New Worlds: The Social Economy of Clothing

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

If you’re anything like me, you obtain most of your clothing by going to a store and buying something off the rack. Even if you sew your own garments, you’re probably buying ready-made cloth and thread (and possibly also patterns), so the labor investment, while moderate, isn’t as high as it might be. And even if you’re the sort of knitter who spins your own thread, you still probably didn’t raise and shear the sheep yourself, or grow and harvest the cotton, then process it to get a mass of fiber to spin your thread from.

Prior to industrialization, making clothes was a huge amount of work.

And it was done largely within the context of a household. We have the term “homespun” because it used to be literal: the thread was spun at home, woven at home, sewn into clothing at home, rather than being outsourced to a factory or other external business. Spinning and weaving and sewing show up again and again in folktales all over the world because they were major jobs, right up there with farming or raising livestock. And unlike the latter two, it was relatively easy even for the infirm to do, especially spinning — which is why “spinster” became the accepted term for a single woman past the usual age of marriage, as such a woman could bring in small amounts of money by spinning thread for other households.

Such work has often been the province of women, but not always. My understanding is that among the Hopi, men used to be the weavers, even though other groups in the region (e.g. the Navajo) mostly assigned that task to women. But although women’s labor has often been devalued, we shouldn’t let that fool us into underestimating how important textile work was to the pre-industrial economy — nor how important the people at the time recognized it as being. Part of the reason you see so much of it in folktales is because a woman who could spin and weave and sew well had economic cachet as a marriage prospect, just like a man with land or other wealth.

That’s true even when you’re talking about basic textiles, but when you get into specialized work, it can be even more true. One of my grad school professors, Henry Glassie, gave a lecture at one point on Turkish carpet-weavers. The trousseaus of carpets they assembled were the wealth they brought into their marriage, and the carpets they wove after that made up a large enough percentage of the household income that husbands often had to beg their wives for pocket money to buy cigarettes. Sometimes the main breadwinner in the family was the one with the spindle or the shuttle.

With the amount of time and effort that goes into turning a sheep or a cotton plant into a shirt, it isn’t surprising that people were much more thrifty with their clothing than we are today. When a child outgrew a garment, it got passed on to a younger sibling or cousin or neighbor — and the practice of putting infants and toddlers in loose dresses regardless of sex is a practical concession to the reality of their rapid growth. Where clothes are more fitted, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a kid to wear things that are a bit too big until they get a bit too small, squeezing as much use out of them as possible.

Of course clothing doesn’t last forever; it gets worn and frayed and stained. When that happens, you cut it down, removing the damaged bits and remaking the usable bits into something smaller for another person, or repurposing them as an apron or other accessory or decoration on a new piece of clothing. And when something finally becomes unwearable, then it has its final life as a rag — and possibly even an after-life as paper, which used to be made of rags more often than wood pulp.

Nor does this happen entirely within a household. Nowadays having to buy your clothing at a thrift store carries a fair bit of social stigma, but things like that used to be far more widespread, with entire streets in major cities given over to selling used dresses, shirts, trousers, hats, corsets, shoes, gloves, and more. In fact, hocking used clothing — while not hugely lucrative — was profitable enough that there are entire types of historical criminal defined by the types of garment they stole and how they stole them.

The expense of making clothing and value of old items also affects the speed of fashion. If you’ve ever read a Jane Austen novel or one of her imitators, you’ve probably come across a reference to someone “making over” their outfit to suit the new fashion; this was most often a matter of tweaking details, like changing out trim or adjusting the pleating of a bodice, rather than making something wholly unlike last year’s style. The rapid cycle we have these days, where one year wrap dresses are all the rage and then two years later it’s pencil skirts as far as the eye can see, is a product of industrialized production, where most clothes are cheaply made and the designers would like you to be throwing out your wardrobe every year or so to make room for new purchases.

Mind you, most of what I’ve describe above focuses on the lives of ordinary people. For the rich, it might be an entirely different game. (Though not necessarily. When Henry VIII was in the process of setting aside Katharine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, Katharine insisted on continuing to sew her husband’s shirts, rather than relinquishing that task to his mistress. It’s unclear whether “sewing” in this context means embroidering or actually making the shirts entire, but either way, the work was clearly not beneath her station.) The rich did much less in the way of their own spinning and weaving, and discarded their garments much more readily, sometimes giving them as gifts to their inferiors — which could be a rich gift indeed, when silks or velvets or embroidery were involved.

People with money to burn could afford to change their fashion more rapidly than ordinary folk. Whether it was colors going in and out of favor due to political associations, specialized embroidery in response to some great military victory, or simply the monarch starting a new fad, reflecting those trends in your own appearance was a significant matter of politics. The expense remained high, though, and so it isn’t surprising that so many nobles were in debt . . . but such was the price to pay for looking like you belonged among the elite.

More on that next week!

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New Worlds: The Social Economy of Clothing — 29 Comments

  1. I think someone has calculated that the cost of a Viking longship — the timber, the construction, the mast and cordage — was only half its value. The rest of the value was in its sails, which cost as much as the rest of the ship. Someone had to spin all that wool and weave it into a brownish fabric for those big square sails.

    If you consider 19th century fashion you can see how it’s evolving in such a way that allows clever women to remake their skirts. Since these took 10 or 12 yards of fabric you simply could not afford to just buy new gowns. Better to redrape that bell skirt, pulling the fullness towards the back to eventually become the bustle. And there was an entire subset of interchangeables, the long expensive skirt to be topped by different bodices for day or evening.

    • I remember hearing that about Viking sails. Not sure whether it’s literally true, but I have no problem believing the sails were at least a significant portion of the cost.

      Interesting point about remaking the skirts! I hadn’t thought about that being a factor in the way fashion changed — by the nineteenth century you had fashion plates and such, an attempt to consciously drive trends, so I just assumed they evolved the way they did because somebody decided it looked good. But you’re right that the nature of the changes made it more feasible to keep using the same skirt, modified.

      • It wasn’t just the cost; it was the specialist crewmembers, even moreso on ships that didn’t have significant rowing capacity and on merchant vessels. One of the Indies Companies (I believe Dutch East, but I’m dimly recalling 25-year-old research on a different topic entirely) had an entirely separate account for paying crewmembers responsible for making and repairing sails… and they weren’t classed as common sailors.

  2. When the outside fabric was too grubby or otherwise unwearable, but the garment itself was in good shape, you could literally turn your gown inside out and, with adjustments and redecoration, have what looks like a new garment.

    From An Old Fashioned Girl, by Louisa May Alcott

    “Will you have the goodness to look at this?” said Fan, holding up a gray street suit faded past cure.
    Polly whisked it wrong side out, and showing the clean, bright fabric, said, with a triumphant wave, “Behold your new suit; fresh trimming and less of it will finish you off as smart as ever.”
    “I never wore a turned dress in my life; do you suppose people will know it?” said Fan doubtfully.
    “What if they do? It won’t hurt you. Not one in a hundred will ever think anything about your dress, except that it is pretty. I’ve worn turned and dyed gowns all my days, and it don’t seem to have alienated my friends, or injured my constitution.”

    And while a wealthier person might buy mourning clothes as the occasion arose, everyone else dyed a gown black or as near as, and used that. You might have a mourning gown that was a decade out of fashion (because you didn’t use the newest dress, and hopefully did not have to trot it out too often) but as long as it was black, no one caviled.

    • A good argument for doing the lining of a garment properly. 😉

      And yeah, mourning clothes were often out of fashion. Which I think also got made into something of a virtue: if you were too fashionable in your black, people could interpret that as you not taking your grief seriously, being more interested in attracting people’s eyes, etc.

      • such a person would probably also be seen as too dangerous to let your friends or relatives marry or date…as the person is far tooooo prepared for a loss. (like seeing a warning sign for black widows)

        • Nah, I doubt that. It wouldn’t say “too prepared for a loss” so much as “too willing to throw money at looking fashionable while supposedly not on the market.”

    • Poor people might go to considerable expense to get mourning clothes. A Victorian gentleman reported how his widowed former maidservant had sensibly done a black ribbon on her bonnet and the like at her husband’s funeral, but within a week, saw her again in full widow’s weeds. She explained that people were saying that they hadn’t actually been married.

      And Dorothy tells Glinda that she has to go back, among other reasons, because Uncle Henry can’t afford mourning.

  3. Lilly Langtree, one of Edward VII’s mistresses is often quoted as saying that, If one can only afford one good gown, it had best be black so she can wear it anywhere and everywhere.

    • Do you remember when Laura Ingalls Wilder was going to get married? Her Ma decreed that the first item in the trousseau be a decent black dress, because every woman needs one. As to overdying, I remember in GONE WITH THE WIND, the servants boiling all the family gowns in a gigantic dye kettle.

    • There’s some real truth to that. I’m pleased to say that not only do I still fit into my high school prom dress, it’s black and sufficiently classic in its style that it doesn’t look bad if I wear it today.

    • In 19th century France, a peasant woman’s bridal gown was a formal dress for the rest of her life. A lot of regions liked bright colors (sometimes one) but others preferred black, enlivened with (cheap) ribbons and flowers and other trims, because then it could serve as THE formal dress — you could wear it to funerals.

      A very common practice. Even in the upper classes, a dedicated bridal gown was a late innovation.

      • Yeah, not just 19th century France — people generally just got married in their best dresses, before the advent of the wedding-industrial complex.

  4. Side note on black gowns. Lead was used to get a true black and not mottled dark gray. Lead would eat away at the threads, leaving what is called a shattered cloth, often all the warp threads would dissolve leaving only the weft. Peek a boo.

    • I’ve heard of shattered silk in vintage dresses, Phyl, but I didn’t realize lead was used as a. . .mordant? Colorant? I do know that lead white oil paint is a color you can’t get any other way, and I stopped using it because it was too easy to get paint on a soda can, back in school. I switched to titanium white. I actually stopped painting when I was too ADD to trust myself. 🙁 Most of those paints are toxic.

      • Not certain if lead is the colorant or the mordant–that is more usually formaldehyde–but the black dyes weren’t true black without the lead. Even black beaver fur top hats had lead, and mercury (mad as a hatter) in them.

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  6. Might’ve been apocraphal, but the account I read in one of the Time Life books growing up, was that when the Spaniards arrived in Peru and were demanding gold and silver, the Sapa Inca and the nobles looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief: “oh thank god they only want that – they don’t know about the fabrics.” (because rugs and other woven items were seen as highly valuable)

    • I could believe it. For the Inca, the textiles were highly valuable: they represented a lot of labor and resources, as well as aesthetic beauty and practical use. Gold and silver are nice, but if you’re not minting them into commodity money, their value is mostly in what they’ve been shaped into (e.g. jewelry, bringing labor and beauty back into the equation).

  7. Clothing was expensive, servants were cheap. Clothes defined class and sumptuary laws put people in their place (not pirates, obviously).

    Nowadays, the receptionist often dresses better than the owner of a company – clothing is cheap and rich people have other ways to show their status.

    • Sumptuary laws generally reflect a reasonable prosperous society. One whee the riffraff start having money enough to dress well.

      Then they made the consumption even more conspicuous since you could afford not only the dress but the fine.

      Florence tried to get around that by fining the tailor.

  8. Some notes from a crocheter:
    1. There are lots of old crochet patterns for lacey detachable collars and sleeve cuffs, because not only could you fancy up a plain dress when needed, they would also obscure any wear or fraying in those areas.

    2. The idea of recycing clothing lives on, even if in attenuated form. There is a practice among some knitters and crocheters of checking thrift stores for sweaters with desirable yarns (usually fine wools, silk, cashmere, you get the idea), unraveling them, and then using the yarn to make something new. I have unraveled a few myself, but I’m now stuck on the second stage of the process, which is skeining the yarn (to relax it and get any kinks out), letting it dry, and then winding the skeins into cakes.