Thursday 13 February 2014

Wearing Rags in Victorian Britain

The circulation of clothing across class barriers created uncanny effects for social observers in the Victorian period. At the Derby races at Epsom in 1861 the French writer Hippolyte Taine noted the confused jumble of garments worn by ‘low’ characters in the crowd, discerning there the ghostly traces of fashionable West End clothes. The vision of unwashed and unkempt people wearing ‘gentlemen’s cast-off clothing’ and the once ‘stylish dresses’ of ladies prompted Taine to reflect:

This tatterdemalion attire, which has clad four or five bodies in succession, I always find painful to see. It is degrading: by wearing it a person admits or declares himself to be one of the off-scourings of society. In France a peasant, artisan or labourer is a man who is different, but not inferior. His working blouse or overall is his own; it has been worn by nobody but himself. This readiness to wear rags is more than a mere singularity; it denotes a want of proper pride; the poor, in this country, resign themselves to being other people’s door-mats. (Notes on England, 1861)

W. P. Frith, Derby Day (1858)

Taine’s belief that hand-me-downs were inadequate clothing because they did not properly fit the wearer, having been made for someone else, suggests that he sees clothing in a modern sense as an expression of identity. He also believes that the poor in France did not wear second-hand clothes but made their own homespun garments. I wonder if this was true?

The multitude of poor people in cities like London and Manchester were forced to wear the clothes rejected by the wealthy, clothes which had filtered down from owner to owner, via pawnbrokers' stores and secondhand clothes shops. The fact that earlier owners' lives could be read in the dilapidated garments worn by the poor suggested to writers like Taine that they had descended to being ‘ragged’, losing their social identities. Yet this sublimation of an individual’s identity into a collective state of raggedness meant that poverty was difficult to ignore. It was always visible on the city streets, particularly in London where beggars shared the West End pavements with wealthy shoppers; the well-off had an ever-present warning of what happened to a person when poverty struck. People in rags also indicated the presence of an underclass, discontented people who had the potential to rebel. Rags thus had a potential to act as political statements, to ‘speak’ of social inequality, to express discontent on behalf of the wearer who had no effective public voice. Visible raggedness inevitably made a statement.

Image: Children Rescued by Dr Barnardo's_year.htm

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