This past summer while visiting with good friends I learned of the great lengths one of the friend’s two daughters would go through to look their best when going out – even if the destination was simply to lounge by the pool.
I laughed at the thought because I am always glad to have a weekend in which there is no need to put on my Lancôme war paint and simply head to the pool armed with only a can of sunscreen. They explained to me that the girls are absolutely model ready from head to toe and have absolutely no intention of jumping in the water in this circumstance or all this great effort would be lost.
It was clear from the Instagram photo that they embodied youth and beauty, accomplishing their ultimate end goal. And then, I learned about an important Spanish catchphrase associated with this daily mission – “Mejor muerta que sencilla.” Which translates to – “I’d rather die than be a plain Jane.”
I laughed out loud at this bold, youthful sentiment which seems to me to symbolize living life on purpose in the pursuit of fabulousness.
Another friend didn’t see the humor at all pointing out that the old phrase, plain Jane, could be considered an insult to both women who consider themselves plain, and to also women named Jane. Something I had clearly never thought about.
And so, my quest began, to explore this phrase’s past and present.
The name Jane itself to no one’s surprise is the feminine version of the name John. What I didn’t know is that its English origin means “God is gracious.”
Some famous Janes in history: Lady Jane Grey who was queen of England for only nine days in 1553; Actresses Jane Russell, Jane Krakowski, Jane Lynch, Jane Curtain, Jane Seymour and Jane Fonda; and in media, Jane Pauley.
Not a plain one there.
Writer Pascal Tréguer has done quite a bit of work on this subject and has been published on wordhistories.net. One theory is simply that Jane rhymes with plain. Not much of a stretch there.
He also cites the Scottish reference in the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald issue on Sept. 30, 1898, in which the phrase was used in the article with the headline, “A NOTE TO THE LADIES. A VISIT TO THE COMMERCIAL HOUSE, KILMARNOCK.”
In it ladies were encouraged not to fall back into “the barbarous days, and prevent our tastes from sinking into the monotony of the plain Jane and no nonsense order.”
Another identical Irish reference from Nov. 11, 1902, was used in a letter to the editor of the Newry Reporter in regards to Newry Town Hall – which was in dire need of sprucing up if it was to be a point of pride for the community.
“I trust this letter of mine, all imperfect though it be, will waken up some of the townspeople themselves out of their lethargy, and set them to work with a right good will to exchange the ‘Plain Jane and no nonsense’ look of their hall, and to make the interior pleasing to the eye and a comfort to the mind (and neck).”
He also notes that Janes both plain and pin-up worthy have been immortalized in songs and even comic strips.
In fiction, there are several unforgettable Janes: the prettiest sister Jane Bennet from “Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Banks from “Mary Poppins,” and Jane Jetson from “The Jetsons.”
Perhaps the most famous in literature – Jane Eyre.
In Charlotte Bronte’s famous work published in 1847 it describes this leading lady as “poor obscure, plain and little.” This certainly reinforces the age old saying, but the book actually was quite scandalous, because this Jane was quite independent and desired a life filled with passion and was wholly unable to settle for any substitution.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”
I make the case that because she owned who she was and was secure in her own individuality, it made her truly unforgettable winning not only the heart of a Mr. Rochester, but the reader as well.
In my estimation the world has embraced the boldness and sophistication of simplicity. Try typing plain Jane into your Pinterest search bar and you will discover a world of style that is both chic and progressive with plenty of devotees.
Clearly, there is more to the 21st century plain Jane than meets the eye.
Now isn’t that very no nonsense of us?