25 Clothes Idioms Explained to English as a Second Language Learners
Idioms or idiomatic expressions are words or expressions that have figurative meanings.
They should not be taken literally because their definitions are based on the culture and experiences of native speakers of English.
Because their meanings are based on native English speakers' culture, then they may be at times confusing for many learners of English as a Second Language or ESL.
Below are 25 idioms or idiomatic expressions about clothes that may be useful to ESL learners.
1. Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
A wolf in sheep’s clothing is a mean or cruel person who pretends to be nice and caring.
The grandmother is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Inside her home, she verbally abuses her household members. Outside her home, she religiously hears mass.
2. With Hat in Hand
With hat in hand is an idiom that means “with meekness and without a trace of arrogance.”
With hat in hand, the man asked the girl’s parents for her hand in marriage.
3. Wear the Pants in One’s Family
A woman wears the pants in her family if she is the breadwinner and is able to order family members around.
The wife clearly wears the pants in her family. She earns much more than her husband and tells him what to do all the time.
4. Wear One’s Heart on One’s Sleeve
To show one’s emotions publicly and without discretion is to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeves.
He wore his heart on his sleeves and told everyone he was madly in love with her.
5. Tighten One’s Belt
To tighten one’s belt means to manage to get by with very little money.
I tighten my belt and live below my means so I can keep money aside for emergencies.
6. Roll up One’s Sleeves
When somebody rolls up his or her sleeves, then he or she is getting ready to do a tough task or an important assignment.
Kelley rolled up her sleeves and began to work on her new business plans.
7. Put on One’s Thinking Cap
To put on one’s thinking cap means to think deeply and to analyze something from all possible aspects.
When we have a problem, we should put on our thinking cap so we can come up with clever solutions.
8. Play One’s Cards Close to One’s Chest
Being extremely careful and guarded is to play one’s cards close to one’s chest.
This idiomatic expression also means to not let others know about one’s plans and thoughts.
The negotiators are cunning. They play their cards close to their chest to hide their real intentions.
9. Out of Pocket
Out of pocket refers to money that one directly spends for personal use usually during business trips. It is oftentimes small in amount.
The manager tries to keep his out of pocket low during business trips. He does not want his company’s auditors to question him about unnecessary expenses.
10. On a Shoestring OR Get along on a Shoestring
On a shoestring means on limited budget. Get along on a shoestring means to survive on limited budget.
Living below her means, she gets along on a shoestring.
11. Old Hat
Something is an old hat if it is not new and has been used for a long time.
I’ve been using my red wallet for many years now. It is an old hat and a lucky one at that.
12. Line One’s Own Pockets
Somebody lines his or her own pockets if he or she is earning money from shady deals.
The politician lined his own pockets with bribery from people who want to win big-ticket government projects.
13. Hit One below the Belt
To hit one below the belt means to attack someone in an unjust manner.
Unable to find any flaws in her cousin, Dina hit her below the belt and spread rumors about her.
14. Have an Ace/a Card up One’s Sleeve
Have an ace/a card up one’s sleeve means to have a secret plan, which one can carry out during dire situations.
It can also refer to a secret weapon that can give a person a clear advantage over the others.
The recruiters had an ace up their sleeve. They offered their recruits attractive compensation packages when they were about to sign up for a competing company.
15. A Hand-Me-Down
A hand-me-down is an old and used piece of clothing that one person gets from another.
The young kid was given hand-me-downs by her older sister.
16. Get All Dolled Up
Get all dolled up means to get fashionably dressed.
Many women love to get all dolled up for Friday night parties.
17. Feather in One’s Cap
A feather in one’s cap is an accomplishment or a recognition that one can be proud of.
She is a veteran businesswoman, social worker, and mother with many feathers in her cap.
18. Emperor’s New Clothes
The idiom emperor’s new clothes is used to refer to a situation where a person keeps from criticizing another person because he or she thinks that everyone else does not want to make any criticisms.
This idiom can also be used to refer to a situation where a person believes something to be true when in fact that thing is false.
It was clearly like emperor’s new clothes. The students did not speak about the abuses of the soft-spoken coach.
19. Dressed to the Nines OR Dressed to the Teeth
To be dressed to the nines or dressed to the teeth means to be stylishly or pleasingly clothed.
It was the red carpet premiere of the movie so all the guests were dressed to the nines.
Somebody is down-at-the-heels if he or she wears worn-out clothes that look shabby or unkempt.
She appeared down-at-the-heels after her breakup with her long-time partner.
Something is cloak-and-dagger if it is dubious and covert.
Strangely, the old woman is involved in cloak-and-dagger operations. She is an operative of the spy agency.
22. Burst at the Seams
Something does burst at the seams if it is too tight or full.
The buses burst at the seams during morning rush hours when many people hurriedly go to work.
23. Burn a Hole in One’s Pocket
To burn a hole in one’s pocket means to spend money hastily and without much thought.
Money burns a hole in her pocket. As soon as she gets her monthly pay, she goes shopping for make-up.
24. At the Drop of a Hat
At the drop of a hat is an idiom that means right away, with no hesitation, and without waiting.
Her best friend would help her at the drop of a hat.
25. Air One’s Dirty Linen in Public
To air one’s dirty linen in public means to discuss personal or confidential issues in public.
The actor lost the movie role after his wife aired his dirty linen in public.