Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dressed To Kill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 4, 2011

The expression dressed to kill has been around for quite some time.  It’s been the title of no fewer than 4 movies including the 1980 movie directed by Brian De Palma, the 1946 movie starring Basil Rathbone and Patricia Morrison, the 1941 movie starring Lloyd Nolan and Mary Beth Hughes and the 1928 movie starring Mary Astor

The expression usually refers to an individual — most often a woman — who is wearing fashionable or glamourous clothing intended to attract attention. Occasionally it refers to an item or inanimate object that is considered fashionable or glamourous.

On December 6, 2008, the Daily Post in Liverpool, England ran an article entitled, “Interiors: Best of the Hotties.”  The subject of the article was hot water bottles and was intriguing nonetheless, beginning with its opening paragraph.

It’s hard to beat the comfort of that simple winter must-have — the humble hot water bottle. Nowadays, these come dressed to kill in anything from faux fur to felt, so don’t put up with a sad, naked rubber version.

On July 16, 1968 an article by Nadene Walker ran in the Regina (SK) newspaper, The Leader-Post.  The story reported on the just-then-revealed fashion collection of then-popular clothing designer, Valentino.  The piece was entitled, “Valentino Models Dressed To Kill In Rome Showings” and read in part:

Valentino pulled out all the stops Sunday night in a collection based on an A line with a touch of romantic Russian.  It could prove the smash hit of the Italian winter fashion season.  From the first group of hi-booted models swathed in white mink to the last evening extravaganzas, Valentino girls were dressed to kill.

Back during the Roaring 20s, the court case in the murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell was carried in the New York Times on April 8, 1921.  The accused was one Roy Harris who had been arrested the previous Wednesday afternoon. He had confessed to the murder and told the story of how a woman known to him only as Mrs. Fairchild and a man by the name of “Big Bill” Duncan had contracted him for the murder.  He claimed that Mrs. Fairchild paid him and “Big Bill” Duncan $450 each in new bills a few minutes after she opened the outer and vestibule doors of the Elwell home to the two men.

He said he met a fellow names Giles on the day following his last meeting with “Big Bill,” and that Giles told him he saw Duncan “dressed to kill” in the Grand Central Terminal.  He said Giles told him that “Big Bill” said he was “going North.”

“I think he got the rest of the $5,000 and double-crossed me,” Harris said.  Harris said he served with the Canadian Transport but didn’t go overseas.  He said he left New York two months after the shooting of Elwell and went to Syracuse.

On August 26, 1882 a reporter for the St. Louis Globe write a rather unflattering article about the women in Saratoga.  Needless to say, if such an article was written for a newspaper today, the reporter would likely find himself unemployed in short order. It read in part:

An hour of silence at a morning concert drew forth the statement that “if they had gone round and offered prizes, they could not have gotten many more homely women together;” and a happier man would be forced to the same conclusion.  One may reason it around that the proportion of the ill-favored is not so much greater here than elsewhere but that homely women dress so strikingly and make such a parade of themselves that it is impossible for them to escape notice.  An ugly girl in a cheap and ill-fitting frock goes by without notice on a city street, but an ugly girl in Saratoga is “dressed to kill,” as the maid say, and accents all her deficiencies.

On October 28, 1860 San Francisco’s Golden Era newspaper ran an article entitled Surface Diggings.  The second paragraph had a beautiful play on words with this comment:

In this part of the world, when a man is well gotten up we say that he is “dressed to kill.”  In Scotland, this expression takes a singularly different phase for there a Highlander in full costume comes very near being Kilt entirely.

Idiomation could not find an earlier published version of this expression however in 1860 it was a phrase that was well-known in California so one can safely assume that it had been around at least one generation prior in order to be considered by reporters as a well-known expression of the day.

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