‘Clothes to go handsome in’: what did the seventeenth-century rural poor think about the clothes that they wore?

This guest post comes from Danae Tankard, a Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural History at the University of Chichester. It follows on from Mark’s recent post on ‘Material Culture from Below’ and further demonstrates the potential of court depositions for examining the material culture of the lower orders in early modern England – here, their clothing. It provides an introduction to Danae’s broader body of work on the clothing of the rural poor in seventeenth-century England. You can follow Danae @morley1640.

Danae Tankard

Yet with that and such like words I made shift to buy me some clothes, and then I went to church on Sunday, which I never could do before for want of clothes to go handsome in.  My father being poor and in debt could not provide us with clothes fitting to go to church in (so we could not go to church) unless we would go in rags, which was not seemly.[1]

This passage is taken from the autobiographical writings of Edward Barlow, the son of an impoverished husbandman, born in Prestwich in Lancashire in 1642.  Written retrospectively when Barlow was a thirty-one year old seaman and had learned to read

Barlow leaving home

Barlow leaving home: in ‘rags’?

and write, it describes the period leading up to his first departure from home aged twelve or thirteen.  Since his father could not afford to indenture him as an apprentice, Barlow worked for his neighbours, harvesting and haymaking and carting coal from the local coal pits, for which he received ‘but small wages’ of about two or three pence a day.[2]  By making ‘shift’ he was able to buy himself some clothes to ‘go handsome in’ to replace the ‘rags’ that he had worn before.  The significance of these new clothes in Barlow’s account is that they allow him to attend church, something he could not do before ‘unless [he] would go in rags, which was not seemly’.  His description of his clothing as ‘rags’ may be an exaggeration but it enables Barlow to express his sense of shame at having nothing decent to wear to church.  However, Barlow does not want just any clothes: he wants clothes ‘to go handsome in’.  In other words, he wants to look good.

The way that clothing could be used to express social, material and moral differences amongst the poor can be seen in a case from the Chichester archdeaconry court in which it features as part of a series of complex narratives intended to undermine the credibility of a witness.[3]  In March 1614 Alice Hayward was called as a witness on behalf of Margaret Grevett who had allegedly called Mercy Lock a whore and her husband a cuckold ‘with a mind and purpose to disgrace, defame and abuse them’.  Witnesses on behalf of Mercy Lock, who had brought the case, claimed that Grevett had lent Hayward clothes ‘for the better countenancing of herself when she was produced and sworn a witness in this court on behalf of the said Margaret’.  Henry Oley (a nailer) deposed that on the day Alice went to give evidence her husband, who lived by ‘making or mending of bellows’, had come into his shop.  Oley asked him ‘whither his wife went she was so fine’ to which Hayward had replied that she was going to be Grevett’s witness. Oley, ‘knowing her life to be lewd and herself of small credit’ then said to Hayward ‘she … would be a good witness no doubt’ (meaning, as he said, the contrary) to which Hayward answered ‘what cares she what she says or swears so long as she may have meat, drink and apparel’.  Oley further deposed that he:

Did see a hat upon the said Alice Hayward’s head which he has also seen the said Margaret Grevett wear before that time and that at the same time the said Alice Hayward did also wear other apparel which this deponent does verily believe was none of her own for he had never seen her wear it before nor since.

Concluding his evidence, Oley told the court that Alice had worn borrowed clothes when she went to her brother’s wedding, adding that ‘it is well known that she is so poor and indigent that she has not of her own neither is she able to buy such by reason of her poverty’.

Oley’s description of Hayward’s sartorial need is about her lack of suitable clothing to wear in public.  Like Barlow’s description of his own clothing, Oley is articulating a view that decent clothing and respectability are closely related and that the latter cannot be achieved without the former.  Borrowed clothes could not bestow respectability.  Whilst the church court officials would not know that Alice was wearing borrowed clothes, her neighbours in the small rural parish where she lived identified her sartorial transformation immediately: as Oley deposed ‘he had never seen her wear it [i.e. the apparel] before or since’.  Hayward’s indigence is given material expression by her lack of decent clothing.

What these two accounts of sartorial want and transformation demonstrate is that clothing had considerable social significance for the rural poor.  Having ‘clothes to go handsome in’, at least when attending a Sunday service or a wedding, allowed poor men and women to display their respectability to their neighbours.  But we also get a sense from Barlow’s testimony that he took personal pleasure in his new clothes, in other words that he valued them for the way they made him feel as much as for the new respectability they bestowed on him.[4]

[1] B Lubbock (ed), Barlow’s Journal of his Life at Sea in the King’s Ships, East and West Indiamen and other Merchantmen from 1659-1703 (London, 1934), pp. 15-16.

[2] P Fumerton, Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England (Chicago, 2006), pp. 66-8.  Barlow was going to Manchester as a trial apprentice to a ‘whitester’ or bleacher.

[3] West Sussex Record Office Ep I/11/12, fos. 72v-75v; 141r-v (Lock v Grevett).

[4] For a more extended discussion of this subject see D Tankard, ‘“I think myself honestly decked”: Attitudes to the Clothing of the Rural Poor in Seventeenth-century England’, Rural History 29:1 (2015), pp. 17-33.  For a discussion of what the rural poor were wearing and how they acquired their clothing see D Tankard, ‘“A Pair of Grass-green Woollen Stockings”: The Clothing of the Rural Poor in Seventeenth-century Sussex’, Textile History, 43:1 (2012), pp. 5-22.

2 thoughts on “‘Clothes to go handsome in’: what did the seventeenth-century rural poor think about the clothes that they wore?

  1. I really appreciate reading this article as I investigate my family history, especially as so many of them were the rural poor! It puts clothing on them as it were, and gives them greater depth. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s