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Travel Cultures Language

An Idiom Abroad

by Joyce McGreevy on January 3, 2017

The statue of the Duke of Wellington in Glasgow shows that Scotland's fashions go beyond the wordplay of clothing idioms. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Trafficking in high fashion, Glasgow style. 
The Duke of Wellington monument at the Gallery of Modern Art.
© Joyce McGreevy

A Wordplay Stitch in Time

Sew, a funny thing happened on the way to a textile exhibition. One morning in Glasgow, I stopped at a café to write. The assignment: draft a column  about the wordplay of clothing idioms.

I’m no smarty pants, but I hoped to leave readers in stitches so I put on my thinking cap, booted up my laptop, and buckled down to work.  As cellphone users aired their dirty linen in public, I felt hampered and wished they would put a sock in it.

Then the barista buttonholed me with a shirty question.

“Wherever do you writers get your material?” he asked starchly.

His remark needled me, but surely I could pin down a sharp reply. A stitch in time saves nine, but darn it, the next ten minutes unraveled as I hemmed and hawed.

Awkward silence cloaked the café. You could have heard a pin drop.


A 17th century glove from Glasgow's Burrell Collection inspires off-the-cuff wordplay and other clothing idioms. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

The gloves were off. I grasped for an off-the-cuff remark.
A 17th century glove, Burrell Collection, Glasgow.
© Joyce McGreevy

The Truth Can Be Crewel

The truth is, we writers fly by the seat of our pants, sometimes crafting stories from whole cloth, sometimes hanging on by a thread. We spin a good yarn, yet often feel as if we’re pulling the wool over our own eyes.

I considered embroidering the truth, as if I always had a trick up my sleeve. But my tongue was tied, so I zipped my lip. I was skirting the issue, and in Scotland one can get kilt for such things.

Seeing that I hadn’t a notion, my questioner dropped the topic like a missed stitch. Hat in hand, I weaved uncertainly into the fog that blanketed the city of Glasgow.

A Queen's Park street in Glasgow leads to a textile exhibition that inspires the wordplay of clothing idioms. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Before me loomed a patchwork of city streets. I knitted my brow, feeling crotchety.
© Joyce McGreevy

Haberdasher-ing Down the Road

The road unspooled before me, shimmering in patches, as veils of cloud cover gradually lifted. With a few quid burning a hole in my pocket, I threaded my way through Pollok Country Park. There I saw people surging toward the museum that housed the Burrell Collection.

The Hornby Portico in Glasgow leads to a textile exhibition, a visual reminder of clothing idioms' wordplay. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

A coat of arms crowns the site of strategic textile maneuvers.
The Hornby Portico, 16th century, Glasgow.
© Joyce McGreevy

As a traveler on a shoestring budget, I seek out pockets of inspiration that won’t cost the shirt off my back. Like museums, where I feel as comfortable as an old shoe.

So in I darted.

There it was—a textile exhibition perfectly tailored to the situation: Gilt and Silk: Early 17th Century Costume.

Oh, I see:  This was truly a stitch in time.

A 17th century petticoat at a textile exhibition in Glasgow, Scotland reminds us that a stitch in time is more than wordplay. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

How do you order remnants of chronological events? In sequins, of course. 
Detail from a 17th century petticoat, Burrell Collection.
© Joyce McGreevy

Material Witness

I realize textile exhibitions bore the pants off some people. But I grew up in a close-knit family where a head for style went hand in glove with an eye for art. We’ve always cottoned to costume displays and would go at the drop of a hat.

Turns out it was final curtain for the Burrell Collection. The museum was about to bolt its doors until 2020, allowing renovators to roll up their sleeves and gussy up the place.

In other words, this textile exhibition was no dress rehearsal.

Silver and gold embroidery at a textile exhibition in Glasgow reflect the gilt-y pleasures of wordplay and clothing idioms. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Taking a shine to silver and gold threads made me feel gilt-y.
© Joyce McGreevy

Cloth Encounters

Intent on bobbin’ my head at as many items as possible, I zigzagged from display to display.

Some of the clothing knocked my socks off.

Like a woman’s waistcoat made of linen and polychrome silk. The snug little bodice brought new meaning to tightening one’s belt. Ah, but those silver-gilt threads in a pattern of flowers and foliage had me wearing my heart on my sleeve.

A 17th century noblewoman's waistcoat at a textile exhibition in Glasgow, Scotland threads the needle between clothing idioms' wordplay and their source. (Image @ Joyce McGreevy)

Wealthy noblewomen had a vested interest in waistcoats.
A 17th century waistcoat, Burrell Collection.
© Joyce McGreevy

Satin’s Handiwork

Some items left me hot under the collar. Like the outfit worn by the little boy in this painting.

A medieval ruff, as depicted in a painting in Glasgow, Scotland, inspires the wordplay of clothing idioms. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Seems like ruff circumstances for a little kid.
Detail from a painting by unknown artist, Burrell Collection.
© Joyce McGreevy

I guess M’Lord Senior was a stuffed shirt. And M’Lady had a bee in her bonnet about handling play-clothes with kid gloves.

Meanwhile, another area was bursting at the seams.

Museum-goers had fanned out around the highlight of the show—a crimson silk satin petticoat. You can bet your boots that showcasing this extremely rare article was a feather in the cap of the museum’s director.

Thus did the hours unfold. I stared at historical fashion like it was going out of style.

A 17th century textile exhibition in Glasgow provides rich material for clothing idioms and wordplay. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Nothing’s petty about a  17th century petticoat. The layered look was big back then. 
© Joyce McGreevy

Nothing Old Hat Under the Sun

Finally, it was time to throw in the towel. With a new experience under my belt, I felt once again ready to toss my hat into the ring. (As a freelancer, I wear many hats in order to line my pockets while pulling myself up by my own bootstraps, as I refuse to ride another’s coattails.)

So I returned to work and tied up a few loose ends.

A 17th century cap at a textile exhibition in Glasgow, Scotland is "a tip of the hat" to clothing idioms and wordplay. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Hat trick: This embroidered cloth became a close-fitting cap.
© Joyce McGreevy

True, I still hadn’t answered the question of where writers get their material. Not every mystery can be sewn up in a neat little package.

But by following a stitch in time at the textile exhibition and collaring a few clothing idioms, I’d reconnected with the fabric of life. And my guess is, there’s a pattern in there somewhere.

A detail of a 17th century cap at a textile exhibition in Glasgow, Scotland "puts a cap on" clothing idioms and wordplay. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Animals on caps symbolized the senses. H’ats all, folks!
© Joyce McGreevy

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4 thoughts on “An Idiom Abroad

  1. I’m pretty sure you got an A+ on your assignment, Joyce! Your incredibly brilliant clothing idioms/wordplay whilst in Scotland absolutely kilt me!!! ? Cool pics too! Thanks for another beautifully written Oh-I-See Moments moment to enjoy.

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