Two Dresses a Year
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

Two Dresses a Year

Three women in dressnding on bicycles with straight handlebars
Vivie Warren was more of a hiker and target shooter than a cyclist but this photo will do! Female cyclists from the end of the 19th century c/o the Victoria and Albert Museum

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)

Edit 2022-01-28: converted to block editor and fixed link broken when WordPress introduced the block editor

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4 thoughts on “Two Dresses a Year

  1. Pen Name says:

    It wasn’t just the clothing, there were also the accessories. Weren’t French Aristocrats before the Revolution expected to have a large collection of snuff boxes, living in dread of ever being seen using the same box 2 days in quick succession?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Yes, we have trouble grokking that before the 20th century, in a big city people would often see someone wearing more money than they earned in a year. (Maybe a few families in India have that kind of money in gold jewelry, but they don’t wear it every day). All those 17th and 18th century portraits are careful to show exactly what grades of fabric and amounts of lace everyone is wearing.

  2. Robert says:

    This development may be responsible for a lot of the poor formulas that’ve been going around the nets in recent years for homemade detergent for machine laundry. These recipes call for a relatively small amount of soap and a large amount of alkali — washing soda, borax, or (usually) both. I tell people these recipes won’t save money because in order to use enough to clean clothes, you’d have to use a lot — many of the recipes call for using such small amounts they’re inactive placebos — and that if you do, you’ll be wearing out the fabrics prematurely. So why do these recipes get around?

    I think one of the reasons is historic precedent. 120 years ago, clothes were commonly laundered by prolonged washing, or pre-soaking, at high temperature in very alkaline solution with some soap. Clothes back then could stand that because the fabrics were heavy and their washing was infrequent. Many clothes were washed more carefully by hand, but the heavy washing was of clothes that were worn many times between washes, and then taken to a laundry for cleaning in large batches. Washing machines were rare and made to handle large loads.

    By the 1920s many people had washing machines at home, more were getting them, and clothes were lighter, more abundant, and made to be machine washed more gently albeit more frequently. Experiments were done on laundry detergents showing alkali to be detrimental to fabrics, not only wearing them out but dulling them (measured by reflectometry). Only the cheapest, lowest quality detergents continued to contain high proportions of alkali — “borax” became slang for “cheap goods of low quality” — and moderately alkaline sodium silicate in small amounts was found to give better results than washing soda or borax as an adjunct to soap and later-developed surfactants. Other than in the UK, the use of water near the boil for laundry also fell out of practice at that time.

    So now people are looking at old soap powder recipes and thinking they’re being swindled by the makers of machine laundry detergents, when they’re really not.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Context is always the tricky thing isn’t it 🙁 And we could wear more wool that just needs brushing and the occasional dry cleaning, but a lot of people are happy with a big wardrobe of cheap cotton/polyester/nylon clothing that they can swap out. If they never wore a winter coat of 100% wool that breathes they don’t know what they are missing. And then there are the people who are stuck with off-the-rack clothing that does not fit, because so much clothing is not made to be altered any more.

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