Saturday, March 19, 2016

Second Hand Clothing in the 16th Century

Have you ever wondered why there are so few, if any, examples of 16th Century clothing that has survived for historians to study? 

One reason is that fabrics such as linen, wool, and silk (being made of natural fibers) will decompose and break down over time. Very few pieces have survived after 500 years!  Several examples have been taken from graves and examined, but this is a rare occurrence - and to say the least, creepy!  Another important factor in the lack of clothing from that century was that clothing was recycled, even by the very wealthy.  The second hand clothing industry was a booming business in the 16th Century! - And many courtiers relied on second hand clothes to kit themselves in the sumptuous attire necessary in order to attend on the Queen in court.  Many nobles borrowed great sums of money in order to clothe themselves appropriately when called to serve at court.  

There's a 16th century proverb that states: "Never inquire who owns the clothes a person is wearing."

Queen Elizabeth's famed love of personal adornment consequently resulted in her encouragement of her Court to keep up with the constantly changing fashions, and to be seen in the same outfit twice was viewed as politically and socially unsuitable.  This trend for ever-changing attire resulted in the criticism of such waste and expenditure by Puritan moralists, but it also created a huge market in secondhand clothing - just like we see today!

Unlike their rural counterparts, it has been said that the average London woman did not have the space, the resources, the time, and perhaps even the skill, to weave their own cloth and sew clothes for themselves and their families.  Those that could afford it had their clothes made by tailors and seamstresses, and bought their shirts and shifts ready made. Others employed servants to sew clothes from cloth that was purchased.  The remainder of London supplemented their wardrobe by buying from the secondhand clothing shops.  

There was a prejudice against used clothing, much as there is today about clothing purchased from thrift stores, but this prejudice was held more by the upper classes and those aspiring to be upper class who required fashionable and expensive new clothing on a regular basis.  For most of London, however, secondhand was simply an economical way to acquire needed clothing.

It is relevant to note that those employed by the Queen as servants "above stairs" or in the "chamber" were among the titled nobility and the higher gentry. They were well-paid employees, though they had wealth and lands of their own. The servants working below stairs in the kitchens or woodyards, etc., were NOT poor laborers!  They were employed from among the lower gentry class! The gentry were among those who held the largest lots of land. They were the untitled wealthy who held the rank of Knights, Squires, Gentlemen and Gentlewomen who did not work with their hands to make a living like the Yeomanry, the Husbandsmen, or the Professionals who belonged to the middle and lower classes. 

Working as a servant in the Queen's household was seen as a way for men - who were
Henry VII & his Fool - Wearing the Green Tudor Livery
perhaps second sons, or third sons, etc., not entitled to inherit like an elder son - to move up in society; and was a means for women to make advantageous marriages. This was why they were willing to work in such menial jobs. They were the upwardly mobile in Tudor society and among the most ambitious. They were not considered courtiers, but they were not the poor working or labor class! But even if you worked below the stairs you were expected to dress well. Once a servant who worked below the stairs crossed the threshold to be seen upstairs (and they did!) they were expected to conduct themselves like honorary courtiers. More than likely they would have been attired by the Queen in her own livery, as was the case in the household of Henry VIII. 

It was a common practice to recycle or remake clothing into other pieces, but the practice of selling “used” clothing was very popular. This offers evidence of the care that was taken to preserve their clothing – and part of that practice was to take great pains in keeping them clean and mended.  

Clothes that could not be altered were given to servants or sold in Cheapside; first in the better shops on Burchin Lane, then a second or third time by "fripperers" in Houndsditch and Long Lane as the clothes became ragged or unfashionable.  Ultimately, the final destination of all clothes was either used as stuffing for upholstered items or linen paper.
Pawn shops also took clothes and re-sold them, usually stripping off any valuable trimming before selling them again.  People who sold their clothes would do the same thing; trimmings and buttons were usually the most valuable part of the outfit, and could be sold for their worth in metal (gold or silver) to the metalsmiths and jewelers in Cheapside.  Some buyers could not afford to replace buttons and decorations, and wore the clothes with mis-matched or missing buttons and hanging threads.

Clothes in the 16th century were a serious investment.  People needed their clothes to last, especially the lower classes. A wide variety of used garments were available for sale.  It was possible for anyone with enough money to buy clothes from all class levels.  People in urban areas constantly tried to dress above their class; sumptuary laws were enacted but not always enforced with the appropriate enthusiasm necessary to police the misuses that occurred in these rural areas; however, the study of documents such as the Last Will and Testaments of those among the middle class - although only a small percentage of which is available - does offer evidence that in the cases examined they DID follow the sumptuary lawsBut those who could afford it bought up the clothes sold by the upper classes and altered them to fit.

Secondhand clothes were cheaper, if slightly less fashionable at the upper end of society - especially if you were a courtier and expected to be kitted in the latest, ever-changing fashions. But they were looked upon as very fashionable at the lower end of society who would not be able to afford such clothing any other way.  At the opposite end of the scale, clothing sold as second hand by those among the lower classes could be quite shabby, but the trade in used clothing made it possible for even the lower middle and poorer classes to wear fine (although somewhat patched) clothing, and when they could afford it, they did so.  

Extant "kirtle"
For clothes worn by those on the lower end of the social scale, the more patched and worn the clothes would appear.  Even the fairly well-off might have discreet patches and alterations, which can be seen in many of the samples displayed in museums in garments that have survived. For most people, clothes had to last more than a season, and often needed to last for several years or more.  Because individual items were bought as they became available or affordable, a matching outfit, while desirable, was often simply not practical.  As long as the clothes fit reasonably well, and were warm and pleasing to look at, they were acceptable.

In Venice Italy, they rented clothing, which was governed by a strict code of conduct. Court records reveal a case against a Jewish moneylender who rented out a garment during carnival time that had been left as a pledge. The item was ruined and the owner sued the person who rented it.

Renaissance society was highly theatrical, social relations were often a matter of performance art, and one that needed suitable settings and the proper trappings, whether on a domestic scale or in court. We are inclined to forget, in our throw-away society, just how much money was invested in clothing, tapestry, and fine tableware; therefore, it made sense to borrow what was appropriate for each social "performance." Ceremony and ritual was the way that government worked in England as well as Venice. John Guy argues that, "power was about splendour and magnificence..." and no one knew this better than Queen Elizabeth!


Shakespeare's England:  Life in Elizabethan and Jacobean Times, R.E. Pritchard, 1999, 
 Sutton Publishing, Ltd., Gloucestershire

What Life Was Like in the Realm of Elizabeth, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia

The Art of Dress:  Clothes and Society 1500-1914, Jane Ashelford, 1996, National Trust Publications, Great Britain
Susan North, Deputy Curator in Textiles and Dress, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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