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Biloxi Daily Herald, November 19, 1919. A vital sartorial tip: Never attempt to wear a barrel without suspenders. Unless you’re a showgirl working a gimmick to get a little press, at least. (Hey, does anybody know what a “picture hat” is?)

So here’s what I can tell you about the origins of the wearing-the-barrel trope qua signifier of destitution. Near as I can tell, it was born from the confluence of two prior memes. On the one hand, you’ve got the precedent of the “Drunkard’s Cloak,” which was a medieval and early-modern legal incentive against public inebriation. The association between habitual intoxication and poverty seems pretty clear, right?

The second precedent is the ascetic Greek philosopher Diogenes (circa 412-323 B.C.), who supposedly made his home in a big clay jar. “Jar” somehow got mistranslated as “barrel” in popular consciousness from the early-modern through the Victorian era. (And yes, there did used to be popular consciousness of Diogenes.) I’m guessing the guy-in-a-barrel has real early theatrical roots and takes off from there.


  1. A picture hat is a very wide brimmed hat (often straw or a stiff translucent fabric)trimmed with flowers, feathers, and ribbons–popular in the 1780s, and then again in the 1890s for the Gibson Girls, and subsequently in the late teens, the early thirties, and the middle forties.

    Sartorially yours,


  2. An elegant sufficiency of information, as usual. Thanks, Melynda.

  3. The hat would helpful to keep the hoi polloi from getting a full eyeful looking down the front of the barrel. Also , I’d be somewhat critical , too , if I came across someone wearing a barrel , only to learn that she was merely cutting up didos.

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