He once bought a collection of 19th century watercolours, and some of these were hanging on the walls. The rest was off the peg, Smiley decided. Maston was off the peg too, for that matter. His suit was just too light for respectability; the string of his monocle cut across the invariable cream shirt. He wore a light wollen tie. A German would call him flott, thought Smiley; chic, that's what he is - a barmaid's dream of a real gentleman.

What does off the peg mean here? I understand that it means ready-made. Does it mean the same here when referring to Maston? Why would barmaids think of him as chic when his suits is ready-made and lacks respectability? And the sentence "the rest was off the peg" refers to the short piece of wood used for hanging things (i.e. the rest of the paintings were not shown)?

Source: Call for the dead (John Le Carre)

  • 5
    It's an ironic shift. Off the peg means there were watercolours that were not put up, that were not hanging off the wall on a peg. Not properly presented for viewing. Then, when he switches and says Maston was off the peg, he means something like: unpresentable. It's sort of a joke, a litote. Very British humoUr. :) One can't help of thinking of: off his head, also. So, it's almost a synecdoche by substitution, as well.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 16:07
  • 1
    What a wonderful writer he is.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 16:20
  • 1
    @Lambie Thanks! Can you explain a bit more on what makes this British humour?
    – yrwolsiol
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 16:23
  • Maybe it means two different things.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 16:59
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    I have a different take on this. It seems to me "off the peg" means what we'd call in AmE "off the rack" or "mass produced". Smiley decides some of the water colours are "off the peg". So is Maston--he suit is too light; he's dashing, snappy, a barmaid's interpretation of a real gentleman. He's put-together, stylized, not genuine (a spy?) This all depends on what Carre means by "off the peg."
    – Xanne
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 20:20

1 Answer 1


"Off the peg" is a description applied to clothes, especially men's suits, meaning that they are bought from a selection of ready-made styles and sizes, rather than being made to order. "Off the rack" is the North American equivalent.

The implication is that the decor (with the exception of the watercolours) is bought ready-made to fit some standardized look, rather than according to the individual taste of Maston. "The rest" in the second sentence may mean "everything apart from the watercolours" or "the watercolours not on display" (in which case "off the peg" may mean "not hanging on the wall). In any case the subsequent parts imply that Maston himself, his clothes and appearance, have been constructed from 'standard parts' to fit a specific image.

The point about barmaids is that barmaids (in Smiley's view) have a low standard of what they think of as a 'gentlemen'. Anyone in a suit and with a monacle would be considered a gentleman, regardless of whether it was 'off the peg' or not.

  • This explanation is so lucid, I'm envious. Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 21:00
  • It's worth noting that the off the peg idiom was a bit condescending back then. It only worked one way, and off-the-peg clothes were not in everyone's budget. A lot of clothing was still being made in the home. "New advances in mass production allowed for more garments to be manufactured at greater speed and in greater quantity than ever before. As production speed increased, clothing became more affordable, and off-the-rack manufacturers hurried to copy the designs of haute couture." bellatory.com/fashion-industry/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 23:06
  • @Phil Sweet Sorry, but I don't think that at the height of the Cold War clothes were still being made at home. That sounds like a pre-World War II world. The Smiley epoch was well past World War II.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 23:14
  • Smiley was definitely not making his own clothes. In fact, frankly, Smiley is a bit of a snob. Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 0:39
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    "Off the peg" is condescending for the opposite reason to Phil Sweet's suggestion. Smiley looks down on Maston because he evidently cannot afford a 'bespoke' suit (made to his own measurements). Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 8:29

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