Clothes and the stories they tell

Helen [not her real name] got married during World War II.  There was strict rationing in Australia at the time.  Wedding dresses were exempt, but not other non-essential items such as a trousseau for the honeymoon.  Being a feisty young woman even then (and she is still, in her 80s, a feisty old woman), Helen decided to get what she needed wherever she could.

Pellegrini’s Catholic Depot was the traditional supplier of Catholic religious furnishings in Brisbane.  Helen bought lace altar cloths, and sewed them into the lingerie that was considered suitable for her wartime honeymoon.  Possibly the crosses, chi rhos, and other religious symbols on her knickers and nightdresses added to their sexy allure.

Women's lingerie 1941

Dress pattern in Australian Women’s Weekly 10 May 1941

Many years later, Helen became interested in history – and in fact, I first knew her when she returned to the University of Queensland as a mature aged student in the 1980s.  She had kept all her wedding clothes.  Now she recognised that they were an interesting illustration of social life on the home front during the war.

She first offered them to the Australian War Memorial – who rejected them.  Perhaps a bit too blokey at this time.  The last I heard, she was hoping that the Queensland Museum might take them instead.  But Helen is frail and her memory is fading, and the clothes are fragile.  Without the story, and the storyteller, to explain their significance, whoever finally clears out Helen’s effects won’t know why they matter.

Clothes tell us so much about the past – but we rarely keep them long enough to see them as historically significant.  For most of us, they just clutter up the wardrobe, reminding us (well me, anyway) of an earlier, slimmer body, until finally they end up in the charity bin.  Only precious items – wedding dresses, christening robes, a first school uniform or a lucky rugby jersey – last longer than that.

Clothes today acquire a value from the person who wore them.  Is it just me, or is there something rather worrying in the fact that Amy Winehouse’s dress fetched $US68,000 at auction, while Queen Victoria’s bloomers only made £9,375?

Once clothes were much more expensive.  Handmade, they represented an enormous outlay of time.  Before the industrial revolution, women spent a very great part of their lives spinning, weaving and sewing.  Retired historian Eve Fisher calculates the following:

1 shirt (“poet style”, with yoke, sleeves, collar) takes approximately 7 hours of hard work to sew.
To weave the cloth for that shirt takes approximately 7 times the 7 hours of sewing, i.e., 49 hours of hard work.
To spin the thread for the cloth for that shirt takes approximately 7 * 7 * 7, i.e., 399 hours of spinning.
So, irrespective of the time either raising the wool (and the subsequent fleecing, washing, and carding required) or the linen (and the subsequent retting, hackling, etc. required), in that one shirt you have 400 (okay, I rounded) hours of hard work.

On the American minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), she calculates that such a shirt cost nearly $3000 to make.

The Industrial Revolution changed that, but no wonder that there was a thriving trade in second hand clothes during the 19th century.  And no wonder, too, that stealing clothes (usually to pawn or sell) was one of the most common reasons for transportation to Australia.  And even in Helen’s youth, most clothes were made at home, with or without the aid of a sewing machine.  [see my post A Stitch in Time]

Recently the Australian Dress Register has been established, hosted by the Powerhouse Museum, to encourage people, whether collectors or hoarders, to register particularly important items of clothing they may have.  So far, it only covers New South Wales, and so far it only contains a relatively small collection of items.  But already, you can see how interesting this resource will become.

As you might expect, most of the clothes follow the same pattern of family hoarding: wedding dresses, christening robes, uniforms and other clothes brought out for special occasions. As always, it is the stories behind the clothes that make them so interesting.

Wentworth Court dress waistcoat

I particularly love the court dress that William Charles Wentworth wore when he was presented to Queen Victoria in 1855.  The silk waistcoat is embroidered with the rose, thistle and shamrock, the flowers of the United Kingdom – but the man who styled himself Australia’s Native Son has no wattle or gumnuts on the waistcoat.  And no Catholic symbols either.

3 responses to “Clothes and the stories they tell

  1. Hello Marion
    I am really enjoying these postings of yours, and are really pleased that you have decided to enrich your retirement by writing them.

    The Australian Dress Register sounds like a great idea,

  2. Pingback: The Feathered Internet | Historians are Past Caring

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