For 10,000 years or so, clothing was so expensive that most people could only afford a few outfits. Then over the past lifetime they suddenly became so cheap that for people in a rich country, storage space is the main concern. We see traces of this in inventories of family property during divorces outside the Valley of the Kings, in Babylonian invoices for one suit of clothing per soldier per year, and then in medieval post-mortem inventories and sumptuary laws, but it continued later than we like to remember. A snatch of old verse was stuck in Robert Heinlein’s head:
There’s a pawn shop on the corner
Where I usually keep my overcoat.
Now, today a synthetic winter coat would hardly be worth pawning (a day’s minimum wage?), but a woollen one of 2-5 yards of fulled cloth could last decades and cost accordingly. A passage by George Bernard Shaw touches on this from another angle.
The sheltered young Vivie Warren has renounced her allowance and fled to a life of polite-working-class drudgery performing actuarial calculations in London, and her mother warns her of what she is giving up.
MRS. WARREN. Vivie: do you know how rich I am?
VIVIE. I have no doubt you are very rich.
MRS. WARREN. But you don’t know all that that means; you’re too young. It means a new dress every day; it means theatres and balls every night; it means having the pick of all the gentlemen in Europe at your feet; it means a lovely house and plenty of servants; it means the choicest of eating and drinking; it means everything you like, everything you want, everything you can think of. And what are you here? A mere drudge, toiling and moiling early and late for your bare living and two cheap dresses a year. Think over it.
– George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1894), Act IV
My impression is that its really only after the Second World War that clothes got cheap enough that ordinary people could afford more than a few outfits, and also got frail enough and unbreathable enough that you needed so many. Does anyone know studies of this in the Edwardian period?
The elder Mrs. Warren has some salutary advice for the overeducated trying to switch their focus from hard work which does not pay to hard work which does.
MRS. WARREN. Why, of course. Everybody dislikes having to work and make money; but they have to do it all the same.
Further Reading: Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years (W.W. Norton: 1996) (available on Bookfinder)