20 January 2016

"Charlie's dead"

You learn something every day. A BBC article about a new fashion trend of exposing underwear as outerwear included this tidbit:
When I was at school, the whispered warning "Charlie's dead" alerted a girl to the fact that her petticoat was showing...

There are various theories as to where that curious phrase came from. It seems to date from World War II, and my own favourite explanation is that in the 1940s, the window-blinds were lowered whenever there was a death in the house.

The dipping half-slip was like a lowered window-shade. More fanciful versions involving Bonny Prince Charlie or Charles II, are, I am afraid, historically implausible...
A Google search yields about 3000 hits for "Charlie's dead," including some referring to expired pet goldfish. These are the only relevant bits I could find ...

In my youth, we used to say "It's raining in Paris" in such circumstances. I have no idea why. The French said "Tu cherche une belle-mere" (you're looking for a mother-in-law) which makes much more sense.

"It's snowing down south" is listed in Eric Partridge's "Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British." Partridge says it's Australian, current during the late 1940s and the 1950s "but rapidly less since then," and it may have reached Australia from the U.S. It was known in the U.S. as early as the 1930s, Partridge says.

found some other sayings: Mrs White is out of Jail, Saturdays longer than Sunday.

"Your cat's died!" was an expression said when I was a child to mean a girl/ladies petticoat was showing below their skirt/dress or it meant a boy/man's trousers were too short. [???]

And a restaurant on Petticoat Lane details the Prince Charlie/King Charles I/II theories.

Image credit here.

Addendum: I posted the above in 2008.  Now in 2016 I finally decided to see what the Dictionary of American Regional English has to offer on the subject.  In 1965-1970 they tallied about 800 responses to the question "What expressions are used around here to warn a woman slyly that her slip is showing?"  The most common responses were "You're slipping" or "Your slip is showing."  Of interest, I note "Got your P.H.D." (presumably "petticoat hanging down"), various references to "snow," to "Mrs. White," to "daddy/father/papa," and to "cotton."  There were only 5 citations to Charlie ("dead" or "showing"), which reinforces my own opinion that the phrase has a British rather than American etiology.


  1. The only one I ever heard was, "It's snowing down south".

  2. During the 50's and 60's whenever my mother went out with her petticoat showing the old man would always say, "Charlie's Dead" or Ït's snowing down under". Both were quite common around that time in Northern NSW.

  3. How quaint to see people talking about a garment women almost never wear any more, having abandoned them. Meantime, in 2012, Greek males sometimes wear what can be called petticoats. Phooey on the style selfish female fashion monopoly.

  4. - I have never heard of any of these expressions either as a child or as an adult - I started wearing my older sister's panties at age 4, her bra at age 7 and I finally purchased my own lingerie at age 9 including a petticoat. As far as I know, no body ever suspected that I had this fetish as a child !

  5. We used to play a game when I was a kid, seemed perfectly ok at the time, but we used to pull up a girls skirt and shout out Charlie's dead. It was very innocent I might add and was just a silly game. I am female by the way. I have absolutely no idea where this game came from and doubt very much if it is played now. That was back in the 70's. It does seem weird now that I'm writing it down now!!

  6. I always thought that it referred to Charlie Peace since it was a common saying in Peckham and Charlie lived on Evelina Road, Nunhead. He was hanged and the impression I got in reference to petticoats drooping was to do with his death; (the drop)at least that's what my mum and dad used to say.

  7. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans governed after the beheading of Charles 1st. The mode of dress then was far different to that of the dandified fashions that went before. Puritan dres was plain black or grey with no fancy cuffs, collars or frills. I have no historical evidence for saying this, but logic dictates it might have been whispered to women breaking the dress code by wearing hidden lace edged undergarments when unwittingly showing the lace bottom of their petticoat during the Puritan era - "Charlies dead".

    1. This one makes sense, at least from a costume history perspective. Cavalier era over, no more flaunting your lace.

  8. I have no idea where the phrase came from but, when I was young and it was shouted out, the answer was always "so would you be if you were hanging"

  9. It must have a definite origin, it was a common place jocular saying in my teen years in Highams Park, Walthamstow, north east London, UK and part of the banter between the sexes at a time of comparatively innocent exploration and discovery as we moved from an era of avoiding girls, to gradually developing meaningful relationships.

    I find the suggestion about it relating to a saying to women in the Cromwellian Puritan age makes sense.

    It is strange, if it is true that it should have lasted until the mid 1960s. I met my now wife in 1964, she was 16, & I almost a whole year younger than she. I seem to remember slips back then & at some point, full petticoats, when she returns I shall find out when they went out of use, probably finally dispensed with when she became a regular trouser wearer.

    In "Call The Midwife" last evening - Series 5 Episode 1, there was mention of "slacks" - it was 1961 - they seem to have gone the way of slips and petticoats in 50 years, yet the warning "Charlie's Dead" may have lasted six centuries, that seems unlikely, or maybe not, what do you think?

    1. I have no idea, Andrew. Of course, even if the phrase is intended to evoke the history of Charles I, it doesn't mean the phrase existed in that era. It might still be a modern invention that is not six centuries old. What we lack is a "earliest usage" reference (hindered, I would think, by the probability that the phrase was used in conversation more than in written documents).

      Perhaps you could research this more fully and report back to the class...

  10. Gosh, this is a cross continental communication, I see the timed response was at 7.21 AM, where I am in Essex, England, (the UK one) it is close to 2 pm, having had the conversation with Mrs H, I think I have taken it about as far as I can, she says, coincidentally, she found a half slip, in the bottom of a draw only today, and thinks she gave up with them in the 1970s - and suspects they were originally worn to compensate for the roughness of the earlier fabrics and to get a smooth appearance of the outer garment, which is no longer necessary now modern nylon type fabrics are commonplace, meanwhile the discussion is continuing in the Facebook - "British Baby Boomers" group where this thread has been linked.


    1. I'm not on Facebook, so I'll trust you to let us know if any participants come up with interesting replies.

  11. I don't blame you about Facebook, it is not all good apart from being a way of quickly contacting lots of folk and being - found by lots as well.

    However, I see a serious historian Professor Lisa Jardine (a terrific broadcaster but sadly who died in the last year or so) included mention of it in a Broadcast in the Point of View series BBC do every week, back in 2008.

    Here is the write up.


    1. Yup. That's the 2008 article I cited at the start of the post.

      My only complaint about Facebook is that it is potentially a huge timesuck, and at my age time is one of my most precious commodities.

    2. Thanks & sorry for not realising you had cited Lisa Jardine's broadcast script - I do not think I followed that link you gave which was very remiss of me.

      It is nonetheless a little surprising there is not a stronger reference to the origination of the term or explanation for how either of the King Charlies was blamed.

      I find the pulling down of blinds to mark a death not very convincing - in the UK we tend to have always - drawn curtains - that is in my lifetime - which begun 3 years after wartime blackout regulations ended & I grew up in an outer London Suburb, that did experience bombing as late as the daytime V2 rocket missiles (I think in 1945) - there would have been more blinds.

      This is disjointed - I am in a lazy mood and not inclined to tightly edit - I now tend to 'give in' to the consequences of dyslexia and dyspraxia (better known in USA as DCD).

      I guess all these sayings & aphorisms have a definite root - somewhere we have The Oxford Book of Nursery rhymes (or similarly titled directory) it is astounding how things that become commonplace started and how after extensive research no clear explanation can always be found.

      You are right about Facebook being a timesucker - (not a term I would have used had I not seen it here). I have allowed it to be so of my time as I seek justification for living in world that I have largely physically withdrawn from.

      I maybe repeating stuff about underwear becoming accidentally visible.

      That Facebook Group has also offered "snowing down south" and "showing next week's washing" as alternatives.

      Happy blogging.

    3. Thank you, Andrew. It's 0500 here and I can't get back to sleep, so I decided to do one more Google search, and wound up finding the Dictionary of American Regional English citation on the subject. I've added that to the post.

  12. "Your cat's died" is another way of expressing the (once) commonly heard phrase about trousers that were too short, "Your trousers are at half-mast".

  13. My first guess is that maybe 'Charlie's Dead' = CD = 'Check your Drawers'?

  14. I grew up in Wichita, KS. When a girl's slip was showing we said, "It's snowing down South."

    When a boy's fly was open, we said, "XYZ." which stood for "EXamine Your Zipper."

  15. Man standing in line at the bank teller to woman in front of him: Pardon me, ma'am. Your slip is showing.

    Woman: Deposit or withdrawal?

  16. I was so delighted when you mentioned the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). I had the privilege of taking a couple of courses taught by Audrey Duckert, one of the founders of the DARE.

    She was a hoot! Had an odd style of teaching by telling stories instead of lecturing, which drove some students crazy because they couldn't understand how she was teaching them.

  17. For goodness sake, why be coy about it? Why not just tell a woman her slip is showing? o_0

  18. I suspect Amy is far younger than me (born 1948).

    When I was a lad, say of about 14 or 15, when teenage boys not only noticed that the females of contemporary age, REALLY are different, such things would only be mentioned in sniggers with gestures.

    In suburban London, England, UK we really were brought up to treat anything under a female's outer clothing as private and not really anything to do with us and nice girls, were discrete and young men were polite.

    It was slightly risque to even listen to the music of Elvis Presley, and it was quite revolutionary when my mother went with a woman friend to see The Bill Haley film, which featured 'Rock around the clock'

    As I think the poet Philip Larkin once said, sex was discovered in 1960!

    I guess, now at last I think I understand what Germaine Greer was trying to teach, by 1960 - sex had completely been corrupted by commercialism, we even treated parts of our own bodies, men and especially women, "down there", as dirty.

    Whereas our bodies are just those of an animal, and we experience similar drives to most mammals, so it would be better if we learned to recognise and understand them, and even talk about them with this {for animals) modern means of communication; language, which is in fact just a series of metaphors of our real thoughts and feelings, expressed in a series of words, like I am now doing?

  19. That was a conversation stopper!

    More about names like Amy; by the 1950s such names tended to only be carried by women of very mature years along with George and Alfred amongst Males, at least, in my part of the world.

    In fact there was even a character, in the Manchester, England TV "soap opera" called Amy Turtle who was a archetype older 'working class' woman who minded her Ps & Qs, and was very particular about her and other peoples manners, and I think wore a hairnet and was friends with Minnie Caldwell and Ena Sharples who was the caretaker at The Mission Hall.

    Then probably from about the 1990s, we began to have a few Amys around, but still there is no recurrence of Minnies or Enas.

    Were Amy Turtle still alive today. I suspect she would be about 120 years old, and women of her generation, would only mention underwear, hers or anyone else's, in very discrete company!

    Thus I suspect Amy at 8:22 pm on January 21 is one of the post 1990 Amys!

    1. Here you go -

      for England and Wales:

      in the U.S. (much longer time frame):

      my old post on the subject, with some links:

  20. I recall mid 60's in a Michigan catholic school: for boys it was XYZ and for girls, I see London, I see France, I see -insert name- 's underpants.

  21. Again, catching up on some back reading (almost said behind) and this one cracked me up! In the early 60's when I was in grade school the fluffy petticoats like the one in your picture were very popular. I had one with a little inner tube that you blew up to hold your petticoat out without having to wear a lot of them in the heat of summer!. The phrase I always heard was "snowing down south", and "the barn door's open" for boys. It was considered polite to warn people in the most unobtrusive way possible. On a side note, bra slips (ask your wife), were the answer to droopy petticoats. I hated static cling in the winter, especially as panty hose were finally common and girdles were gone.

  22. My grandparents (60 years ago) used the phrase: "You've got Monday before Sunday" or "Your Monday before Sunday is showing". They explained to me what it meant but couldn't explain where the phrase originated.


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