Q From Ben Ostrowsky: In a letter to the editor published in the New York Times on 29 September 2008, Lindsay Gray commented: ‘In Britain, we have an expression, “kippers and curtains,” for status-seekers who would bankrupt, even starve themselves, in order to project an image of affluence.’ Can you explain what, if anything, kippers have to do with curtains — and how these are related to status-seeking?
A Thank you, and by extension Lindsay Gray, for reminding me of this British working-class expression.
Alex Hannaford remembered it in an article about her childhood in the East End of London that appeared in the Evening Standard in September 2003: “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.”
Oddly, the term turns up in books about nursing care for the elderly. It is in Rosalie Hudson’s book of 2003, Dementia Nursing: A Guide to Practice, in which she recasts Alex Hannaford’s depiction more formally: “Unfortunately, a significant number of aged-care facilities still fit Brooker’s description of a ‘kippers and curtains culture’. Such a culture exists when people pretend to be well-to-do by having expensive curtains on the windows, but exist on a diet of inexpensive fish — that is, the outward appearance is not matched by the internal reality.”
Apart from these, the expression is not that well recorded, though it was used as the title of a Wednesday Play on BBC Television in 1967 and turned up in June 2008 in an episode of the BBC comedy cop series New Tricks, about a group of ageing ex-policemen in a unit that investigates cold cases. One of the team explained why he hated the trendy London suburb of Notting Hill: “It’s all kippers and curtains, fur coats and no knickers.” (Fur coat and no knickers (knickers is a British term for female underpants) refers to a well-dressed woman whose clothes disguise vulgarity or superficiality, perhaps with a hint that she’s no better than she ought to be, that she’s promiscuous, a bit of a tart.)
Kippers and curtains is one of a set of pithy expressions that refer to genteel poverty or a desire to keep up appearances at all costs. Others now not used are empty bellies and brass doorknobs and plus-fours and no breakfast. The latter made an appearance in The Age in Melbourne in July 2006: “Recently, Dee, a friend who grew up in Yorkshire, recounted in her still wonderfully British accent, how her mother used to say ‘the people of the south are all plus-fours and no breakfast’. Meaning they were all style and no substance.”