‘Charlie’s dead’ (your petticoat is showing)






Of unknown origin, the British-English phrase Charlie’s dead, also Charley’s dead, was used among schoolgirls to indicate that a girl’s slip or petticoat was showing below the hem of her skirt—as Lee Rodwell explained in Slips that men are meant to see, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Merseyside, England) of 8th March 1978:

I’ve joined the petticoat revolution. So don’t tell me. I know. My slip is meant to show.
The High Street shops are full of flowery dresses designed to be worn over lacy pettis that are supposed to be seen. And I’ve bought one.
To be honest, it’s the first petticoat I’ve bought for years. I gave up slips along with bras during the swinging sixties.
Casting off petticoats was no hardship. I still break out in cold sweats when I remember the embarrassment they sometimes caused me.
At school there were ways of telling another girl that her slip was showing. The most common phrase was “Charlie’s dead” but to this day I have no idea where this comes from.
Another way—self explanatory this time—was to whisper: “It’s snowing.” Boys were more vulgar. They would shout after you in the street: “You’re showing next week’s washing.”

The earliest occurrence of the phrase Charlie’s dead that I have found is from Miscellany, published in the Manchester Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of 29th October 1956—the French phrase elle cherche une belle-mère translates as she is looking for a mother-in-law:

In this district we say “Charlie’s dead” to warn a friend that her petticoat is showing (writes “A. B.,” of Ilkley). According to the local savant this saying comes from Puritan days, when frills and furbelows were frowned on. When King Charles was dead, such things had to be hidden from masculine eyes. I heard a French version from a visitor this summer who observed, when she saw a dipping hem-line: “Elle cherche une belle-mère.” In Keighley, according to another reader, a woman in this sort of distress is referred to as being “to let.” A less mysterious saying was common in Essex years ago: “I see you’ve got your washing out to-day”: and in Derby they used to say cryptically: “Your father loves you better than your mother.”

The following letter, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of 29th May 1978, confirms that the phrase was in use in the 1950s:

There’s many a slip . .
Mrs. S. Morgan, Windsor Road, Penarth, South Glamorgan, writes:
Seeing today’s fashion of petticoats showing a few inches below the skirt took me back to my teens in the 1950s when our full frilly petticoats were never allowed to be shown.
If they were, you were always told, “Charley’s dead.” You then made a hurried exit to hitch them up.
Can you please enlighten me as to where that saying sprang from? My own teenagers thought I was having them on, although my friends clearly remember the phrase.
■ We well remember the phrase, too, ma’am, but we’re darned if we can find out anything about “Charley.”
We also recall the lads needling the girls, for the same reason, with references to “Next week’s washing” or “It’s snowing again!”

The above-quoted preposterous explanation according to which the phrase Charlie’s dead originated in the Puritan days that followed the execution of King Charles I (1600-1649) appeared again in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of 9th June 1978:

Mrs. Goodfellow, Birkbeck Road, London, N17, writes:
A reader wondered about the origin of the saying “Charlie’s dead” to a girl whose petticoat shows below her skirt. Well, my aunt, who lived on the Isle of Wight, where King Charles I was imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle, told me this tale.
When the king was executed, lady Royalist sympathisers, not daring to go into mourning openly, simply let their petticoats show below their skirts.
I don’t know what the Royalist gents did.
■ Well, they certainly couldn’t let it all hang out in a like fashion, could they?
Other readers tell us that another jibe at drooping petticoats was “Your father loves you better than your mother.”




The British-English phrase next week’s washing is used more generally of a woman whose underwear is showing—as exemplified by the following from Lend a wally a helping hand, by Jane Last, published in the Ealing Leader (London, England) of 8th May 1987:

I can’t be the only person who has followed strangers with the label protruding from their sweater at the back of the neck, a large lump of ice cream stuck to the skirt—or even on one memorable occasion, an unfortunate who appeared from the ladies with the back of her skirt caught in the top of her tights, leaving all of next week’s washing in full view.
I’ve made a resolution. In future I am going to creep alongside and whisper in the ear who is unkowingly [sic] making a wally of themselves. I hope you will all do the same for me.

Tom Shields used the phrase in the same sense in Play it again, ya bam, published in The Herald (Glasgow, Scotland) of 28th October 2012:

Scenes in the movie Under The Skin, filmed in Glasgow, required a voluptuous Scarlett Johansson to pretend to fall over and be helped up by passers-by.
There was no shortage of gentlemanly assistance.
Cinema history might have been different if other films had been made with the aid of the Glasgow public.
At Partick subway station, as Marilyn Monroe is getting wind up her skirt for the scene in The Seven Year Itch, a local lady warns: “Hen, you’re showing next week’s washing.”

However, the earliest use that I have found of next week’s washing refers to a man—it is from M’Cann’s Freebooters “Capture” Glasgow, published in The Sunday Post (Glasgow, Scotland) of 20th January 1946:

Rattling their cans with all the fervour of pre-war days, gaily-bedecked students launched their Charities Day drive on Glasgow yesterday—the first for seven years.
At 9.30 a.m. the redoubtable Philip M’Cann, showing at least a yard of next week’s washing beneath his kilt, led the “United Nations” procession of 400 students from the University to the City Chambers.

The author explains the meaning of next week’s washing further on in the article: he says that the students were “clad in pyjamas, nightshirts, fur coats, bits of uniforms, well padded against the cold”.




The phrase your father loves you better than your mother seems to be of American-English origin.

The earliest occurrence that I have found is from A Farmer’s Daughter, by the Canadian journalist, author and poet Jean Blewett (1862-1934), published in The Huddersfield Examiner. And West Riding Reporter (Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England) of 24th December 1896:

Her cambric gown is maybe a bit old-fashioned—in truth ’tis one of her school-day gowns, but it fits the slim body to perfection, is a trifle low at the neck where the soft lace falls, and is guiltless of sleeves from the elbows to the wrists. As for length, well, you see Nan has grown some inches taller since the skirt was made. It is short, decidedly short; half an inch of white embroidery shows beneath it, as Nan very well knows, for Sarah, the hired girl, passing through the kitchen a while ago, called out:—
Your father loves you better than your mother, Miss Nan; sure your petticoat is longer nor your frock.”

It seems that this phrase corresponded to an authentic folk belief, since Ora S. Busse recorded it in Indiana Folk Beliefs, Omens, and Signs, published in Hoosier Folklore (Indianapolis: The Hoosier Folklore Society) of March 1947:

If you see a pin and pass it by, you will come to want before you die.
If your slip hangs longer than your dress, it is a sign that your father loves you better than your mother does.
If a woman drops her apron, it is a sign that she will lose a friend.

One thought on “‘Charlie’s dead’ (your petticoat is showing)

  1. “Charlie’s dead”is older than that. My mum was born in 1931 and said she used when she was still at school.


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