Food or clothes: the stark choice our poorer ancestors would have faced

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05 April 2020
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Rag Fair or Rosemary Lane c.1800 by Thomas Rowlandson
Learning how the poor clothed themselves opens a door onto the world of earlier generations who strived to make ends meet, as Jayne Shrimpton explains.

Learning how the poor clothed themselves opens a door onto the world of earlier generations who strived to make ends meet, explains Jayne Shrimpton.

Advances in the manufacture and circulation of cheaper ready-made garments from the late-1800s onwards benefited many working people, but for those in dire straits purchasing clothing remained a luxury.

A village parson writing in the Daily News (1891) suggested that a man earning £39 per annum might with luck, after paying for rent, coal, bread, bacon, groceries (milk, candles, soap, kindling etc) and club subscriptions have £6 10s left for clothing himself and his dependents.  

Clothing the family

Women were usually responsible for the domestic budget and frequently had to choose between food and clothes. They also tried to ensure that their children and menfolk were fed and adequately turned-out when they left home each day.

Robust workwear for manual workers generally comprised a slop jacket or donkey jacket, waistcoat/jerkin, trousers of thick corduroy or shoddy, a cap and scarf, industrial workers also wearing stout flannel shirts. Always prioritising their families’ needs, generations of working-class mothers denied themselves clothes, the extent of female deprivation revealed in Maud Pember Reeves’ study of working-class Lambeth, Round About a Pound a Week (1913): 

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‘The women seldom get new clothes. The men go to work and must be supplied, the children must be decent at school, but the mother has no need to appear in the light of day. If very badly equipped she can shop in the evening…and no one will notice under her jacket and rather long skirt what she is wearing on her feet. Most of them have a hat, a jacket and a ‘best’ skirt to wear in the street. In the house a blouse and patched skirt under a sacking apron is the universal wear….’

Lady Florence Bell, wife of a Middlesbrough iron founder recording local conditions in At the Works (1907), interviewed a girl who asserted that a ‘real lady’ wore a shorter skirt and neat boots - implying that footwear for public view, was uncommon among the poor. 

Read Jayne Shrimpton’s in-depth article ‘How would our poorer ancestors have dressed?’ in the May issue of Family Tree magazine, available here.

UK-based professional dress historian, portrait specialist and photo ‘detective’ since the 1980s, Jayne Shrimpton is internationally known for her many books and regular columns in genealogy and social history magazines.Visit her website