25 Clothing Idioms and What They Mean

Hello everyone,

Idioms are phrases that have a figurative meaning different from the literal meaning of the individual words.

Many common idioms refer to clothes and fashion in a metaphorical way.

Understanding these idioms can help improve your fluency in English.

Let’s take a look at 25 clothing idioms and explore what they really mean.

1. To dress something up

This idiom means to make something appear more interesting or attractive, often by adding decorative elements.

For example, “The chef dressed up the plain salad by adding nuts, berries, and a tangy dressing.”

2. To hang something out to dry

When you hang out your laundry to dry on a clothesline, it means you are making it public or exposing it.

Using this idiom means to reveal private or embarrassing information about someone.

“I don’t want to hang out his dirty laundry, but John was fired for stealing.”

3. A hand-me-down

This refers to an item of clothing that is passed down used from an older child to a younger one.

The idiom describes anything that is previously used or owned by someone else before you acquired it secondhand.

“Sarah got a hand-me-down bicycle from her older brother.”

4. To turn a blind eye

If you turn a blind eye to something, you are pretending not to notice it on purpose.

This likely originated from the idea of a person with an eye patch or blindfold ignoring what is obvious.

“The teacher turned a blind eye when she saw the students passing notes in class.”

5. To wear your heart on your sleeve

When someone wears their heart on their sleeve, they openly express their emotions and make their feelings very obvious for everyone to see.

The opposite would be a person who is reserved or hides their feelings.

“Jake wears his heart on his sleeve, so you always know exactly how he feels.”

6. To have a chip on your shoulder

Having a chip on your shoulder means you are angry about something and looking for a confrontation or holding a grudge.

It may have originated from the literal idea of a person with a wood chip on their shoulder acting belligerent.

“Ever since he lost his job, Tom has had a big chip on his shoulder.”

7. Cut from the same cloth

When two people are cut from the same cloth, it means they are very similar, perhaps with shared backgrounds, personalities, or ways of thinking.

The phrase likens people to bolts of fabric from the same materials.

“Sarah and Jessica are cut from the same cloth – both smart, driven, and highly ambitious.”

8. An iron hand in a velvet glove

This idiom describes a person who exhibits firm control, authority, or even cruelty, but does so in a polite, gentle manner on the surface.

It brings to mind an armored hand covered by the softness of a velvet glove.

“The new boss rules the office with an iron hand in a velvet glove.”

9. To cap something

Putting a cap on means to impose a limit. It could mean a literal cap, or more often a metaphorical restriction like a maximum limit or quota.

“The university capped enrollment at 25,000 students to prevent overcrowding.”

10. To pin something on someone

This idiom means to blame someone or hold them responsible for something, perhaps unfairly.

It refers to the idea of pinning something onto a person, like pinning a badge onto their chest.

“Don’t try to pin this mess on me – I had nothing to do with it!”

11. To dip into something

When you dip into something, you are using or consuming a portion of it.

This likely refers to the literal act of dipping food into a sauce to eat a sample of it.

“Sarah dipped into her savings to cover the cost of her wedding.”

12. To fit like a glove

If something fits like a glove, it fits extremely well and comfortably, just as a well-made glove should fit snugly on the hand.

“This new office role fits her skills like a glove.”

13. To put something on ice

Putting something on ice means to postpone it until later or put it into a state of suspended animation.

The idea comes from using ice to pause the spoiling of perishable foods.

“Let’s put those renovation plans on ice until we’ve saved up more money.”

14. To roll up your sleeves

When you roll up your sleeves, you are preparing to work hard and get something done, often referring to difficult physical labor.

The image is of someone literally rolling their shirtsleeves up past their elbows before tackling a demanding task.

“With tax season coming up, our accountants will need to roll up their sleeves.”

15. To let something slip through the cracks

If something slips through the cracks, it means that it was overlooked, forgotten, or mishandled in some way, especially due to carelessness or poor organization.

The idiom may refer to the cracks found between floorboards where small items could slip through unnoticed.

“The client’s urgent email slipped through the cracks and went unanswered for a week.”

16. To walk on eggshells

This means to be very cautious and careful in how you handle a difficult situation, perhaps by treading lightly to avoid making it worse.

It creates an image of someone walking so delicately that they avoid cracking thin eggshells on the floor below.

“You have to walk on eggshells when discussing politics with Uncle Joe if you don’t want an argument.”

17. To button your lip

If someone tells you to button your lip, it’s a command to be quiet and stop talking – often about something you’re not supposed to disclose.

The idea is to button your lips closed, like buttoning a shirt, to keep yourself from speaking carelessly.

“You had better button your lip and not breathe a word of this to anyone!”

18. To zip it

Like buttoning your lip, to zip it is telling someone to be quiet and stop talking right away.

It comes from the idea zipping up your jacket or coat to keep your mouth from opening.

“Zip it, you two! No more fighting or you’ll both go to your rooms.”

19. On tenterhooks

To be on tenterhooks means to be in a state of suspense, anxiety, or anticipation while awaiting an outcome or decision.

This odd phrase is based on tenterhooks, which were hooked nails used to stretch cloth taut on a frame for drying.

“The whole family was on tenterhooks waiting for the doctor’s test results.”

20. Paper trail

A paper trail refers to the documented evidence of events, transactions, or activities that can prove what happened.

It originated from the trail of paperwork left behind by something like a real estate deal.

“The FBI investigator warned the suspects not to create too obvious of a paper trail.”

21. To see through something

If you can see through something, it means you are not fooled by an attempt at deception and you recognize the real intention underneath.

The idiom evokes the idea of being able to see through someone’s thinly veiled excuse or disguise.

“The teacher saw through my excuse for missing class – I shouldn’t have lied.”

22. Cut from whole cloth

Unlike being cut from the same cloth as someone, if a story or excuse is cut from whole cloth, it is completely fabricated and false.

Tailors used to cut clothing patterns from a single piece of whole, uncut fabric.

“We could all tell Brenda’s dramatic tale of being stuck in traffic was cut from whole cloth.”

23. Bigger fish to fry

If there are bigger fish to fry, it means there are more important or pressing issues that need to be dealt with as a higher priority.

The bigger the fish, the more valuable the catch and the bigger meal it provides.

“There are bigger fish to fry than worrying about who will lead the bake sale committee.”

24. Reading someone like a book

When you can read someone like a book, you understand them and their motivations completely, just like you can comprehend a book by reading it.

An expressive person who wears their emotions openly is easy to “read.”

“Amanda has always been good at reading people like a book – she knew her son was hiding something.”

25. Out of whole cloth

Similar to “cut from whole cloth,” if something is made out of whole cloth, it has been invented rather than based on facts.

The whole cloth refers to a cloth-making process dating back to the 1300s.

“His entire backstory about being a wartime hero was made out of whole cloth.”

That covers 25 common clothing and fashion idioms used in English.

Understanding idioms is key to sounding more natural and native-like when speaking a language.

Try using some of these expressions in your conversations and writing to show off your mastery of colorful idioms!

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Check out these awesome phrases & Idioms books I recommend:

Cambridge Idioms Dictionary

IDIOMS and PHRASES Anglo,Synonyms and Antonyms Anglo,One Word Substitution

Oxford Dictionary of Idioms

3000 Idioms and Phrases+ 3000 Proverbs 

Idioms for Kids

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