What Can Historical Clothing Reveal That Other Sources Cannot?

From Elizabeth I’s intimate attire to fabrics that threatened social hierarchies, clothes tell us about more than just their wearers.

Painting of Elizabeth I of England, also known as the Ermine Portrait. Elizabeth is wearing a richly decorated black dress and The Three Brothers jewel.
A painting of Elizabeth I by William Segar, known as the Ermine Portrait, in the collection of Hatfield House. Public Domain.

‘What survives speaks eloquently of the emotional value placed on items of attire’

Maria Hayward, author of Stuart Style: Monarchy, Dress and the Scottish Male Elite (Yale University Press, 2020)

Are those clothes real? This question is often asked when looking at Tudor and Jacobean portraits, and it is usually left unanswered – but not in the case of Margaret Layton (c.1590-1641). Her beautifully embroidered linen waistcoat, made around 1610, has survived. It proves that the garment depicted in her portrait of around 1620, now on display at the V&A, existed, but it also does much more. Differences between the waistcoat and its depiction reveal the changes made to the garment to keep it fashionable, and in so doing offer insights into Margaret’s choices and tastes.

Other, more intimate, garments, such as the pair of straight bodices and pair of drawers clothing the funeral effigy of Elizabeth I, disclose more about their wearer. Made to the queen’s measurements by her tailor, they reveal her proportions, while recent examination has shown that the stiffening was cut a little shorter on the right. This allowed the right-handed Elizabeth greater freedom of movement.

While manuals such as Juan de Alcega’s The Practice of Tailoring (1580) were produced for male tailors, much less was published on the work of seamstresses. Yet surviving shirts and smocks divulge the secrets of their craft, including the finesse of their stitching compared to that of tailors; their careful use of the full loom width of linen and a ‘zero-waste’ approach to fabric; and how weak points in the construction, such as the underarm, were reinforced with gussets to prevent tears and the need for repairs.

Written descriptions of 16th-century clothing are often brief, and children’s clothing, especially for the lower and middling sorts, is under-recorded. These scant references can be expanded by examining a surviving mitten and vest, which reveal the importance of knitting in infants’ dress, as well as how the items were made and individualised with tiny decorative elements. In a similar vein, a young boy’s woollen doublet hidden in a house in Abingdon was once concealed to protect the home against witchcraft. While not much survives, what does speaks eloquently of the emotional value placed on items of attire.

‘History writing can be contradicted by the study of fashion’

Christine Checinska, Senior Curator of Africa and Diaspora: Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Historically, dress is one of the means through which hierarchies of power and value have been maintained and legitimised. Yet the ease with which clothing can be personalised also allows fashion to act as a means of retaliation. Its study reveals the histories of those who have been continually placed outside the mainstream due to their race, culture, gender, class or sexuality, allowing us to get closer to the wearer. And the materiality of garments – the fabrics, trimmings, dyestuffs, construction – enables us to map global histories of trade.

Born around 1690, the 18th-century free Black Jamaican scholar Francis Williams is a complex figure. Among the only written traces of his extraordinary life that remain are stanzas from his Latin poetry, and a derisive chapter about him written by the slavery apologist Edward Long in The History of Jamaica: or, General Survey of the Ancient and Modern State of that Island (1774). Racist beliefs that African people are inferior, backward and barbaric can be traced back to the slave trade, colonialism and 18th-century slave owners such as Long. Long ridicules Williams, using him to legitimate the plantation slavery system on which his own wealth was secured. Long had spent 12 years in Jamaica but had never been to Africa. He was not a scientist, but his proclamations about Africans were taken as scientific fact.

The V&A is home to the only known portrait of Williams. Painted in 1745, he is depicted as a gentleman scholar, classically educated in such subjects as geography, arithmetic, music, astronomy and Latin. Williams stands in his study in front of his bookcase surrounded by the tools of learning. He is dressed in the fashions of the day: a powdered wig, an elegant navy-blue broadcloth coat with gold buttons, breeches, stockings and buckled shoes. Williams’ self-fashioning supports what we know of his biography and his desire to be part of the Enlightenment elite. He was educated partially in England, became a member of Lincoln’s Inn (a professional association for barristers) and attended Royal Society meetings. The painting, which some scholars believe is a self-portrait, refutes Long’s assertions, demonstrating the way in which history writing can be contradicted by the study of fashion.

The Francis Williams painting is currently on display as part of the V&A South Kensington exhibition: Between Two Worlds: Vanley Burke and Francis Williams, 12 June 2023 - 31 December 2023.

‘Any used garment can tell a story’

Andrew Brooks, Reader in Uneven Development, King’s College London and author of Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes (Zed Books, 2015)

In late 2022, two pairs of extremely old jeans sold for record-breaking prices. A wax-covered and patched pair of Levi’s, dating from the 1880s and discovered in an old mineshaft, were sold in New Mexico for $76,000 in October. Two months later, that fee would be smashed by an even older pair of trousers. Pulled from a sunken trunk of an 1857 shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina, these jeans were auctioned for $114,000. Those work trousers were on an ill-fated voyage from San Francisco and are an early precursor to modern-day blue jeans.

Jeans are one of the world’s most popular items of clothing. From their humble origins as the quintessential American workwear, to their present status as among the most everyday of garments, denim is everywhere. This ubiquity coupled with the role that they played in the modern development of the United States imbues the oldest pairs with great monetary value, but they are also artefacts prized for the social histories they reveal. Any used garment can tell a story. If the wearer of uniform blue denim works bent over scrubbing floors, the knees are liable to thin out and split; if they sit cross-legged, the denim will stretch across and pull around the thighs. These daily movements exercise the twill fabric and
in so doing leave an imprint of the rhythms of their former owner’s life.

The heavy-duty work trousers sold in December 2022 were salvaged from the wreck of the SS Central America, which sank with the loss of 425 lives and from which tens of millions of dollars of gold have been recovered. These miner’s work trousers are inextricably linked to the mid-19th-century Californian Gold Rush. The other patched-up and cut-off pair from the 1880s have been worn threadbare by hard labour, with the wax splatters giving a clue to their owner toiling by candlelight. These trousers are clearly labelled Levi Strauss, along with an imprint that claims: ‘Made by White Labour’ – a bigoted boast to appeal to consumers after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Both pairs bore witness to important moments in American history.

‘How could the act of wearing silk threaten to topple an entire social hierarchy?’

Haley Schroer, PhD student in Latin American history and Researcher in the Department of Rare Books & Manuscripts at Heritage Auctions

On 29 December 1679, King Charles II of Spain wrote to Fray Payo de Rivera, Archbishop of Mexico City and reigning Viceroy of New Spain, complaining of the ‘notable disorder’ that had arisen from popular fashion. He decried the latest trends, insisting that they jeopardised society ‘just as much from the lack of propriety as from the indistinction with which everyone from nobles to plebeians dress in silks and precious fabrics and wear jewellery of gold and pearl and silver’. Not only was fashionable clothing allegedly indecent, but, perhaps more importantly, it allowed people from different backgrounds to blend together. But how could the act of wearing silk threaten to topple an entire social hierarchy?

In the Spanish Empire, garments acted as an important way for subjects to define themselves in relation to their peers. By the 17th century, the Spanish Crown had instituted sumptuary laws – statutes that barred select groups from wearing certain clothing or using socially charged items – to create clear boundaries between different communities. Yet imperial subjects consistently pushed back. By the time Charles II wrote to Rivera, hundreds of Indigenous individuals and castas (people with mixed Spanish, Indigenous and African heritage) had sued for their right to wear the clothing and accessories withheld from them – and they won. In doing so, they used clothing to fight for their right to belong in Spanish society.

In this way, the study of historical clothing gives us a unique lens through which we can begin to understand how subjects and authorities tried to define themselves and those around them. On one side, Spanish monarchs viewed clothing as a method of control and surveillance. On the other, people from diverse social, economic and racial backgrounds used fashion as a marker of identity in everyday life. By investigating the material objects held closest, quite literally, by communities of the past, we gain a rare glimpse into the most intimate parts of themselves often hidden in formal documentation.