Working-Class Dress

Business people talking

For much of the period between the eighteenth century and the present, most people in western countries could be characterized as working class. Many occupations and styles of living are encompassed, ranging from independent skilled artisans in regular work to unskilled laborers or the unemployed. Despite a numerical majority and their central place in social, cultural, and economic history, working-class people, like women as a group, until recently have been hidden from written history and their clothing has been overlooked or subject to only generalized or romanticized interest. What they wore also remained under-represented in museums, due to a low survival rate caused by the thrifty reuse of clothing or its worn-out condition, and the tendency of museums to collect and preserve elite fashions rather than utilitarian clothing. In the early 2000s there is widespread interest in occupational dress, the clothing of the poor, and the role of working-class clothing consumption in the development of a consumer society during this period. Academic studies in this field make use of an array of sources including inventories, court records, and household accounts to pursue this interest in the earlier part of the period and the use of oral history, film, and photography helps ensure the more recent past is better documented.

Occupation, Social Position and Clothing

Antique livery illustration

One of the most marked gulfs between the appearance of working people and their employers was the use of livery for retainers and household servants. This practice of providing uniform clothing in the colors and style of a particular household was used to augment wages, and it served to embody hierarchy by distinguishing between employees and employer and between ranks of employees themselves. Livery was in widespread use during the period, as it had been since medieval times. It was far from universally popular with its recipients. By the nineteenth century it had become archaic in appearance, such as breeches and wigs for footmen, and had become very limited in use. It has been superseded to some extent by corporate uniforms. Domestic service was a major employer of women until World War I and generated styles of clothing representative of moral and practical notions of order and cleanliness.

Working people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who did not get livery or other clothing as part of their employment often struggled not only to clothe themselves and their families at a basic level, but also to keep up certain levels of cleanliness and respectable appearances on which their continuing employment or their participation in local and church life depended. However, throughout these centuries, employers and the elite, in general, expressed anxiety about the consumption of clothing by working people. Increasing use, more styles, and a variety of available textiles, and the so-called democratization of fashion were judged to weaken conventional distinctions between social classes. Expenditure on clothing by working people was thought to indicate potential extravagance, vanity, and improvidence. There were numerous Victorian cartoons mocking both the domestic servant and her employer as the servant appeared in stylish crinolines or other finery. This was frequently observed in Britain, where social distinctions in dress are thought to have prevailed for longer than in the United States. In the twentieth century, new synthetic materials, simpler styles, affordable fashion magazines, dance halls, and the cinema especially, spurred greater access to fashionable clothing for working women. More recent adoption of homogeneous leisure wear means that social distinctions may be less visible than ever before outside work.

Working Clothes and Fashion

Modish and symbolic use of working-class dress entered general consumption in various ways and in general over the last three centuries; there has been a significant flow of garment types and textiles from utilitarian and occupational clothing into fashion. Examples include appropriation of military combat styles into everyday wear and the rough and thorn-proof warmth of local Scottish and Irish tweeds that were adopted for fashionable urban use in Victoria's reign. Sailors wore "trowsers" long before they entered fashionable male wardrobes. What was produced in nineteenth-century America as denim work wear for men is, in the early 2000s, universally available as fashionable leisure wear for men, women, and children alike and authentic antique jeans command high prices among collectors.

Doc Marten boots had a similar pattern of appropriation and cult status. English agricultural smocks of the nineteenth century were adopted and revived as artistic dress, popularized by Liberty's for well-off urban women and children at the end of the century, echoing nostalgia for a largely imagined idyll of rural England.

Politicians have made use of the symbolic value of materials or garments associated with working-class life, such as when Keir Hardy, elected as one of Britain's first working-class members of parliament, insisted on wearing a rough-spun tweed suit and a flat wool cap instead of the more formal garb usually seen in parliament. President Lyndon Johnson famously wore a cowboy hat to signify his allegiance, and President Jimmy Carter often wore a sweater rather than more formal attire.

Dolly Parton, Jeremy Jordan, Keke Palmer, Queen Latifah

In the arts, performers and actors such as Dolly Parton, James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Charlie Chaplin have used working and utilitarian dress to powerful effect. Subcultures, as disparate as Hell's Angels, hippies, punks, and New Agers, have often demonstrated their nonconformism by blending garments from a variety of sources, including working clothes. In the 1970s many pioneer feminists adopted dungarees as a sartorial rejection of fashion and conventional gender roles.

"Everybody knows that good clothes, boots or furniture are really the cheapest in the end, although they cost more money at first; but the working classes can seldom or never afford to buy good things; they have to buy cheap rubbish which is dear at any price" (Tressell, p. 296).

"To imagine New York City in 1789 is to conjure up?tattered beggars, silk-stockinged rich men, pomadoured ladies and their liveried footmen, leather-aproned mechanics and shabby apprentice boys, sleek coach horses, pigs?where the riotous world of the labouring poor surrounded a small, self-enclosed enclave of the wealthy and urbane" (Stansell, p. 3).

The making and wearing of replica working clothing from the past has become widespread through the popularity of historical reenactment and the use of living history to interpret historic sites. The shift such clothing makes in its esteem and value may have no single explanation; rather, it may embody a complex range of social, cultural, and economic factors over time. Mass production of clothing, urbanization, and more recently, new attitudes to work and leisure, money, and credit, may change not only our clothing but the identities they represent.


Before the advent of systematic state support in the twentieth century, various local or parish bodies and charitable organizations took responsibility for those unable to help themselves, and clothing for such men, women, and children was often part of the provision. Outside this framework, provision was uncertain because it was dependent on income, locality, and luck.

Secondhand Clothing Shop

Secondhand clothes were an important element in the clothing strategies of working people. These could be obtained as cast-offs from employers, or from markets and specialist shops in urban areas. There were large warehouses buying and selling secondhand clothing in bigger cities by the eighteenth century, and Henry Mayhew describes a vibrant trade in the wholesale and export of old clothes in 1850s London.

Where women possessed adequate sewing skills, much clothing was made over or recycled: For example, children's clothes were made from cut-down adult garments. The pawning of best clothes played a central part in many household economies. This provided regular cash, and often clothes left all week in the pawnshop were stored in better conditions than was possible in damp or overcrowded homes. In many working households, mothers were traditionally in charge of the budget, and there is evidence that they often clothed and shod working husbands, sons, and school-age children before meeting their own needs.

Sewing clothes at home was assisted by the advent of the sewing machine and effective paper patterns from the 1860s onward, but these were unaffordable for many women. Others sewed at home to earn cash by making or renovating garments for local customers.

Theft played its part in the provision of clothes for use or resale, and in the eighteenth century there are numerous records of vanished household servants who took quantities of clothing with them to pawn or sell. Peddlers traveled around selling clothing, accessories, and cloth to individual households in the eighteenth century before communications and transport improved.

Many working people continued to clothe themselves and their families in ways more suited to their circumstances than traveling to expensive shops. Local or workplace clothing clubs and, by the mid-nineteenth century, mail order with payment by installments played an important part in enabling them to be adequately and fashionably clothed.

Huge markets for slops and utilitarian clothing, including uniforms for the military, led to the development of the mass manufacture of ready-mades from the eighteenth century onward. In America the manufacture of jeans for men demonstrates the growth of factory-based specialist clothing companies. As urbanization coupled with expanding markets during the nineteenth century, new jobs grew up in service industries such as banking and insurance, which resulted in large numbers of low-paid white collar jobs for men and women. A big manufacturing sector developed for affordable clothes for this work, such as suits, blouses, collars, and shoes, which could be widely distributed through growth in urban retailing.

Specific Modes and Items

The common utilitarian dress for laboring men before the twentieth century was made up of breeches or trousers, jackets, and waistcoats of hard-wearing materials such as moleskin, fustian, or corduroy. In some situations, working women were the first women to don breeches or trousers. This occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century in Britain (in pits and mines, in work associated with fishing, and in brickworks), and in the United States (where women did agricultural work), and in some utopian communities.

In many manual occupations, until shorter skirts were widely accepted, women simply hitched up long skirts in various ways. Commonly, in many countries, they wore aprons and woolen shawls. In eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century Britain, the red woolen, hooded cloak was commonly worn by rural women. Women used boots instead of shoes; pattens and then clogs were valuable assets for workingmen and -women on dirt roads and later in factories and mills. Stout and durable footwear has always been a major investment for those undertaking physical labor. Similarly in the United States, denim became widely used by the second half of the nineteenth century for tough work by cattlemen, on the railways and in the mines. Roomy and rugged work shirts accompanied these. Leather and suede have been used in working garments for centuries and persists to the present day, providing hard-wearing and durable covering in the form of aprons for blacksmiths and chaps, gaiters, gloves, and various specialist items and outerwear for other occupations.

Although Britain differed from continental Europe in having no recognizable regional folk dress, two agricultural garments stand out as characteristic of rural workers, and these were worn either at work or as Sunday best. These were smocks for men, from the eighteenth century onwards, which provided a measure of protection and warmth; and the cotton sunbonnet for women, which was decorated with tucks and piping and had strikingly long panels to protect the neck. Fishermen have always had special clothing needs to protect them against the elements. In this context, oilskin was developed in the nineteenth century, and the woolen hand-knitted, close-fitting and ornamented upper garment for fishermen known variously as a gansy, jersey, Guernsey, knitfrock, and later sweater or jumper, became associated with the island fishing communities of Britain. Versions of it were later widely adopted as warm, informal attire for both sexes.

Occupational dress evolves as new occupations emerge, and innovative protective elements are introduced as new risks appear. In the industrializing period, boiler suits accompanied the use of steam power, and since the advent of forms of power that propel us into alien environments, special forms of clothing have been developed for, among others, pilots, divers, and astronauts. To an extent, occupational dress has often represented social and local or regional identities. In this sense, it has shown more style and commanded more loyalty than is strictly utilitarian. In 2002 in northern England a local bus driver was fired for refusing to exchange his habitual cloth cap for a baseball-style company cap. The dramatic fantail hats of the garbage collectors of early nineteenth century England or the intricate patterning on fishermen's knitwear have all testified to expressive and creative elements in occupational dress.

See also History of Secondhand Clothes; Occupational Uniforms.


Crane, Diana. Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender and Identity in Clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

De Marly, Diana. Working Dress: A History of Occupational Clothing. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1986.

Hall, Lee. Common Threads: A Parade of American Clothing. London: Little, Brown and Company, 1992.

Kidwell, Claudia, and Margaret Christman. Suiting Everyone: The Democratisation of Clothing in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974.

Partington, Angela. "Popular Fashion and Working-Class Affluence." In Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader. Edited by Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson. London: Pandora, 1992.

Quennell, Peter, ed. Mayhew's London: Henry Mayhew. London: Bracken Books, 1984.

Severa, Joan. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent, Ohio, and London: Kent State University Press, 1995.

Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York 1789-1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Textile History. Special Issue on the Dress of the Poor. Vol. 33, no. 1 (May 2002).

Tressell, Robert. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. London: Flamingo, 1993. The original edition was published in 1914.

Working-Class Dress