Clothing and Fabric – Danielle Burton

The only possessions the poor were likely to own themselves in the nineteenth century were their clothes, for the homes they lived in were often rented, along with the furniture within them.[1] There were two main ways of obtaining clothing: through either family hand-me downs or purchasing it second hand. By the 1830s, the purchasing of second hand clothing became associated with poverty. This was because, during the Cholera outbreaks, there were links to the disease being passed on through clothing.[2] After this time, both second-hand clothing and shoes were expected to have provenance in order to prove that their previous owner had not been diseased.[3]

However, this did not entirely stop disease and illness being spread through clothing. The same clothes were often worn all the time, even whilst sleeping, so there was little opportunity to wash them. This still led to a high risk of contamination.

Figure 1: ‘The Old Clothes of St Giles’ from Thomson, J. and Smith A., Street Life in London (London: Sampson, Low, Marston Searle and Rivington, 1877)

Clothing was also a way to raise money quickly if needed and so the condition of it and fabrics were the main considerations when purchasing. Figure 1 shows a typical second-hand clothes shop. Shops like this often bought as well as sold clothes but often only bought clothes that were seen as repairable and practical. A main way to determine this was through the fabric. As the poor often had physical work and would wear the same clothes, durable fabrics were a must-have.  As Thomas Wright suggests in his book, Some Habits and Customs of the Working Class, men’s dress even at weekends included “moleskin or cord trousers that are to be worn at work during the ensuing week, black coat and waistcoat, a cap of a somewhat sporting character, and a muffler more or less gaudy.”[4]

With the rise of the cotton industry and better transport to distribute the material, cotton overtook wool and linen as the main material for working-class clothing. Fustian, which was a general term given to all forms of cotton such as moleskin, cord and corduroy would become a metaphor for the working class itself (see figure 2 for examples and prices of working class clothing). As Engels stated, fustian had “become the proverbial costume of the working man, who are called ‘fustian jackets’.[5] This was used to differentiate the working class from upper-classes but it was also connected with Chartism and possible revolutionary tendencies.[6] Fustian had become a way of describing the poor’s inferiority to that of the middle classes and aristocracy because it was made from reduced quality fabrics compared with their own clothing.

Figure 2: A table indicating the clothing on offer in a working-class based tailor. ‘London Handbills and Advertisements 1860-1880’ cited in Breward, C., The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion and City Life, 1860-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999)

The main way to indicate these differences of status was through the size and material of accessories, especially hats. Boys and working-class men wore small hats made from cloth, office workers and professionals had medium sized bowler hats made from felt, and upper-class men had silk top hats.[7] This meant that clothing was essential to portraying the identity of the wearer, and fabric often played a vital role, which John Belchem describes when he says “place Fustian in the Dock, let Silk Gown charge the culprit with being a ‘physical force Chartist’, again suggesting that fabrics were a metaphor for both class statuses and ideology.

A donkey barrow transports a wealthy costermonger's family (sepia photo)
‘A Donkey Barrow Transports a Wealthy Costermonger’s Family’, English Photographer (Private Collection: Stapleton Collection)

Accessories were not just a form of differentiating the classes; individuals also used it to create their own identity within the working class. Costermongers used the dress of what we now call ‘Pearly Kings and Queens’ to show off their good reputation as sellers and members of the community (See Figure 3). If they were seen without wearing such items, they were known to be in a desperate financial situation. In other cases, stolen items such as silk neckerchiefs were also worn to mock the vanity and of the elites, as they  take on an unrespectable meaning by being worn by a poor person. The idea of respectability revolved around wearing clothing that was suitable for your age and employment, and in stealing clothing from a member of a higher class, this removed their respectability as well as your own if you wore an item that indicates a status larger than your own.[8] Respectability was also defined by current aristocratic styles, as they were seen as the positive model for fashions of the day, something which working-class clothing was expected to not emulate. This was mainly because experimental fabrics were exclusively used for special occasions. These experimental fabrics were often fragile and so they went against the need of practicality that the poor desired above all else.[9]

Yet, even for the poor there were instances of taking their respectability being taken away due to clothing. Within the workhouse, despite there being little known about the clothing they offered because hardly any has survived, the style was similar to prison uniforms. This was so that workhouse inmates would act as a deterrent to others by not looking attractive. Dressing everyone in the same clothes made them look like labourers who were seen as the lowest of society. The clothing available to workhouses also had no regulation other than the unions who ran them were only allowed to order clothes from the cheapest contractor.[10] This was another form of dehumanising the wearers by not allowing them a sense of identity through their clothing, which even the poorest would have been able to do outside of the workhouse establishment.

In sum, the fabrics of clothing worn by the poor and the rich alike were major indicators of status during the nineteenth century. So much so that the poor became defined by the fustian they wore, as well as the personification of it. This rather middle-class stereotype was not always abided by though and some dissenters of it (particularly Pearly Kings and Queens) sought to use accessories in order to indicate there was more to them than their cotton clad exterior.

Danielle Burton

[1] Richmond, V., Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 3.

[2] Toplis, A., ‘A Stolen Garment or a Reasonable Purchase? The Male Consumer and the Illicit Second-Hand Clothing Market in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century’ in Stobart, J. and Van Damme, V. (eds) Modernity and the Second-Hand Trade: European Consumption Cultures and Practices, 1700-1900 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2010), p. 57.

[3] Toplis, A., ‘A Stolen Garment or a Reasonable Purchase?’, p. 62.

[4] Wright, T., Some Habits and Customs of the Working Class, 1867, p. 189.

[5] Engels, F., The Condition of the Working Class cited in Richmond, V., Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth Century England, p. 39.

[6] Breward, C., The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion and City Life, 1860-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 90.

[7] Mitchell, S., Daily Life in Victorian England, Second Edition (Westport: Greenwood, 2009), p. 137.

[8] Rose, C., Making, Selling and Wearing of Boys’ Clothes in Late-Victorian England (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010), p. 53.

[9] Breward, C., The Hidden Consumer, p. 31; Mitchell, S., Daily Life in Victorian England, pp. 141-142.

[10] Rose, C., Making, Selling and Wearing of Boys’ Clothes, p. 34


A Donkey Barrow Transports a Wealthy Costermonger’s Family, English Photographer (Private Collection: The Stapleton Collection)

London Handbills and Advertisements 1860-1880. Guildhall Library. GR 1.4.6. cited in Breward, C., The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion and City Life, 1860-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 94

‘The Old Clothes of St Giles’ from Thompson, J. and Smith A., Street Life in London (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1877)