Shopping in the Past - Edwardian and Victorian Clothes
Today ordinary people all over the world obtain clothes from a very wide
variety of global sources. We shop from the Internet, from mail order, from TV
Channels, from the High Street or nearby outlet mall a few miles away.
In the past shopping was more difficult. It was not until the start of the
nineteenth century that a form of mass produced clothing developed. It was of a
simple basic style, mainly for ordinary men and women and unsuitable for the
high fashion market of the upper classes. It could not compete with high class
tailoring and it was not until the 1850s that
standards of making began to gradually improve as the century wore on. The only acceptable ready made
items for the wealthy were free size garments like mantles, cloaks and shawls.
Until the 1850s all sewn clothes were entirely stitched by hand. In Britain
partly made clothes were made by London firms and these were sold on to country
dressmakers and drapers. The partially completed bodices or partly made clothes
were then completed to ensure a good fashion fit. This was usually done by
dressmakers or the customer herself. From early Victorian times this was very
common and evolved into the skirt being fully made and the matching bodice
fabric being sold for individual styling. Short notice mourning clothes had been
sold in this manner since the 1860s and led the way for the concept of ready
made women's garments.
You are reading an original 'Shopping in the Past', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Although sewing could be a sweat trade it was also considered a gentle art
and a skilled refinement for women. The customer or her maid was often quite
experienced at making up garments.
The mid 19th century mass marketing of the domestic sewing machine by Singer successfully
introduced the concept of hire purchase. Then the introduction of paper patterns by Butterick and later
the McCall's Pattern
Company, helped make home dressmaking more successful.
At the same time the acceptance of better fitting, ready made goods, combined
with easier travel for all classes, eventually led to the development of
department stores. Later some of these blossomed into the huge department stores
like Selfridges. By the mid Victorian era in the UK Jolly of Bath, Bainbridge's of
Newcastle, Kendal Milne of Manchester and Whiteley's were well established in
In France too large department stores opened mid century. Several shops
traded under one roof initially. When these failed, newer ventures of
departments, owned by one person were more successful. They helped to create a
new middle class type of costume of ready to wear mass produced styles.
In the Victorian era rich women of Europe and America still looked to Paris
for fashion inspiration. Designers of the period include the Houses of Worth,
Redfern, Paquin, Lucile, Fortuny, Doucet, Callot Soeurs, and Poiret.
Charles Worth had become a very successful designer in Paris. He was the
first real fashion designer of the system called couture in a form we would
recognise today. He had an idea to make a collection of clothes in advance and
then show them to his clients. He soon gained royal patronage. By 1870, he
employed well over 1000 employees working as seamstresses. It was his designs
that promoted the mid Victorian bell sleeve. He was the earliest designer to
give two seasonal fashion shows and he started a trend we see today.
As a fashion promotion he dressed prominent clients such as well known
actresses, from his own pocket. In turn this attracted wealthy customers to him
who acknowledged the women wearing his designs and who were doing some subtle
subliminal advertising for him. The stars today that wear particular outfits at the
Oscar ceremonies and the design houses that sponsor them, are behaving in an
identical manner. Human nature stays much the same whatever the century. Self
promotion under the guise of promoting another is always popular.
The wealthy bought their clothes from court dressmakers or large stores such
as Harrods or Peter Robinson.
Right -Shopping in Oxford Street, London in Edwardian days.
The American, Gordon Selfridge, invested in building a huge store in Oxford
Street, London in 1909. Staff were hired months before it opened. They were
trained in selling the Selfridge way.
Shoppers flocked to the store when they
heard of the delights inside. At last they could openly obtain goods such as
make up and perfume easily. Clothes departments sold all manner of goods and
hard to find items. Music greeted the shoppers and browsing there could be an
all day experience. Shopping there was intended to be a recreation.
was revamped in 1997 and despite the many years since it opened for shopping, browsing and eating
there is still a once in a while all day luxury recreation experience for others too.
Debenham and Freebody also rebuilt their department store on Oxford Street in
1908 and at nearby Regent Street, Liberty flourished, whilst Bond Street
developed exclusive small niche shops. As the 20th Century progressed London's
West End became one of the busiest areas for shopping in the world.
You are reading an original 'Shopping in the Past', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
For the average Victorian person shopping for apparel was an expensive
outer garments were sold ready made. Instead customers bought the fabric,
trimmings, linings and threads to be made up by a tailor or dressmaker. Often
the garments were made at home. So much intensive hand work was involved that
finished textile goods were expensive.
Shopping for fabric for a garment was a special event for ordinary people. An
item would be made with the idea that it was to last, and last it did. Later it
would be cut down for children or adolescents. Sometimes women had the garment
restyled or a new bodice added. Versatility was achieved by using detachable
trims such as replacing white collars or engageantes
(false blouson lower under sleeves) or having converting yoked collars
which when removed could transform a dress into a low cut evening gown.
Travelling salesmen called pedlars, Manchester men, Scotchmen, Talleymen or
packmen brought materials and haberdashery such as colourful ribbons and hat
trims to country areas. Dress
lengths, remnants of all kinds and material like corduroy for men were all in
his pack. On market days these
pedlars were known as Manchestermen, Scotchmen or Talleymen.
TO TOP OF PAGE
Dent Allcroft of Worcester
Morley of Nottingham
Macintosh of Manchester
Street in Somerset
Fine Silk Goods
Woollens, Jackets, Shawls, Mittens
Cheap, "slop work" basic clothes for sailors were made in and around UK ports. Much of it
was intended for export to the colonies and to provide lifetime outfits for
emigrants to the USA and other continents. Ready made clothing for the general public was an expansion of
this earlier trade. Women's underwear, including crinolines and corsets were
made in Bristol and Portsmouth.
America hardware stores distributed basic work clothes and bolts of fabric.
Second hand clothing was also exported across the Atlantic to Canada, unwittingly
taking cholera there in the 19th century.
Tailored garments were made in the East End of London and at Liverpool. The sweat shop system employed poor
immigrants and by 1840 the East End of London was thronged
with tailors. Because of the low wages they were able to produce trouser, coat
and jacket clothing at very
Many of the East End tailoring trade workers worked at home. For some men and
women that meant doing piece work on the sweating system up to 14 hours a day,
and even up to 18 hours in the busy season. Home was a combined workshop,
bedroom, living room and kitchen.
Those that could afford superior tailoring looked down on those that bought
ready made ready ticketed goods. The reason was simply that the clothes were
never a good fit and usually looked as if they had belonged to another person.
Even so methods of pattern drafting and sizing for a reasonable average fit were
improving and these shops were well received by the average person. You are
reading an original 'Shopping in the Past', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Today we think of a market selling bric-a-brac and other cast off items as a
picturesque affair. But the second hand clothes market was an essential service
for the poor in society. The nearest we have to this today is the clothing found
in charity shops which in the main is not worn out, nor threadbare, but simply
not even in style in mass fashion. This type of clothing cannot be compared to
the second hand goods that were more likely to be fifth or fourth hand. Nor can
it be likened to Vintage Clothing of today which is frequently very desirable,
having been well maintained, worn only occasionally and probably very attractive originally.
In the 18th and 19th centuries second hand clothing markets existed in every
major city of Britain.
In London's Petticoat Lane and Rosemary Lane, the best
sellers were frock coats and great coats. The market held at Camp Field in
Manchester in Northern England sold threadbare garments bought by the very poor
Camp Field Manchester clothing resellers on
the left. On the right Houndsditch market for old clothing.
The fact that they were threadbare is a reason why so little working
class clothing exists in museums. What we often see entombed in a museum glass
display case in excellent condition, is usually the clothing of the well off, or
servants of the rich.
Like other lower class workers, the London working woman such as a seamstress
obtained most of her clothes from one of the second hand markets held in the
neighbourhood of Bermondsey New Road in London. In the book Human Documents Of
The Age Of The Forsytes, E. R. Pike tells of:-
'... the usual scene of second hand female underclothing, the surrounding
crowd consisting of the poorest middle aged women-mothers. It is an almost
silent trade, for not a word passes beyond the naming of the price. The garment
is sold or not sold, and if not sold goes back on to the rising heap and another
held in view.'
The same women queued to buy boots. It was said that a
factory inspector could tell if a worker was paid enough by looking at the state
of her boots. Boots that were polished and in good repair were indicative of a
fair wage, whilst tattered worn boots were evidence of 'sweated labour'. An
observer at the second hand market wrote....
'The boots are a remarkable sight. It takes time to buy
boots; you have to try them on; and the customers wait their turns, seated in
rows till served. '
Unlike the rich society hostess, who wore fine ribbed silk or
cashmere stockings, with her boots, the humble dressmaker had to be satisfied
with cotton lisle stockings, perhaps purchased from one of Michael Marks' Penny
It is unlikely that Edwardian
seamstresses ever bought completely new major items, such as a coat, but
evidence does suggest that a dressmaker would have bought trimmings to brighten
up her second hand clothes as well as recutting old clothes to make 'new'
garments. She may even have made the odd dress from fabric bought weekly through
a clothing club. You are reading an original 'Shopping in the Past',
fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Mass production of clothing was refined in the UK during the
1939-45 war. Strict restrictions ensured that manufacturers produced goods of a
high standard under the Utility Scheme. Manufacturers were only given cloth if
they produced a percentage of utility clothes. Only those companies who could
achieve high standards stayed in business. This set the tone for superior
production of well made clothes after the war.
As late as 1975, it was not uncommon to hear a rag and bone man crying out for
old clothes, rags and bones. Now most second hand clothing finds its way
directly to charity shops, jumble sales, garage sales, school fairs or car boot
sales. What they cannot sell eventually finds its way to huge reprocessing
warehouses in the North of England. There the clothes are sorted into fabric
type, then mechanically torn and shredded apart to be recycled as lower grade
textile goods, felts, mixed yarns or to be mixed with new fibres to reduce
You may want to try internet shopping. There are many companies that provide a great service and goods. Take a look at
internet shopping systems
and browse their stock. You will find everyday repeat items such as jeans and underwear
much easier to buy this way, particularly if you have a repeatable brand item in
a size and style you like already in your existing wardrobe.
Footnote:- This page was partially based on content I
updated from a dissertation I first wrote in 1979. The
dissertation a Comparative Study Between the Rôles of the Edwardian Hostess
and the Edwardian Seamstress looked at the symbolism behind Edwardian dress
and the rôles of women in Edwardian society. In particular it examined the rôle
and high lifestyle of Edwardian society hostesses compared with the degrading
working conditions and impoverished lifestyle of the seamstresses that made
clothes for hostesses. The books used for this work
are listed in the site bibliography here.
You are reading an original 'Shopping in the Past', fashion
history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
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