A friend recently returned from the opening night of Santa Fe Opera, at which she said the patrons were “all gussied up” even though the temperatures were uncomfortably warm. “To gussy up” means to dress in your finery—those gold Versace gowns and midnight-blue Pierre Cardin tuxes—or to make something smarter or more interesting in a flashy way, like festooning a Presbyterian pulpit in chartreuse crepe paper.
The origin of the term, generally dated from the 1950s, is obscure. Gussie is actually a 19th century Scottish word for swine, so maybe it all started with putting lipstick on a pig. Since the first usage is in the 1950s in America, however, it’s probable that it has another origin.
Michael Quinion at his “World Wide Words” blog site suggests that Gussy was a 19th-century American term for a weak or effeminate man. Since it was written with a capital letter, Quinion surmises it came from a proper name, such as Augustus, although no specific Augustus is cited.
Since 1952 is the first recorded use of the verb gussy up, I think it is far more likely that the term derived from the American tennis player Gertrude Agusta Moran, who was known as “Gorgeous Gussie” after she wore frilly panties at the 1949 Wimbledon tournament. The experts, however, insist on paying it safe and stick to “origin obscure.”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou likes to get gussied up—although not in frilly panties—when he moseys out for a big night on the town. Here’s what he brought back after his last one:
A tennis-player named Gussie
About her panties was fussy,
She sewed on some frills
To give the crowd thrills—
But most of them thought her a hussy.