John Styles. The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Illustrations. xi + 432 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-12119-3.
Reviewed by Alannah Tomkins (Keele University)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2009)
Commissioned by David S. Karr (Columbia College)
The Original Patchwork Economy
Anyone accustomed to researching clothing or fabric knows the joy of opening a document or volume and unexpectedly finding a scrap of material pinned to the paper. It does not matter whether it is the plainest serge from a Devonshire mill or the most heavily patterned, luridly colored cotton from one of Peel’s factories; the joy of direct physical contact with one’s subject is tangible. That joy is amplified in the case of cloth and clothing worn by ordinary people, for whom items of dress so rarely survive.
John Styles has tracked down both pictures of clothing and samples of material, ensuring that this densely illustrated book is a treasure-house for anyone interested in the history of dress. The account spans the long eighteenth century, here given as 1660-1832, but it does not attempt a chronological narrative. Such a strategy would be relatively unrewarding, given the continuities in garment types over the period. The chapters are instead thematic, and are less concerned with changes of style than with the cost, quality, and provenance of clothing. This is as much a story of process as of product.
The “people” concerned here are delineated carefully as adults of both sexes who worked with their hands, but who rarely held a position of authority in their communities (within parish or other local forms of government). Views of their clothing rely on an intensive exploitation of a relatively select group of excellent sources: for a snapshot of garment ownership, there is the list of clothing lost in a Suffolk fire of 1789; while for the lengthy process of acquisition and disposal, there are autobiographies, or personal and institutional accounts, such as Robert Latham’s household book of 1724-67.
Clothing tells two sorts of stories, based on the ownership of working clothes and an alternative outfit for “best.” On the one hand, clothes were a resource, an absolute necessity and a readily disposable type of asset that could comprise both an investment and a pleasurable form of display during periods of prosperity, or converted to cash in times of need. On the other hand, clothes were an important gauge of decency; shirts, shifts, and other clothes that lay near the skin were rarely worn for more than three weeks before washing, even among the poorest, requiring ownership of at least two functional outfits at any one time. The priority given to a cleanly appearance, combined with the abrasion involved in clothes washing, ensured the primacy of linen for foundation garments well into the nineteenth century. Cotton could not stand up to the heavy washing and wearing schedule implied before 1825.
A history of eighteenth-century clothing is necessarily bound up with earlier accounts of the century’s economic history, specifically trends in consumerism and emulation. How far were poor people profligate housekeepers, spending money on showy but flimsy garments in a bid to ape their superiors? In short, were they participants in a consumer revolution? The argument here walks a moderate line, finding reason to endorse some of the eighteenth-century stereotypes (for example, of the young female servant who spent a good deal of her wages buying ready-made clothes and accessories for “best”) but also citing good reasons for challenging other preconceptions. Contrary to the expectations of Sir Frederick Morton Eden in the 1790s, there was no clear divide between northern self-sufficiency and southern spendthrifts; inhabitants of both regions exhibited variable tendencies to manufacture cloth at home or purchase ready-made textiles. The idea that servants emulated the clothing of their employers is turned on its head, with plebeian preferences leading elite fashion in the case of some garments. Ultimately, there was the choice not to consume on moral grounds, such as the conspicuous nonconsumption on the part of Quakers and Methodists.
But this was not wholly a matter of choice; the book also considers constraint, or “involuntary” consumption, whereby clothing was acquired via gifts, bequests, payment in kind, charity, or poor relief. Circulation of clothes as gifts, and their reduction to a textile resource for sale, pawning, or remaking, was probably very common but remains unquantifiable. Clothing as an irregular benefit for the impoverished can be calculated for some locations; this exercise suggests that while children were treated liberally, adults faced more meager supplies. These practices of clothing transfer and exchange open up the issue of sentiments, of enthusiasm and ambivalence, for garments and fabrics that were not chosen. It remains easier to allude to the range of plausible emotional responses to such items than it is to anticipate with confidence the reactions of an individual or group. Even badges for paupers could be seen as either a stigmatizing device or a mark of community inclusion and entitlement.
Historians may regret the somewhat disparate discussion of methodology here. Chapters deal with sources as they arise, but there is also a consideration of different genres as a prelude to the extensive appendices in the volume. This means that the caveats raised in relation to, for example, the evidence of prosecutions for thefts of clothing must wait until Styles concludes the main text. This structure requires the meticulous reader to revisit selected chapters to reevaluate their conclusions. The appendices, too, would have worked more effectively (and might have been more susceptible to profitable pruning) if they had been integrated as tables in the text. An early, concentrated treatment of sources would have drawn attention to an important aspect of using written materials to grapple with a visual topic: there is a marked concentration of sources after 1740. Styles covers the earlier part of the period much more thinly, and he should have acknowledged this somewhere.
Nonetheless, this book is a rare creature, a successful hybrid between the high-production values of the coffee-table book and the intellectual rigor of the historical monograph. It is a must for anyone embarking on, or engaged with, the research of eighteenth-century people, but will have a much wider appeal and readership based on its clarity and its extensive and sometimes touching illustrations. It reveals ordinary eighteenth-century men and women via the minutiae of their sartorial presentation and consumption; the book’s insights place their hems within our grasp.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Alannah Tomkins. Review of Styles, John, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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