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25 Clothes Idioms Explained to ESL Learners

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Kerlyn is a Filipina writer who has studied English. She wants to share her insights with new learners.

Read on to learn over 25 clothes- and clothing-related idioms in the English language. These idioms will help ESL learners better understand conversational English.

Read on to learn over 25 clothes- and clothing-related idioms in the English language. These idioms will help ESL learners better understand conversational English.

What Is an Idiom?

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 English as a Second Language (ESL) learners. Most of the time, the individual meanings of the words that make up idioms do not add up to create their unique, total, and real meanings.

In many cases, it is almost ridiculous to try and guess their definitions. We just have to look up their meanings in dictionaries such as Merriam- Webster or Collins.

Below are 25 English idioms about clothes that may be useful to ESL students.

25 English Clothes Idioms


1. Wolf in sheep's clothing

6. Roll up one's sleeves

11. Old hat

16. Get all dolled up

21. Cloak-and-dagger

2. With hat in hand

7. Put on one's thinking cap

12. Line one's own pockets

17. Feather in one's cap

22. Burst at the seams

3. Wear the pants in one's family

8. Play one's cards close to one's chest

13. Hit someone below the belt

18. Emperor's new clothes

23. Burn a hole in one's pocket

4. Wear one's heart on one's sleeve

9. Out-of-pocket

14. Have an ace/card up one's sleeve

19. Dressed to the nines or dressed to the teeth

24. At the drop of a hat

5. Tighten one's belt

10. One a shoestring or get along on a shoestring

15. A hand-me-down

20. Down-at-the-heels

25. Air one's dirty laundry

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 to assume an attitude of respect and ask humbly for something.


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 sleeve.


He wore his heart on his sleeve, practically broadcasting to everyone that 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 their sleeves, then he or she is getting ready to carry out 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 analyze something from all possible perspectives.


If you have a problem, you should put on your thinking cap so you 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 chests and hide their real intentions.

9. Out-of-Pocket

To pay out-of-pocket refers to money that one directly spends for personal use usually during business trips. It is oftentimes small in amount.

Out-of-pocket can also refer to someone being deliberately hard to reach, as when they take a vacation.


The manager tries to keep his out-of-pocket spending low during business trips. He does not want his company’s auditors to question him about unnecessary expenses.

The businessman took a two-week trip to Hawaii with his wife and explained to his coworkers and bosses that he would be completely out-of-pocket, with his phone off most of the time.

10. On a Shoestring or Get Along on a Shoestring

On a shoestring means on a limited budget. To get along on a shoestring means to survive on a 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 their own pockets if they earn money from shady deals.


The politician lined his own pockets with bribery from people who want to win big-ticket government projects.

13. Hit Someone Below the Belt

To hit someone below the belt means to attack someone in an unjust manner.

Sometimes, such as in boxing, it is used literally to warn participants to avoid hitting an opponent's genitals.


Unable to find any flaws in her cousin, Dina hit her below the belt by spreading rumors about her.

14. Have an Ace/Card Up One’s Sleeve

To have an ace/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 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

To get all dolled up means to get fashionably dressed. This usually refers to women, and also means to put on make-up.


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 they think 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.


The physical education class has been like the emperor’s new clothes for months. The students do not speak about the abuses of the soft-spoken coach, since everyone else seems to love him.

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.

20. Down-at-the-Heels

Somebody is down-at-the-heels if he or she wears worn-out clothes that look shabby or unkempt.


The down-at-the-heels woman looked disheveled and depressed after her breakup with her long-time partner.

21. Cloak-and-Dagger

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 is said to be bursting at the seams if it is too tight or full.


The subway cars are bursting at the seams during morning rush hour 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, without hesitation or waiting.


Her best friend would help her at the drop of a hat.

25. Air One’s Dirty Laundry

To air one’s dirty laundry means to discuss personal or confidential issues in public.


The actor lost the movie role after his wife aired his dirty laundry.

One More Clothing Idiom: "To Dress Someone Down"

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 kerlynb


Someone on July 19, 2019:


RTalloni on August 15, 2012:

Idioms are usually interesting and fun. Just today I interacted with someone from another country who was helping me and another American. As I finished and left the building I smiled at the foreigner and said, "That was two for one!"

As I went out the door I heard her ask the other lady what I had asked her to give me. The other lady began to try to explain... :)

Dianna Mendez on August 05, 2012:

These are great common sayings that will help many to understand the language much better. I found it helpful even for myself.