Clothing the Poor

Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England
Vivienne Richmond   Cambridge University Press  357pp  £65

Much has been written about the increase in consumption and the growing richness of material life and culture that accompanied the process of industrialisation. Middle- and upper-class incomes were buoyant and, further down the social scale, a growing proportion of the increasingly wage-dependent population were able to afford more than the basic necessaries of life. Through the symbolism and social currency attached to various possessions, a growing number of working families were able actively to participate in the shifting social hierarchies that characterised the period. However, because of poverty, a large proportion of the population remained excluded from new patterns of consumption. Low, unstable wages, big families and rising prices for food and rent make it difficult to understand how many of the poor could afford even basic clothing. How they managed and even contributed to new forms of respectability and employability is the task of this volume.

Vivienne Richmond combines a thorough, careful reading of a vast secondary literature on textile and fashion history and cultural studies with analyses of evidence given to various parliamentary enquiries, accounts of social reformers and foreign visitors, newspaper sources, school and poor relief records, instruction books for philanthropic visitors and domestic servants, sewing manuals, sermons, religious tracts and parish magazines, records of shops and advertising, evidence from charities, prisons, asylums and workhouses. She also makes excellent use of subjective accounts of the importance of clothing and its absence recorded in working-class autobiographies and diaries. Richmond paints a fascinating picture not only of the ways in which the poor were able to acquire clothing but also of the importance of vestments in creating images of the self and of distinctive social and occupational hierarchies, from the clean and respectable to the ragged and dirty, especially after the innovations of plate glass, full-length mirrors and photography gave ordinary people the modern visual awareness that we now take for granted.

Following a survey of the main components of working dress and of the major shifts occurring in the 19th century, including the rise of cotton and of ready-made garm-ents, Richmond casts new light upon the importance of female budgeting, pawning and credit, mending and refashioning, home sewing skills and second-hand supplies. The growing importance of cleanliness and of sober, plain dress in marking out the respectable working classes from the rest is convincingly portrayed. 

Next follows an analysis of the provision of clothing as outdoor relief under the Old Poor Law, which challenges the view that parishes often provided generous quantities of quality or even fashionable clothing. Richmond argues that new, more stringent and self-help forms of charity emerged from the 1820s to replace parish provision. Clothing clubs and societies provided basic utilitarian garments and aimed to regulate the moral behaviour of their members. Those who could not afford a weekly penny were increasingly ostracised as undeserving paupers. Other forms of local clothing charities proliferated in the later 19th century, from those loaning maternity boxes (trousseaus) to parish jumble sales: these are subject to the first serious study by a historian. 

Finally, Richmond focuses on uniforms, from the liveries of servants and attempts to control servants’ dress outside as well as inside working hours to the social and classificatory roles of clothing worn in charity schools, asylums, prisons and workhouses. For example, prison clothing classified inmates according to gender, age, crime, sentence length and behaviour, illustrating the use of clothing as a form of degrading punishment and the potentially reforming role of dress. 

This book embodies a distinct empathy for the mothers who stitched into the night or went barefoot in order to feed their family; for the children who missed school because they lacked adequate clothing or shoes; and for those struggling to avoid the ‘vestimentary vicious circle’ (unable to obtain the work that would allow them to be better dressed because their clothing was inadequate or gave the wrong signals). It is a pioneering and well written study that will appeal to general as well as to professional readers. 

Pat Hudson is Professor Emerita, Cardiff University and Honorary Fellow in Economic History at the LSE.  

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