When we get in those Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, we use the phrase that we're "dressed to the nines" – why "nine" . . . why not "ten" (which sounds so much more impressive)? One interpretation is that it is simply a slurring of the Old English "dressed to then eyne" (meaning "to the eyes" – fully and completely attired). Over time "then eyne" became "the nine" or "the nines" (Morris & Morris, p. 193). The problem with this interpretation, however, is that between the time the phrase may have come into vogue and when it was first discovered in the printed form (the means by which most phrases are dated) constituted a few hundred years; it just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Another possibility is that the phrase is in reference to the Ninety-ninth Regiment of the British Foot Army; they were considered the smartest regiment in the 1850s. and others made efforts to walk up to their example. Everyone wanted to be "equal to the nines." Sounds good, except that there have been found references to this phrase in the late 1700s. Another possibility bites the dust. So as scholars try to sort this one out, suggestions have been made that it refers to the number nine as having mystical powers or that it relates to the nine Muses or, and this goes back to my initial comment, it relates to that zero to ten scale: Being dressed to the nines means one is looking sharp, but not quite perfect (Quinion, pp. 107-108).

The "the whole nine yards" seems to have about a dozen origins. It does not date back to your ancestors . . . it may not even date back to your parents! It originated sometime in the 1960s, according to written record, and has stumped etymologists around the country (it is known to be an American saying). There are a few who see this phrase as connecting to the "dressed to the nines" term just discussed (looking at "nine" as being related to mysticism and, possibly, the "yard" measurement as referring to fabric). As far as nine yards of fabric are concerned, different suggestions for what can be created with that much cloth include "a nun's habit," "a man's three-piece suit," "a maharajah's ceremonial sash." "a Scottish ‘great kilt,'" "an Indian sari," and "the length of a standard bolt of cloth." None of these possibilities (nor the other half dozen or so non-fabric-related possibilities) seems to pan out (Quinion, pp. 259-260); it seems that getting dressed up may or may not involve nine yards of anything.

With the phrase "dress" still on our minds, I thought it worth looking up before we move on. The word "dress" means "to arrange" (from the Old French drecier). Of course, when we "get dressed" we arrange our body so that we are appropriately attired. But, along that same line, "to address" a group is to arrange our speech towards a target audience. It was just a short jump to get from the verb form of the word to the noun "dress" (meaning a lady's garment consisting of a skirt and a bodice). Males and females "get dressed," but, in modern American culture, we associate the noun – "dress" – with females (usually) (American Heritage Dictionaries, p. 80). Another form of the verb, however, "to dress down," is associated with being reprimanded. My first thought was that this continues with the "address" term, just mentioned, but another interpretation is that it is a term from mining: "dressing down" refers to the act of crushing and breaking ore into powder, much as one who is being verbally admonished may feel crushed and broken after the tongue lashing (Henrickson, p.218).

Going back to the clothing: did you know that our "duds" (clothes) was the origin of the word "dude"? The Middle English word dudde meant "to dress. When, in 19th Century America, the Easterner went west, dressing himself in fancy duds and seeming to strike an attitude, the Westerners looked at him with some level of scorn and ridicule, adding an "e" to his attire and calling him a "dude" (Castle, p. 83). Of course, in more recent years, that word has acquired some additional connotations, depending on what group is using it. Hard to believe that our ancestors might have actually said, "Hey, how are you, dude?" Anyway, the word "duds" goes back many centuries and has been adjusted over time – at one point, in the 1600s, it meant "tattered clothing." From this, the farmers of the era began to call scarecrows "dudmen" (i.e., a "man" dressed in cast-off clothing). Within about 200 years the term took another turn and was applied to anything that was useless (e.g., people, experiences, and unexploded ammunition) (Morris, pp. 67-68).

Our ancestors would, when the situation warranted it, get dressed in their "best bib and tucker" and go to some important or fancy affair. But getting dressed into those Sunday go-to-meeting clothes has not always been an easy task. Once upon a time, in the seventeenth century, the garb of the well-dressed woman must have required getting up at least an extra hour early just to put it all on and have it in proper order. Her skirts were topped with a low-necked bodice and then adorned with something that looked like an infant's bib. To add to the effect, she might tuck in a little lace at the top, giving rise to the term of wearing one's "best bib and tucker" when desiring to make a positive impression (Garrison, p. 32). Originally, this was a phrase reserved for the well-dressed woman; no man (well dressed or not) would wear a "tucker" (though he might be found in a "bib," if the situation warranted it. However, given a few hundred years and soon enough the phrase applied to both sexes (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 52).

When I first heard the phrase "straight laced," I assumed it to mean that someone was so tightly laced into his/her garment (probably a corset of some type), that the wearer was drawn into a stiff posture. That is essentially what it is (I was right, what a shock!). The compound term "straight-laced" (first seen in that form in the 1600s) comes from two words, "straight" and "lace" or "laced" (first seen together in the early 1400s). The first word, "straight," means "tight," "close," or "narrow" (from the French estreit, derived from the Latin, strictus, meaning "to tighten" or "to bind tightly). The second word, "laced," means "to ensnare" (from the French, lacier, and Latin, laciare). So, literally, the term means "to ensnare tightly." Today we consider someone who is "straight-laced" to be a stickler for his/her particular values or system of rules, such as one who is faithful to a religious belief system (Funk, Horsefeathers, pp. 78-79).

So what about the person's complete clothing collection – his/her "wardrobe"? First, consider the use of the letter "w." In the Teutonic languages, from which French, and, specifically, this word originated, the "w" was essentially non-existent. To get the sound, a combination of "gu" or "g" (note: in Spanish, "ju") was employed (consider: "Wanita" . . . no, "Juanita"). So the word "wardrobe" would have been spelled "guardrobe." In France, there was a room attached to the bedchamber where the clothing was kept – the garderobe – where the master's attire was kept safe. As language evolved, so did the need for guarding one's garments, and by the time the word got to America it has metamorphosed into warderobe and, eventually, wardrobe (Funk, Horsefeathers, pp. 92-93). Of course, we use the term to mean both a closet and a selection of clothing, but it's easy to see how things have evolved in that department (except, perhaps for the need to guard one's clothes – however, at the cost of a wardrobe these days, one's apparel is as likely to be stolen as one's laptop!).

The bride who takes her "trousseau" into her new home, when she marries her husband, is not taking her entire wardrobe but, rather, (literally) just a small bundle of a few of her cherished items (not necessarily clothing, but usually associated with that in today's vernacular). The term is French and comes from the root word trousse (which may be recognized as the origin of the word "truss"). Meaning "little bundle," it implies that when she moves into her husband's home with her "trousseau," the bride is not expecting her groom to rearrange his entire home to make room for her (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 220); at least, this was the custom of our ancestors.

As might be inferred from the word, a "costume" relates (at least originally) to a "custom" (in this case, of attire). Both words come from Latin and have the same meaning: "habit" or "usage." While the English use of the word "custom" predates that of "costume" by about 500 years, the two were almost synonymous in usage in France prior to being imported to England. One would look at the definition given above and immediately connect the nun's "habit" to this same word; however, that is not entirely the correct tracing of that term's genealogy. The nun's garb comes from the Old French abit, meaning "apparel," and the word was recognized in this context at about the same time (the thirteenth Century) that "custom" was coming into vogue (American Heritage, p. 59).

One of the more enjoyable aspects of doing genealogy and connecting with others at conferences and history events is seeing the various costumes that people don in order to help us connect, visually, with our ancestors. I don't believe that I would be as comfortable dressing to the nines in my best bib and tucker as my forebears did. The trousseau that great-great-grandma took to her new home when she married great-great-grandpa may not have even fit in the wardrobe cabinet, if she brought along all her duds, especially if any of her outfits included the whole nine yards! Of course, if she was a proper, straight-laced woman (as I'm sure all my ancestors were), great-great-grandpa would have just built an addition to the home (and being in that line of work, as he was, I'm sure he would have done just that). Next month, we'll get more specific on types of clothing and how the words associated with them have enriched our vocabulary.


American Heritage Dictionaries. Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.

Castle. Why do we Say it? The Stories behind the Words, Expressions and Cliches we Use. Seacaucus, NJ: Book Sales, Inc., 1985.

Funk, Charles Earle. Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1948.

Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Morris, Evan. The Word Detective: Solving the Mysteries behind Those Pesky Words and Phrases. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000.

Morris, William, & Mary Morris. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Quinion, Michael. Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins. New York: Smithsonian Books, 2006.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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