The British-English phrase kippers and curtains, and its variants, are used of a person who pretends to be well-off despite having little money.
The image is of a person who has expensive curtains on the windows of their house, but subsists on a diet of inexpensive fish.
—Cf. the synonymous phrase plus-fours and no breakfast.
The phrase kippers and curtains occurs, for example, in All kippers and curtains: One woman’s memory of growing up on a new council estate in the 1950s, published in the Evening Standard (London, England) of Monday 22nd September 2003—Gilda O’Neill (1951-2010), British novelist and historian of the East End of London, recalled her childhood on a council estate in Bow, in the East End:
There used to be a saying “all kippers and curtains”, which meant you bought flashy curtains to keep up with the Joneses, but then you could only afford to eat kippers. Appearances were everything.
The earliest occurrences of the phrase kippers and curtains indicate that it originated in Birmingham, a city in west-central England. This is supported by the following from Carole Ann’s Diary, by Carole Ann Rice, published in The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Wednesday 25th October 1995:
There’s a Birmingham expression called “kippers and curtains”. It means while you may have respectable nets up at the window you’re hiding the fact you’ve got kippers for tea. It’s an old expression like “fur coat and no knickers” and dates back to a time when kippers were poor folks’ food and a fur coat was a status symbol.
Modern day terms of derision could be “Camcorder and no carpet” or “all Nike and no job”.
The earliest occurrences of the phrase kippers and curtains that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:
1-: From The Clubman’s Diary, published in the Birmingham Gazette (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Thursday 29th November 1934—the author implies that the phrase kippers and curtains was already in common usage:
Councillor Fred Normansell rather surprised me the other day when he told me that more plaice was imported into Birmingham on the average than fresh herring. Regularly there will be fifty tons of flat-fish as a day’s supply disposed of in the wholesale market, and this sells at 10s. a stone compared with 2s. for the best herrings. Next in demand is halibut.
So Birmingham’s tastes on the whole are by no means plebeian, and there are not so many “kippers and curtain” houses as sometimes we are discredited with.
2-: From the account of a police-court case, published in the Leicester Evening Mail (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Friday 8th January 1937—in this account, Harbourne is a misprint for Harborne:
YOUTH GIVEN LESSONS ON WHERE TO STEAL
WHEN a man was alleged at Birmingham Police Court to-day to have conducted “receiving on a large scale,” an 18-year-old youth, who admitted breaking into more than 70 houses, told the magistrates that the man had taught him how to use a glass cutter and also advised him to wear gloves so as not to leave fingerprints.
Accused was Harry Clifford, aged 59, a sign writer, of Stour-street, Birmingham, and he was committed to the sessions on five charges of receiving stolen property.
Mr. M. P. Pugh, prosecuting, said that the youth referred to, Harry Leslie Mason, had lodged with Clifford, and in fact attributed his downfall to the man.
Clifford had explained to him what districts could be profitably robbed and those which did not yield much.
Once, he said, “Don’t go to hungry Harbourne—a suburb of Birmingham—Kippers and curtains, its [sic] poor.”
3-: On Friday 13th January and Monday 23rd January 1939, The Birmingham Mail (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) published letters to the Editor by a person signing themself Kippers and Curtains.
4-: From a letter to the Editor, published in the Evening Despatch (Birmingham. Warwickshire, England) of Saturday 20th January 1945:
Sir,—“Adsum” is correct in her statement about slums in decent estates.
Circumstances forced me to get a smaller house some time ago, and a lovely modern place I have got, fit for king, but oh! the dirty hooligans that live near. It’s no use to plant anything in the garden; it’s either stolen or trampled on, and my child is afraid to go outside. She is pulled and bumped to distraction because she happens to go to a high school.
We are nick-named “posh”—by people who keep pigeons, fowls and even rabbits in the houses. I would be afraid to report it, as I should not have a window left.
Let me get a house at £1 a week, although I know I shall be all “kippers and curtains,” and let the Estates Department put another worthy slum clearance family in here.
5-: From a letter to the Editor, published in The Birmingham Mail (Birmingham. Warwickshire, England) of Monday 8th October 1945:
Generally speaking, the severe limitation of families is due to the selfishness, not the unselfishness of parents. They prefer kippers and curtains, buying their own house, having a baby Austin, etc., to having a baby in the crib, and they pay the inevitable penalty of loneliness in the twilight of their lives.
The earliest occurrence of the variant curtains and kippers that I have found is from a letter to the Editor, published in the West London Press (London, England) of Friday 16th August 1946—L.P.T.B. is the abbreviation of London Passenger Transport Board:
Some jobs create bad manners and bus work would try the patience of a saint. I would not have the job for a fortune.
I should also like to see in your columns a few words of defence from members of the L.P.T.B., particularly what they think of the travelling public, especially the supercilious sort from the “curtains and kippers” areas. The type of people who think a bus is a private Rolls Royce, or, at least, a taxi, and consider the conductor a low-browed, uneducated individual of the ‘servant type’: servant in their sense meaning an under paid ‘skivvy,’ with a slave mentality.
The earliest occurrence of the variant kippers and lace curtains that I have found is from a theatrical review, by David Murray, published in the Evening Post (Reading, Berkshire, England) of Saturday 26th January 1974:
A MODERN urban family, with all its pretensions, homespun philosophy and social envy comes to a life in a play at Aldermaston next month.
The “kippers and lace curtains” life-style is adequately portrayed in David Turner’s Semi-Detached, which enjoyed a successful West End run some years ago with a cast led by Sir Laurence Olivier.
Described as a satire by some, and a romp by others, the play is concerned with a family, the parents of which are acutely conscious of what the neighbours might say.
The earliest occurrence of the variant lace curtains and kippers that I have found is from Taking terraces in tandem, by Victoria McKee, published in The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Saturday 26th August 1978:
Lace curtains and kippers for tea is just not John and Michelle Vale’s style.
Their Harborne home is, instead, reminiscent of Italian palazzi with their unprepossessing fronts and magnificent interiors, courtyard leading on to courtyard.
From the outside it looks like any other modest terraced house—or two terraced houses, to be precise. The first was bought 18 years ago, the adjoining house ten years later.