Monday 2 April 2012

Birthday Suits

File:Charlemagne denier Mayence 812 814.jpgA birthday suit was, originally, a suit of clothes worn on the king's birthday. The term first pops up in Swift's Modest Proposal (1729), where the approach of the Day of Judgement encourages some rich ladies to cancel their orders at the dress-makers:

Three of the maids of honour sent to countermand their birth-day clothes; two of them burnt all their collections of novels and romances, and sent to a bookseller's in Pall Mall to buy each of them a Bible, and Taylor's "Holy Living and Dying." But I must do all of them the justice to acknowledge, that they showed a very decent behaviour in the drawing-room, and restrained themselves from those innocent freedoms, and little levities, so commonly incident to our ladies of their profession. So many birth-day suits were countermanded the next day, that most of the tailors and mantua-makers discharged all their journeymen and women.

A mantua, by the way, is a kind of loose gown. Anyway, the phrase birthday suit has such an obvious suggestion of being as naked as the day that you were born, that Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) has this entry:

Balum Rancum. A hop or dance where the women are all prostitutes. N.B. The company dance in their birthday suits. 

I am now off to dance a balum rancum.

File:Casanova 1788.jpg
And anyone who works out what the pictures are is terribly clever.


  1. The first one is a coin of Charlemagne. As for the second, the only Chassanaeus I can find was a Frenchman and something in the legal world, but he was called Bartholomew, not Jacob, so I hand the baton on to the next investigator. And quite what the connection is (apart from the Emperors new clothes maybe) I haven't a clue.

  2. Charlemagne & the emperor's new clothes ... and Casanova - all a bit cheeky - or is it simply that 2 April is their joint birthday!

  3. Charlemagne and Casanova (thanks anonymous, I missed that) the mind boggles. So come on Inky, what's the connection?

  4. Ha! It was the birthday. But they share April 2nd with Hans Christian Andersen, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (built the Statue of Liberty) and Sir Alec Guinness amongst others. Great stuff!

  5. happy birthday to the creator of Inky Fool as well - he's in such good company!

  6. Ask one of the wanton wenches if they feel terpsichorical.


  7. I still don't understand how the phrase went from a birthday suit of clothes to wearing nothing at all. Can someone explain for me please?

  8. Paul - how much were you wearing when you were born?