The Multiple Lives of Clothes: Alteration and Reuse of Women’s Eighteenth-Century Apparel in England
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Employing a practical material culture approach, the primary aim of this thesis is to address the diverse alterations that women’s eighteenth-century apparel underwent in both form and context. Evidence collected through extensive direct examination of several hundred clothing objects held in museum collections across England including the Museum of London, the Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall in Manchester, the Wade Costume Collection house at Berrington Hall and the Fashion Museum at Bath is combined with archival research of household accounts, wills, trial records, letters, and journals at numerous libraries and archives around the country to develop a foundational narrative of the reuse and recycling of English women’s eighteenth-century dress. The theoretical concept that objects possess social biographies is applied here to form the suppositional basis that these clothes experienced multiple lives and incarnations. To this end five main themes are explored beginning from shortly after the point of first acquisition. The thesis begins with day-to-day care and maintenance of clothing, tracking how garments transition from new to worn and methods employed to prolong their usefulness. Next, resizing requirements are detailed first for lifecycle events such as pregnancy, then as a consequence of new ownership. Following on this, various modes of the incessant redistribution of used and old clothing is examined in depth involving the second-hand market, bequests in wills, and the perquisite system whereby clothing was cast-off by employer to servant. Stylistic alterations for changing fashions are then identified and mapped to reveal women’s real-life practices and attitudes towards fashionability intersected with thrift. Finally, post-eighteenth-century reconceptualization as fancy dress costumes and historical museum artefacts are introduced as representing further chapters in the lives of garments rather than the end of the story. This thesis contributes to a burgeoning scholarship on post-acquisition consumption of dress and material culture, its use, reuse, and recycling; and seeks to complicate women’s engagement with the fashion system and assumptions around novelty and escalating consumer culture, their relationships with clothing over time, and with each other.