The Non-Elite Consumer and ‘Wearing Apparel’ in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, 1800-1850

The Non-Elite Consumer and ‘Wearing Apparel’ in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, 1800-1850

By Alison Toplis

PhD Dissertation, University of Wolverhampton, 2008

Abstract: The routine consumption patterns of ordinary consumers in the first half of the nineteenth century, particularly those in the provinces, have been neglected. This thesis sheds light on this area by investigating one particular commodity, clothing. To undertake this, a range of archival sources, visual evidence and surviving dress relating to the counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire have been examined. The data has enabled an analysis of the consumption of clothing in different locations within the two counties, including county towns, industrial regions and villages, to be carried out. The results have highlighted the many different methods of clothing supply available to the non-elite consumer, which included shop retailing, itinerant selling, illicit networks and clothing distributed via the Poor Law and charity.

The thesis demonstrates firstly that the non-elite consumer could obtain clothing from a variety of outlets, using different acquisition methods. Secondly, it shows that this clothing varied in both style and the way it was manufactured, often depending on the supply network utilised. The thesis questions assumptions about the availability of ready-made clothing, the nature of retailing clothing in rural areas, the decline of hawking and peddling, the non-elite use of clothing shops and non-elite consumers’ relationship with fashion. It emphasizes that non-elite consumers had a complex relationship with their clothing, influenced in part by personal preference, gender, economic circumstances and stage in the life-cycle. This thesis shows the multifarious ways non-elite, provincial consumers acquired and wore their clothing.

Introduction: In the last fifty years, historians have begun to explore the social and cultural context of nineteenth-century working people’s lives. However, consumer cultures and consumption, especially routine consumption, have been neglected. Existing research has focussed particularly on London or northern industrial cities, and generally on the latter half of the nineteenth century. This thesis will address the gap in the literature by exploring one aspect of provincial non-elite consumption in the first half of the nineteenth century: how clothing was obtained, how supply networks for clothing were used by such consumers, and how consumers perceived their clothing and its relationship with fashion. The thesis will focus on Herefordshire and Worcestershire and draw comparisons between the contrasting experiences of urban and rural communities within the two counties.

Click here to read this article from the University of Wolverhampton

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