How a clotheshorse became chic

Q: I’m curious about why somebody who lives to dress fashionably is referred to as a “clotheshorse.” What’s horsey about fashion?

A: The fashionable meaning of “clotheshorse” is derived from the term’s original sense of a frame for hanging wet or musty clothes inside a house.

When the usage first appeared in the early 19th century, it referred to “an upright wooden frame standing upon legs, with horizontal bars on which clothes are hung out to dry or air,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Miseries of Human Life (1807), a book by the English clergyman James Beresford about the indignities of everyday life: “You look like a clothes-horse, with a great-coat stretched out upon it, just ready for the rattan.”

The next OED example is from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836). We’ve expanded the citation to give readers more of the Dickensian flavor: 

“We keep no horse, but a clothes-horse; enjoy no saddle so much as a saddle of mutton; and, following our own inclinations, have never followed the hounds.  Leaving these fleeter means of getting over the ground, or of depositing oneself upon it, to those who like them, by hackney-coach stands we take our stand.”

In the mid-19th century, Oxford says, “clotheshorse” took on the figurative sense of “a person whose main function is or appears to be to wear or show off clothes.” It cites a political pamphlet that explains why “plain Tom and Jack” may be better qualified than “Lord Tommy and the Honourable John” for parliamentary duties:

“Tom and Jack have been at least workers all their days, not idlers, game-preservers and mere human clothes-horses.” We’ve expanded the citation, which is from Thomas Carlyle’s Latter-day Pamphlets (1850).

The next OED example is from Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In the citation, which we’ve also expanded, the narrator criticizes England’s choice of people to memorialize:

“With the spirit of prophecy upon me, I could look into the future and see her erect statues and monuments to her unspeakable Georges and other royal and noble clothes-horses, and leave unhonored the creators of this world—after God—Gutenburg, Watt, Arkwright, Whitney, Morse, Stephenson, Bell.”

As for “clothes” and “horse,” the nouns had the meanings you’d expect when they showed up in Old English writing. As the OED says, claoas meant “covering for the person; wearing apparel; dress, raiment, vesture.” And hors meant “a solid-hoofed perissodactyl quadruped (Equus caballus), having a flowing mane and tail, whose voice is a neigh.”

So how did “clotheshorse” come to mean a frame for hanging clothing, first a wooden one and later a fashionable human one?

Over the years, Oxford says, the noun “horse” was used figuratively for “things resembling the quadruped in shape, use, or some characteristic real or fancied,” such as in the sense of a sawhorse (1718), vaulting horse (1785), and iron horse or steam locomotive (1874).

As we’ve said, the term “clotheshorse” first appeared in the early 19th century in the sense of a wooden frame for drying clothing. However, “horse” by itself was used a century earlier with the same meaning.

The OED cites an entry for “horse” in an early 18th-century dictionary that includes this sense: “Also a wooden Frame to dry wash’d Linnen upon” (The New World of Words, 6th ed., 1706, compiled by Edward Phillips and edited by John Kersey).

We’ll end with an example we found in a London newspaper, using “clotheshorse” to describe a member of the British royal family who isn’t particularly known for her sense of fashion:

“Princess Anne, 71, is the only daughter of the Queen, 95, and is regularly described as the hardest-working member of the Royal Family. She has become known as a workhorse as opposed to a clotheshorse like other female royals” (Daily Express, March 7, 2021).

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How a clotheshorse became chic