...no knickers

Wore my red shoes today, which always provides someone with an excuse to exclaim red shoes, no knickers! The word knickers is, of course, a dead giveaway that this is a BrE expression. The first 50 or so times I heard it, I assumed it was a comment on the raciness of the colo(u)r red and the type of woman who might call attention to herself (and her feet) by wearing red shoes, but the story is a bit less lady-of-the-evening than it seems at first.

The more common phrase--never applied to me because of my fondness for wool--is all fur coat and no knickers. Both phrases are used to refer to someone (or something) that is all flash and no substance. That is, one who's bothered with the decorations, but not with the basic necessities, like knickers (=AmE panties).

Of course, the moralistic edge of the phrase--encouraging us to have a good foundation (garment) before turning our attention to frills, is often these days overlooked, in favo(u)r of the ol' nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Search (unfiltered) all fur coat and no knickers on Google Image to see what I mean, if you need to. But you don't really need to, do you?

Another faintly misogynistic (which is not to say entirely unuseful) phrase that the British have introduced me to is mutton dressed as lamb: used to refer to any woman who is unflatteringly dressed in a style that is deemed too young for a woman her age. Better Half also enjoys the phrase mutton dressed as mutton, which is to say a woman who is unflatteringly dressed in a way that is too appropriate to her age. (Thankfully, neither of these has yet been applied to me...to my face.)

The British do not have a monopoly on phrases that pass judg(e)ment on the sartorial choices of women. Muffin top, to refer to the roll of flesh that often appears at the top of some low-slung trousers/pants is an Americanism. This word has made its way into BrE, even though the types of muffins that the phrase alludes to are a fairly recent import to the UK.

[Here I must digress. The cake-like American-style muffin seems to have taken over the UK. This is the kind of muffin that a lot of my students think of first when asked to describe muffins--which they are often asked to do in my courses--rather than the type of flat, non-sweet thing that looks like what Americans call an English muffin, but which actually differs from those as well. According to United Biscuits, individually packaged muffins, such as those pictured at the right, are now 'the second largest sector in eat-now cakes' in the UK. But...there has been some semantic slippage in the transfer of this term (and baked good) to the UK: (a) The muffins that are sold in the UK as American-style muffins often lack 'muffin tops' --i.e. the mushroomy bit that has risen over the side of the muffin tin-- so I'm not sure whether the phrase muffin top is quite as evocative here when applied to love handles. I've yet to come across a home-baked muffin in the UK that wasn't made by me--though one can buy Betty Crocker blueberry muffin mix at Asda, I see. (Not that I want to admit to having been in an Asda--which is owned by Evilmart.) (b) Many of the so-called muffins I see in UK shops are, in AmE terms, cupcakes, as far as I'm concerned. One started to see (horrors!) chocolate chip muffins in the US when I was in my late teens, but to my mind, muffins have to have some whiff of healthfulness about them--bran or fruit, or at least cornmeal--and certainly no frosting. Something built around the theme of a chocolate bar, such as the Galaxy muffin above, is most definitely a cupcake. And before raising the issue of fairy cakes or otherwise taking this conversation any further on the baked goods tangent, please do have a look at the baked goods post from July.]

Back to American body-fascist misogyny! Or cultural observation...take your pick! The other AmE phrase that springs to mind (though admittedly not as widespread as the others discussed so far) is sausage casing girl, to refer to someone young and female who wears clothes in a size or two smaller than the sizing lords intended. I learned this phrase from an LA Times article this summer, and it did strike me as descriptive, though cruel. The article seems to no longer be accessible to the masses on-line, but you can read Grant Barrett's record of it here.

All of these expressions describe phenomena that exist in both countries, but the two cultures have had different priorties as to which type of woman gets judged on the basis of her behavio(u)r with reference to her appearance. As ever, we can wonder about what this says about the cultures--although one has to be careful about plucking a couple of phrases out of the culture and judging the culture on the basis of those. Nevertheless, in the spirit of sweeping generali{s/z}ation, we see in (some of) these phrases British women being mocked for not acting their age and American women being mocked for not acting their weight. And men on both sides of the Atlantic remaining relatively unscathed.


  1. How about "all mouth and (no) trousers" which I'm pretty sure is mostly confined to BrE. Referring, of course to a (usually male) person who is better at talking than at actual performance, or who makes groundless boasts.


  2. OK, but that's still leaves the man's appearance uncommented-upon.

  3. "If he were an ice-cream he'd lick himself" seems pretty dismissive.

    Meanwhile, are you crumpet?

  4. My stream-of-consciousness blogging was meant to be on the theme of comments on dress = comments on character, but by the time I got to the American phrases, it became more comments on dress=comments on dress.

    So, on the original theme, the_sybil's 'all mouth/no trousers' fits.

    'If he were an ice cream he'd lick himself' doesn't seem to fit with either theme, and doesn't seem to be as well known. Trying to find this phrase on the web (it doesn't seem to be as well-known as the others), I searched "ice cream" and "lick himself" and I found out of the first 100 hits:

    6 references to football managers

    1 to a Radio Lancashire DJ

    1 to Sting

    1 to a man in a shopping cent{re/er} in Ireland

    (Most others referred to dogs/cats licking themselves.)

    Searching "ice cream" and "lick herself", I found:

    1 ref to Big Brother contestant Makosi

    And lots of pornography--but that had nothing to do with the idiom.

    (The various no knickers phrases had hundreds of appropriate hits each.)

    I should note (since I didn't before) that All fur coat and no knickers doesn't only refer to women--I've seen it used to refer to buildings, the population of Jersey, nightclubs... So, while it has a gendered feel (since knickers are women's underwear), it's not just used of women...

  5. Knickers are women's underwear? Then why did my mother use the word to describe undergarments in general, inclusive of both sexes?

  6. When I asked Better Half (the only Englishman here) whether men's underwear can be knickers, he exclaimed, 'That's pants!' However, the OED sheds some light on why this might be what your mother called them:

    A short-legged (orig. knee-length), freq. loose-fitting, pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment. In extended use, the shorts worn by boxers, footballers, etc. Also occas. in sing.

    Was she referring to children's underpants?

  7. I understand that in Texas they say "all hat and no cattle." And as long as we're talking about "muffin tops," shall we allow our gaze to drift slightly southward and pause for a moment of discreet silence in contemplation of the unsightly "cameltoe"?

  8. Great post! Just this weekend I blogged about my muffin top, and how I am trying to love my post-baby muffin top, and I realized that, where you can get real muffins, the muffin top is the BEST part of the muffin.

    Oh - and I didn't know that mutton dressed as a lamb was about women. I use it for politicians, especially since the mayor of my parents' town is named Mutton (maybe today that will change) and is up for charges of assault on his family and employees I think. Though I guess that doesn't make him very well "dressed as a lamb."

    Great discussion, though!

  9. I know someone who calls muffin tops on women "gunts". Had to think about it for awhile but then realized he was combining two words... gut + something unmentionable. Wouldn't be surprised if it originated with Howard Stern.

  10. There are *some* terms of disparagement to do with men's appearance, however; "Dressed up like a pox-doctor's clerk" is one such, for a man who is dressed in a fancy but inappropriate fashion.

    It seems it could be either Brit or Oz in origin - see http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/11/messages/583.html

  11. What about metrosexual? Refers to a man who is overly concerned about his appearance. Slightly disparaging?

  12. “Knickers” was derived from “knickerbockers” three-quarter length trousers once worn by small boys. According to my Concise Oxford Dictionary it is also a name for New Yorkers, being the descendents of Dutch Settlers. Strange how we seem to get our inner and outer wear mixed up. Knickers are still sometimes referred to as “drawers”, which can be a source of amusement, when somebody is deliberately “mis-understood” when referring to the storage container of an item of furniture.

  13. "size lords" - is this an American term? I love it.

  14. I'm not seeing that term here. It doesn't seem to be anyone's term--just creative language use.

  15. Muffin tops remind me of bingo wings. I suppose if life is cruel, or long.. the two go together.

  16. There's no such thing as a 'British' woman, accent, language. We have many! I despise the way Americans always generalise.

  17. @Anon: Pot, kettle, black, eh? But do note that there is such a thing as a British woman. There are, in fact, over 30 million such people, and they have the passports to prove it.

    (And while you're at it, mightn't you stick up for the Americans, who have many people, accents, languages as well? Generali{s/z}ations are what social sciences are based on.)

  18. my gran has always said-red hat no knickers i'm presuming it goes back to prostitutes wearing red hats ?

  19. lucy paine from UK20 June, 2010 10:10

    u could also have- dressed up like a dogs dinner referring to a woman's choice of dress -not in a flattering way ofcourse!

  20. another saying is 'Kippers for curtains' which sort of says the same thing. spend money on the curtains so the house looks good from the street but go hungry because you can't afford to by kippers to eat.

  21. A Lancashire expression, now rather old-fashioned, for a woman who gives herself airs above her station is "Queen Anne front, Mary Anne behind".

  22. This isn't related to dress exactly, but is "butterface" a BrE expression as well? I hear guys use it all the time here in CA. In case you haven't heard it, butterface means you like everything about a girl "but-her-face", i.e. a girl who has a nice body but is otherwise unattractive.

  23. Katie B

    Google Advanced Search allows you filter out everything but Pages from the UK. I tried this and found little to suggest that the word is common here — not yet, anyway.

    On the first page of results, there are links to a handful of pages with pictures for the viewer to rate as butterface or not. These could well be of US origin. Indeed, one linked page is of UK and Ireland responses to Am I a butterface?

    On the whole, the linked pages relate to a DJ Butterface or a band called Butterface, with a few picking up the two words butter face.

    I think it's safe to conclude that the word hasn't really made it here. I've never heard it, but then I'm the wrong generation.

  24. I've been called "lamb dressed as a mutton" working in an office wearing smart clothes at the age of 17 ;)

  25. You might know that Muffin top has been well assimilated into British English, such that we now have an less than complimentary statement......' The tramp stamp on the Muffin top of a Chav'.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)