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Re-Fashioning the Working Class: Mechanisation and Materiality in England 1800-1856

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engels

Friedrich Engels

This post has kindly been written for us by Dr Alice Dolan, Economic History Society Anniversary Fellow.

My postdoctoral project comes directly out of my PhD thesis which was a social history of linen during the long 18th century. Linen was used by rich and poor for underwear and on beds and tables. Its ubiquity across all ranks of society makes it ideally suited to an analysis of how relationships with textiles varied over the life cycle. ‘The Fabric of Life: Linen and Life Cycle in England 1678-1810’ therefore considered experiences across the life cycle, exploring infant clothing, child labour and the temporality of domestic work within a Lancashire household. Adult daily life was uncovered through the themes of respectability, the commercial significance of linen and the relationship between bodily intimacy and the creation of emotional meaning. Finally the thesis finished by exploring burial practice with burial in wool rather than linen, which was forced by the 1678 Act for Burying in Woollen for economic reasons.

The thesis showed that linen was only dominated by cotton for plain textiles in the 19th century. Linen’s superior durability and cheaper price, alongside its essential roles in everyday life, meant that it continued to be used during the long 18th century. It took decades for cotton prices to fall far enough to change established material culture traditions. However by the 1830s, the British and Irish linen industries were in rapid decline. They were victims of low cotton prices, lengthier fibre preparation processes and a slower rate of technological innovation.

My postdoctoral project follows up where my thesis left off by investigating how mechanisation and falling cotton prices transformed working-class dress in the first half of the 19th century. Engels recorded a dramatic change in what people wore.

Wool and linen have almost vanished from the wardrobe of both sexes, and cotton has taken their place … [The working class] is scarcely ever in a condition to use a thread of woollen clothing; and the heavy cotton goods, though thicker, stiffer, and heavier than woollen clothes, afford much less protection against cold and wet, [and] remain damp much longer because of their thickness and the nature of the stuff.

Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, (1844)

This bleak summary of the clothing privations of the working class centres on material changes. Engels bemoans the disappearance of wool from labouring wardrobes, replaced by stiff, absorbent cotton, an inferior insulator. Centuries of reliance on linens and woollens were over.

I will explore these dramatic and rapid material changes over this academic year. In 1800 working-class people wore linen underwear, men wore woollen outer clothing, and women wore cotton, linen and woollen dresses. By 1850 the cotton, linen and woollen trades were fully mechanised in England. Hand-spinning had largely died out which prevented industrious families from producing their own textiles to reduce costs. By 1844, according to Engels, their choices were basically limited to one textile – cotton.

The effect of manufacturing changes on working-class clothing has been little studied, yet it is another facet of the Industrial Revolution’s effect on daily life and the global rise of cotton. This project directly traces the impact of these changes on what people wore. It focuses primarily on members of the working class able to choose their clothing, rather than the poor forced to wear uniforms by institutions.

I will complete two garment studies this year: underwear and trousers. My research into underwear asks when did the majority of working-class people begin to wear cotton not linen underwear (shirts and shifts/chemises)? Was the price of cotton fibre grown in America more important, or the full mechanisation of production in the 1830s?

I will also examine the rise of trousers. Before 1800 only sailors wore trousers, while everyone else wore breeches. In the early 19th century trousers spread across the working class and they were then adopted by the middle and upper classes. Old Bailey crime records testify to a growth in their popularity: trousers appeared in 161 cases in the 1800s and 2018 in the 1840s.[1] This case study will look at the materials used for trousers by the working class and whether they changed over the period. Was cotton exclusively used as Engels suggests? I will also examine how quickly the trouser fashion spread, whether men in some areas were more resistant than others.

My sources will include Quarter Sessions records from Yorkshire and a (still to be chosen) southern English county, surviving objects, images, autobiographies, adverts, shopkeepers’ inventories, merchants’ records and novels.

The evidence given at the Quarter Sessions provides insight into working-class clothing choices, textiles and colours as the following example from the West Riding Quarter Sessions shows. In early September 1826, Enoch Ant and John Wilson allegedly stole unfinished wool cloth from a manufacturer. Both were chimney sweeps. Wilson’s wife stated that John and Enoch made a pair of trousers out of the contentious cloth, an unusual example of domestic male production. However their endeavour was not successful, the trousers did not ‘fit him well between the Legs’ so Charlotte Wilson altered them to fit ‘better’.

The case was taken to Court because John unlike Enoch took his stolen kersey to a tailor who was suspicious because it was ‘unfinished’ or ‘raw’ and got a hawker to ask around for missing cloth. This means the final finish had not been applied to the textile. Kerseys were cheap woollen cloths. They were woven and then the surface was felted. The unfinished kersey lacked its fuzzy surface. Kersey protected its wearers against the elements and it was cheap, therefore it was popular with the lower classes. The stolen kersey was drab, meaning that it was undyed and was a grey-beige colour.

Clearly all chimney sweeps were not clad in stolen textiles. However, this case gives an example of what was considered appropriate and even desirable cloth for these two chimney sweeps. And it was even worn by one, if only for a few days before discovery. Examples like this will help to build up a picture of the clothing and colours worn by working-class people in 19th-century England. Furthermore, because a specific textile name is given, we are able to get an idea of what the outfit might have looked like, even if we don’t know the exact cut of Enoch’s trousers. The case also inspires questions – did John and Enoch have trousers because they were more practical garments for chimney sweeps? – Did certain professions adopt trousers earlier than others for practical reasons?

In summary, my postdoc examines the first half of the 19th century, a period with an unprecedented rate of change in working-class clothing. To uncover the role of mechanisation and declining fibre prices I will look at changes in fibres used for underwear. Research into trousers will also consider issues of materiality, as well as uncovering how quickly this new fashion spread amongst the working class.

 

Learn more

Florence Montgomery, Textiles in America 1650-1870 (London, 2007)

Vivian Richmond, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England (New York, 2013)

John Styles, The Dress of the People (London, 2007)

 

[1] Advanced search ‘trowser* trouser*’ on 03/03/2015.

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