You're wearing THAT?!?
May 28, 2017 6:59 PM   Subscribe

How have norms around wearing worn-out, damaged, or visibly repaired clothing changed?

Curious because I'm assessing my work wardrobe and finding a number of somewhat shabby looking items: pilly sweaters, marks on fabric from being rubbed, small holes, stains/discolorations, that kind of thing. Most of these items are lower priced or mid-range items (probably lower end of mid-range, if I'm being honest). They're probably at or close to the point where I'm uncomfortable wearing them to work but I'd still be perfectly okay wearing them for weekend errands, etc.

I'm really really not up on the history of fashion but I know that, as the story goes, in the not so recent past, people generally owned fewer, better quality items and there was more of a culture of repair. People knew how to repair clothing beyond just sewing on buttons, or they spent money to get things fixed. And it was actually cost-effective to do so because new stuff was so much more expensive and because clothing was made to be re-sized and repaired. Certainly there's been a backlash against fast fashion and lot of press about minimalism/capsule wardrobes, etc. in the past several years. And a lot about investing in a few classic pieces going much further back then that. But I'm not really asking about that kind of thing, exactly. I'm more curious about the clothing that either had damage that couldn't be repaired or which had visible repairs, like patches. Or clothing that just looked really old and worn-out, because it was? What were the expectations around clothing condition?

To narrow things down a bit (but please feel free if you have good examples from other countries/time periods), say in the U.S., in the past 100 years or so, among people who could in some sense be considered middle class...If you were a office worker in the 1950s/60s, for example, could you wear worn-out looking, but not falling apart, clothing to work without being considered unacceptably dressed? If your friend invited you over for a casual party and you showed up with patched clothing, was that okay? What about religious services? In short, this expectation that clothing for work and social gatherings look new or near-new..when did that come about? Who was it true for? If there are any books/articles discussing this, that would be great, or examples from literature/media. Has anyone noticed how that has changed within their life-times?

If the answer is that clothing was just so much better quality back then that this really wasn't a problem most of the time, I'd like to hear about that, too...Thanks! :)
posted by eeek to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (36 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was born in 1965, my mother was born in 1935, and she and her sisters took pains not to appear in public in "worn-out looking" clothing. Their mother (my grandmother), an Italian immigrant who'd worked in a garment factory, schooled them in how to make and maintain their clothes:

1. Removing stains and sweater pills.
2. Storing woolens out of the reach of moths.
3. Tearing out worn collars and cuffs and turning them over to be sewn in again.
4. Taking apart wool coats, cutting new linings and sewing them back together.
posted by virago at 7:58 PM on May 28 [11 favorites]


PS "You're wearing THAT?!?" is exactly what Nonna asked me once during my teenage years, when I was headed out the door in a wrinkled cotton sundress. I then received a 20-minute hands-on lesson in the finer points of ironing.

As an adult, I'm not good at making clothing. I am OK at maintaining clothing (e.g., sewing on buttons and ironing) -- and I'm actually pretty good at distinguishing clothes that will last from ones that will soon fall apart, thanks to early guidance from Mom and Nonna. (One tip from my late Nonna, a proud International Ladies Garment Workers Union member: When thrifting, look for the ILGWU label -- that's clothing that will last.)
posted by virago at 8:23 PM on May 28 [20 favorites]


There are lots of descriptions in literature of the ways that people would keep their clothing looking presentable as well as extensive descriptions of maintenance in things like housewives' handbooks--turning the collars and cuffs (i.e., removing the collar or cuff from the garment, turning it upside down, and reattaching it), darning holes so that they would be more or less invisible, reweaving fabric, etc., But even if they didn't have a lot of money, most people would have tried to wear things in good repair out and about.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:35 PM on May 28 [4 favorites]


As far as I'm aware, there was every effort to make sure clothing looked "decent" - not visibly patched, cared-for, clean. When people were castigated for clothing in the period of, say, the 20s through 50s, it was because their clothing revealed their poverty by being very worn or out of fashion. That was never truly OK in high society or in image-conscious environments. What there was more tolerance for was having fewer individual outfits - for instance, wearing the same 4 things to work or class for the year, or the same dress to go out all the time. But the thing was that those clothes were meant to look good and be cared for.

It is worth mentioning that the context of fashion was a lot more rigid and changed more emphatically than it does today, so that clothing that was "out of style" was a lot more visible and remarked-upon than it is now, when pretty much everything goes as long as you can pull it off with style. Before the 60s or so, it was incredibly obvious if someone did not have the money to be in fashion because their clothes were dated, not so much because they were in bad repair. 'Remaking' dresses/suits along new lines was a skill that helped many lower-income women (and men) maintain a good public profile.

Patched/obviously repaired clothing has never, as far as I know, been anything other than a marker of poverty, except for a brief time in the 70s when hobo-style patching was considered cute and cheeky. I recall a few garments that had a super-obvious folky "patchwork" look, but it wasn't actual patching, it was a fashionable reference to patching.
posted by Miko at 8:40 PM on May 28 [8 favorites]


There are also a slew of terms for worn-out clothes, none of them complimentary. Down-at-heel, for instance, is a literal reference to shoes that need repair. Rusty black has faded (washing, use, light) and looks brownish. Pants and skirts get "seated" if they pull over the rear and don't have a strong lining; wool is shiny if the brushed surface has worn off.

I've seen silk-stocking-repair kits that came with the stockings -- fine, fine thread and needles. Almost everyone would have had sock-darns, actually, but they were supposed to not show.

Shabby clothes could be sold on to be worn by someone way down the social scale -- the further back you go the more this is true -- but the shabby-clothes-wearer was not in contention for respectable jobs or maybe even respectable treatment.
posted by clew at 8:46 PM on May 28 [2 favorites]


I'd also add that standards are highly regionalized. What I could wear to a casual weekend party in rural/small-town New England even today is much different from what I can feel confident wearing a weekend party in Metro NYC, and I suspect the same differences applied - probably even more pronouncedly - in the past. Context is everything.
posted by Miko at 8:49 PM on May 28 [3 favorites]


Oh! Remembering what my grandmothers grew up knowing and only sort of passed on to me -- people of the not-visibly-worn, wage-earning class were far more careful of their clothes than we are accustomed to being. Gloves, brushing, underarm shields, linings, slips, house-aprons, overalls, coveralls, shop coats, office coats, undershirts, separate collars and cuffs, "a stitch in time", galoshes, changing clothes as soon as you got home, never cooking garlic or cabbage at home if that was where you dried your clothes.

And not doing things that pulled, or stained, or made you dirty. It cost a lot, if you could only expect three outfits at a time.
posted by clew at 8:51 PM on May 28 [20 favorites]


There is the long tradition of hand-me-down clothing from ladies of wealth to their domestic workers, which seems to support the idea of shabby or worn items being a marker of lower socioeconomic status.
posted by witchen at 9:01 PM on May 28


Little Women has a ton of descriptions of clothing being repaired or touched up, for different occasions. If i remember right, one of the girls had an oldish, worn dress that was ok for some occasions, but not good enough for some fancy event, until she... something something. Re-lined the skirt or collar, maybe.

There's also a lot of detail in the book about the girls' agonizing over being pegged as poor, based on the state of their clothes, and clothing as a mark of pride.
posted by jessicapierce at 9:31 PM on May 28 [6 favorites]


I have a few articles of clothing that I've refused to give up on, despite their advancing decrepitude. I've found that oftentimes, a really good tailor (someone who works on a lot of wedding dresses or men's suits) can surprise me with the quality and invisibility of a mend and rescue something that I would have thought was a lost cause.

But when the tailor shakes their head and hands the thing back to me and I still don't want to give up, my strategy generally is to do something really, glaringly obvious (like, say, closing a rip with super bright embroidery floss, preferably accompanied by a hint of cross-stitch or chain stitch as an accent (a practice which, it must be admitted, pushes me to the absolute, outer limit of my needlework ability), or (most frequently) covering holes with cute, nerdy appliques). It works out pretty well. One of my favorite cardigans now has a giant octopus applique in the middle of the back. Another has a five-inch long seahorse at an angle near the armpit. People give me compliments on these items all the time. (And when they do, I am usually up-front about why the garment in question looks the way it does.)

I definitely wouldn't wear any of this stuff to work. But for at home or around the neighborhood? I'm completely comfortable with it.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 9:58 PM on May 28 [7 favorites]


To answer the other part of the question: I was taught about garments and garment care by my German grandmother. She was a teenager during World War I, and she was absolutely implacable about the quality of anything she bought. If she didn't think she take it in, let it out, and repair it dozens of times, she didn't want it. She was also hell-on-wheels about fabric care, which is why today, I dry all of my knits flat, and I darn the hell out of my husband's and my socks, and never put them in the dryer. (The result of this is that we can afford to wear only wonderful wool socks-- the way I take care of them, a pair lasts around seven years, and is functionally new for at least three).

At the same time, she was a dynamite seamstress, on a level that I will never, ever, ever match. So when she left the house, she never looked worn out and pieced together, even if she almost always was.

(I should note that, even in the seventies, this meant that shopping with her could be absolutely agonizing. In first grade, she wouldn't let me get a lunchbox with a plastic clasp, which meant that in all of Denver, there was exactly one children's lunchbox that met with her approval, and it was @#% pink. God, I hated that lunchbox.)
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 10:05 PM on May 28 [6 favorites]


Elbow patches on tweed jackets or cashmere sweaters were once a sign of classy, professorial fashion.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:35 PM on May 28


A modern example, but I have a couple of cashmere cardigans with holes in the elbows. I picked up some suede scraps on Etsy, cut them to size as elbow patches, and had a tailor sew them on and now I wear them for most things and even get compliments on them occasionally. I matched the color, weight, size, and style of the elbow patches very carefully to the off-the-rack elbow-patched cardigans instead of doing something more unique so that it wouldn't be obvious.
posted by asphericalcow at 11:55 PM on May 28 [1 favorite]


I suspect this is tied to economics in a way I can't really articulate. The 80s boom lasted until Black Monday in 1987. The boom coincided with what was then a new trend, which was clothing with holes in it. I remember putting holes in a pair of jeans with a nail file and bleaching them in a bathtub in the pre-recession era.

Possibly the high employment of the 80s plus cheaper manufacturing meant a drop in the cost of consumer goods (including mass market clothing) so that almost the entire market could afford new clothing. Therefore, new clean and pressed was not in any way distinguishing, so the fashion trend reversed.

(Like I actually remember super wanting worn jeans but not being able to afford them and therefore adding the holes myself. Worn Levis went at a super premium; I don't even think they made them so you had to buy them vintage or DIY them?)
posted by DarlingBri at 4:08 AM on May 29 [2 favorites]


Judging by what my mother and grandmother taught me, neatness and avoiding visibly worn-out clothes was incredibly important for middle-class people during the time period you describe. However, I remember reading an amazing anecdote (I wish I could track it down for you, but I can't locate it!) that makes me wonder if the same was necessarily true for upper-class people. Here's what I remember: it was a memoir by an older man who had been a poor Jewish student at an Ivy League school in the late 1940s; he described how self-conscious he'd felt in his brand new shirts. The problem was that his WASPy, wealthy classmates' shirts were lived-in and yachted-in and elegantly worn-out --- so the clean, stiff, new clothes he'd bought before coming to school made him stand out as different and poorer. He described taking sandpaper to his collar and cuffs to try to wear them down so he would blend in better.
posted by ourobouros at 4:24 AM on May 29 [7 favorites]


Patched/obviously repaired clothing has never, as far as I know, been anything other than a marker of poverty, except for a brief time in the 70s when hobo-style patching was considered cute and cheeky.

When I was a teenager wearing patched jeans in the 70s, my father asked me if that was in style. I said yes, and he (born in 1921 in dire poverty in rural Kentucky) said that when he was younger, you were ashamed to have patches on your clothes. By the way, he said this in an "isn't that interesting" observational tone - he was not criticizing me.
posted by FencingGal at 5:59 AM on May 29 [4 favorites]


From East of Eden (published in 1952, describing pre-WWI Californians):
Lee had become American conservative in his clothes since he had lived in Salinas. He regularly wore black broadcloth when he went out of the house.... He was immaculate.
Once Adam had remarked on the quiet splendour of Lee's clothes, and Lee had grinned at him. "I have to do it," he said. "One must be very rich to dress as badly as you do. The poor are forced to dress well."
Some context on this: Adam and Lee, although (as it turns out) of near-equal wealth, are of very different social classes: Adam is a white man from the northeast and essentially American gentry; Lee is Chinese-American and (officially and ostensibly, although the actual situation has greater complexity) Adam's servant. So historically how you can get away with dressing has had a lot to do with your wealth and (even more so) social class. The very poor, perceived as non-aspirational and objects of pity, can wear rags. The aspirational poor (or even those who aren't poor but are of traditionally despised social class or race) need to have a few very good, very well-kept clothes for critical interactions (ISTR reading stories of lower-middle-class black women who kept around a special wardrobe for dealing with bureaucracy, because dressing a certain way to exude seriousness and prosperity was critical to getting positive responses at a lot of government offices). The middle classes need to have everyday presentable wear, and I think historically they get away with a certain amount of "I wear this all the time" shabbiness but not so much "this piece of clothing is inherently inappropriate" shabbiness. The rich can wear what they want, and if they're natty then they're doing it because they like it or wan to send a message to their peers. Also, as I alluded to above, this extends beyond mere economic class into social class; thus, for instance, racial minorities (like the black women mentioned above, or Lee in my example) often need to dress a shade more meticulously than their white peers of the same economic class. I think the social-class issue also explains why academics have always been, as a group, a bit scruffier than their economic status might suggest: it's a profession with more prestige than pay, and they dress to the message that they don't have anything to prove.
posted by jackbishop at 6:00 AM on May 29 [10 favorites]


I was going to make much the same point at clew did, that you wore aprons/dustcoats etc to protect clothes. You can see this most easily with nurses' uniforms - take this poster of VAD nurses, especially the one on the left. Almost everything that you see which is white is there to protect the clothing underneath - so you have an apron which covers almost the entire skirt and most of the torso, then sleeve protectors for the lower arms. The only part of the clothing which is really visible is the upper sleeves, which are generally out of the way of stains. The aprons are white, because they can then be bleached and/or boil washed to remove stains. The aprons and sleeve protectors also minimise damage (and were generally made of tough material). Nurses' uniforms are at the extreme end, but everyday clothing for working women at that time would be the same - cover the expensive to minimise damage.

Even during clothing rationing in the UK, you wanted to look your best and turned out as well as possible. Make Do And Mend (my mum has an original copy) is all about reusing old clothes while trying not to look like you're reusing old clothes. I know your question was about the US, but given that the stereotype of the US in the UK through the 50s was of very nattily dressed people, I think that rather demonstrates that obvious patching and darning was not the done thing.
posted by Vortisaur at 6:27 AM on May 29 [7 favorites]


Bear in mind that until fairly recently clothing materials were more natural such as 100% cotton, wool, silk, and leather, as opposed to today's more common poly and spandex blends and whatever is supposed to pass today for leather. Buttons were wood or bone or metal and less often plastic. These materials lent themselves to repair much more than modern materials.
posted by vignettist at 7:39 AM on May 29 [4 favorites]


Part of the story here is that clothing is a much less reliable signal of social status than once it was, because people are richer and clothing is much cheaper. See here for some numbers.

I know price changes can be hard to adjust to (and have relatives who still want my children to have shiny shoes) -- I still can't chat on an international phone call because it still feels like it's going to cost $100 for 10 minutes.
posted by hawthorne at 8:40 AM on May 29 [2 favorites]


The Lost Art of Dress is a fountain of information and history about just your very question, eeek.

Yes, aprons! Stains are the enemy, and most are impossible to get out well after the fact.

As others have mentioned, fabrics were stronger and more substantial back in the day, including cottons and silks. When's the last time you encountered a heavy silk day dress in the stores? Lizzy Borden had one, fer cryin' out loud, but not us!

Cottons now are so flimsy and thin and many alteration shops in my town won't deal with them.
posted by BostonTerrier at 10:04 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]


Just dipping in quickly to say that distressed clothes and clothes with rips became fashionable in the early 1980s. Obviously punk had deliberately distressed clothes being held together with safety pins etc, but in the early 1980s my very well-dressed aunt came to the family Christmas lunch wearing a blouse with deliberate holes and ripped (but well-tailored) trousers. Oh the shock! I think the designer of the shirt was Japanese but no google luck.

The obvious end point to the punk aesthetic is the infamous safety pin dress from Versace worn by Liz Hurley in the mid-1990s. By that stage, we've reached the logical conclusion of "hanging together by a pin".
posted by kariebookish at 10:29 AM on May 29 [1 favorite]


I'd argue that the taboo against old, worn out, or very visibly mended clothing hasn't changed that much. It's still generally inappropriate to wear stained, torn, or obviously patched clothing to an office job or to a party. Denim is the one material that one can get away with wearing torn, but even then torn, faded jeans are for casual wear, while jeans worn to the office ought to be relatively dark and new.

What has changed is that people own much more clothing now, and it's more disposable -- people either don't have the skills or can't be bothered to fix things. I often find thrift shop clothes that need very minor repairs and I wonder if that's why they were thrown out.

People did do wonders with their old clothes pre-1960 or so. Fabric was better quality back then as it was made from natural fibres, and it usually had two good sides rather than a right and wrong side as it does now. Women would take apart an old dress, recut it according the current season's style, and sew it back together, sometimes using the fresh, unfaded, former "inside" out, or perhaps they'd redye a faded fabric to freshen it up. One also turned cuffs and collars, or replaced them entirely, and retrimmed hats with new trimmings or with trimmings salvaged from past hats. Buttons were saved and reused. Shoes were repaired, often repeatedly, and polished up to look new. Silk or wool stockings were mended. A woman's friends and acquaintances would often recognize a turned or redyed dress, of course, but one didn't look shabby or out of style if one could help it.

Another thing that's changed -- for the better! -- is that fashion is far less rigid and uniform than it used to be. My mother tells me that when she was a young girl (in the late forties and early fifties) and a young woman (in the late fifties and the sixties), there was just one silhouette, one hemline, one look in at a time, and if you didn't have that particular look, then you were out. People may have had fewer, better quality clothes, but they had to keep altering them to suit the new styles in a way that wouldn't be necessary now. I have plenty of clothes that are ten to fifteen years old that still look current.

There's a scene in Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl in which Polly, who has always been relatively poor, gives Fanny, who grew up in a wealthy home and whose father has recently lost his money, advice on how to reconstruct her wardrobe for spring. They begin by laying out all of Fanny's existing dresses and looking them over. Polly shows Fanny how to make one new spring bonnet out of three old ones, how to turn her old gray suit, how to make a new "calling costume" and a matching hat out of "two draggled skirts and a stained waist", and how to freshen up a piqué outfit by cutting the tail off the jacket and changing the trimming. She also says some of Fanny's dresses are fine as they are, or only need mending, washing and ironing, and further advises her to put away some of her stock of silk and muslin dresses to made over in subsequent years, and to sell her old ball gowns that Fanny will no longer have any use for (as a now poor man's daughter she'll be going out less and will have a smaller wardrobe than formerly) in order to raise the money for the sewing supplies she needs to make the things over and the two new cotton prints she needs for at home wear, since she now does much of the housekeeping herself.

Though back then that sort of process would have been typical of women of modest means who were planning their new season's wardrobe twice a year, no one really does that sort of thing now. Of course it's not even possible to fix things to the extent that one did circa 1860. No one would "turn" a dress now as contemporary materials aren't suited to that. One can't fix nylon stockings, or leg holes in tights (small toe holes can be mended). I do darn my wool work socks, but you can't really darn trouser socks or cotton socks, although you can mend little toe holes. I often mend things, and I will occasionally reconstruct things, (i.e., I've got a dress that I want to turn into a skirt and a thrift shop silk bathrobe that I intend to turn into a sleeveless silk top), but I seem to be one of the few women I know who do that sort of thing, and even I would be very unlikely to cut over a dress to make a new one, even if I was piecing it out with new fabric. When I want a new dress, I buy fabric and make one.
posted by orange swan at 10:36 AM on May 29 [12 favorites]


I could have a heavy silk day dress if it was my clothing budget for the entire year. (Suddenly tempted.) The Bordens were fairly rich, weren't they? It is also confusing, reading history, to figure out where in their class hierarchy people are and how steep the hierarchy is. It's as bad as keeping track of the changing relative costs of goods and the labor value of a pound/dollar/florin/pfs loaf.

What's still funny to me in nineteenth-c. books is that merino wool is the sensible, hardwearing, slightly dowdy and almost year-round dress fabric. Obviously it is excellent material, but its relative cost seems to have gone up.

Following ourobouros' and jackbishop's examples of the richest people getting away with being shabbier, although in very specific ways -- if you start with superb material, it will still be better than mediocre material even while it shows wear. IME the fading and softness and fraying edges of long wear is all right, beautifully darned rips okay except in city wear, stains absolutely out, and your shoes have to be in better condition than your sweaters. Also there's a Yankee-thrift version and an Anglophiliac shabby-chic version which aren't quite the same. (Boston lady to New York lady: "But I already have my hat.")

My old sewing books have a lot on mending and darning, and the point of either is to do it as invisibly as possible; the current Japanese-inflected microtrend for very visible repairs is new.
posted by clew at 10:47 AM on May 29 [4 favorites]


Alcott is great on the actual labor and tradeoffs and expectations of clothing -- there's the scene with carrying one damaged glove and wearing the good one of the pair, and an extended description of healthy clothing that's somewhere between tight-laced, low-cut 1880s high fashion and actual Bloomer outfits, but I can't find any other references to the intermediate style let alone pictures. I think it's in Alcott that a rich artistic mother helps the visiting poor virtuous friend make over her plain white tarlatan dress for the ball by painting forget-me-nots all over it. (No mention of if they wash out, or what kind of paint, or anything. Sounds a lot faster than embroidery. Is this Alcott reporting on the cutting-edge experiments of her day, or making stuff up?)
posted by clew at 10:53 AM on May 29


Here's what I remember: it was a memoir by an older man who had been a poor Jewish student at an Ivy League school in the late 1940s; he described how self-conscious he'd felt in his brand new shirts. The problem was that his WASPy, wealthy classmates' shirts were lived-in and yachted-in and elegantly worn-out --- so the clean, stiff, new clothes he'd bought before coming to school made him stand out as different and poorer. He described taking sandpaper to his collar and cuffs to try to wear them down so he would blend in better.

This is definitely true and one thing that marked the new rich in that period was trying to hard. Your parents living in a shabby castle wearing baggy cardigans and holey tweed surrounded by dog hair and mud was actually much richer than your family having a smart apartment where everything was brand new. It was a bit of a post WWII gentle decay / old money thing and it was very real. Trying too hard was the kiss of death in that scene for sure.
posted by fshgrl at 12:00 PM on May 29 [3 favorites]


What I can say is, when my grandmother died, I inherited a beautiful brooch, crafted sometime around the Civil War era. It is antique gold, set with tiny pieces of turquoise. I never wear it, perhaps foolishly, because it is so obviously the kind of thing you wear with "good clothes." You wore this with your shawl, you pinned it on the solid fabric of your dress, later on, you wore it with a good jacket. What I am highlighting is the discrepancy between what used to be solid pieces intended for wear with equally solid clothing, when today mass-market fashion is about putting it in the garbage after just a few washings.

My grandmother also told me, rather bemusedly as I recall, that it was trashy for girls and women to wear jewelry that was not "real." Meaning gold, silver, real jewels, etc etc. Young girls were encouraged to wear flowers rather than much actual jewelry, except perhaps a pearl necklace or a simple brooch. To put this in context, she was born in WWI Austria, and she was Viennese. She was came from a family that was fairly well off. I cannot really speak to whether what she told me applies to other classes or countries.

She found the modern trends truly peculiar, and my 90's-era ripped jeans and green or blue or teal nail polish funny and totally strange. One day she gave me a bottle of yellow nail polish, telling me that it was the most absurd color for nails she could think of, so it must be perfect for me. She didn't object to the new styles, just found them bizarre, as if the world had moved on in a way that didn't make sense to her, but she wasn't judgemental about it.
posted by Crystal Fox at 1:31 PM on May 29 [11 favorites]


Seconding the old/new money split; when my father was at Yale in the 70's, he learned to pretty much instantly tell old money from new. (It sounds like a lot of that was behavioral, admittedly; the only sartorial thing he's really talked about was the importance of Bass Weejuns.)
posted by kalimac at 1:39 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]


Calculated disarray has been a thing, to one degree or another, for decades at least. It shows you don't need to prove anything. For just one example, I still remember when I realized that the most insider-y people at nightclubs (employees, musicians, d.j.s, etc) were the people who just wore nondescript t-shirts and such.

It may sound snooty, but the few times I've heard people say I or someone else should wear something "nice", In a certain tone, I've taken it for blue-collar origins.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 2:46 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]


If you have Netflix, this kind of thing comes up a lot in Anne with an E, the new Anne of Green Gables adaptation. As it did in the book and in previous adaptations, as well, but the costume designer (Anne Dixon) and wardrobe department did meticulous work and it really helped me as a layperson get a better sense of historical dress that I'd read about in books.

It's set in rural Canada at the turn of the 20th century, and you get a good look at the range of individual characters' wardrobes--a couple of well-maintained but faded/weather beaten outfits for daily wear, aprons/overcoats/neckerchiefs/spats/etc to protect said outfits from farm or housework/the elements, accessories like handknit shawls and straw hats to spruce up outfits for social occasions, and the nicest, least-worn outfit for Sundays at church and special occasions. The women spend a lot of time sewing/knitting/darning clothes for the household, even when it's their supposed downtime.

Plus you get to see the difference in what people wear based on class--the hardscrabble poor, like Anne at the beginning of the series and a few other characters, are dressed pretty shabbily. The Cuthberts are landed farmers, but precariously so, and their clothes are impeccably neat without visible damage/repairs but obviously well-worn, and very drab and functional. Their richer neighbors the Barrys have visibly newer outfits even for every day, with brighter/more colorful fabric, and for the women more fabric in general.

A few minor spoilers for a new TV show based on a 100-year-old book:
- At one point, a character immediately knows there's good gossip afoot when her neighbor leaves his farm in the middle of a workday (!) dressed in his best outfit (!!!!)
- Our first clue that Anne's adoptive mother isn't as stern and unfeeling as she seems is that she digs up leftover fabric to sew Anne a new dress to replace her single threadbare outfit, even though she's still planning on sending Anne back to the orphanage.
- However, because she's frugal and a bit set in her ways, she sees the latest fashion of puffed sleeves and bodices on dresses as a waste of fabric. When Anne shows up to her new school in her closely-cut, plain dress, she's immediately marked as a poor outsider compared to all the other girls in their puffy, ruffly, pastel concoctions.
posted by bettafish at 3:56 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]


Calculated disarray is a Romantic thing independent of shabbiness -- the Byronic tousle and Stevie Nicks drapery.
posted by clew at 4:48 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]


What about religious services?

This is just an anecdote but - My grandfather was the minister of a church in a poor area, catering to new immigrants. He and his family and his parishioners would've had patched and repaired clothes for sure. Illustrating how poor their church was, there's a story of the family who came one day; this would be in the 1940s or '50s. They had just arrived from the old country. My grandfather went to welcome them and do whatever assistance/outreach/sign-up stuff, but they told him "No thanks -- we're just coming to this church until we can afford new clothes" (to go to the fancier church).
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:28 PM on May 29 [8 favorites]


If you can get your (virtual) hands on it, you might find "The Preppy Handbook" relevant to your question. For instance, clothing should be neat, clean, classic, and high quality. However, in specific situations it may be acceptable to have mud on one's pants to show that one is sporty. It may also be appropriate in other circumstances to be wearing hand me downs, because that is demonstrating thriftiness.
posted by oceano at 9:11 AM on May 30


I've never been one to be dressy, heck, I was the one that went down to the grocery store in cut-off jean shorts and irrigation boots when I was young and cute.

But later when I worked in jobs that demanded 'office clothes' I often went slightly beyond what was required--a casual dress or skirt 3-4 days out of the week, instead of wearing jeans all the times like most of the (usually younger) gals wore. I wanted to project a more professional image. In order not to be obnoxious, I did wear pants or jeans other days. I've never worn patched or faded outfits to the Big City of Boise, but running around locally, I might have an older t-shirt or faded jeans.

I'm retired and have horses, so my home dress tends to be pretty ratty--barb wire holes in jeans, bleach marks, ragged collars, ancient sweatshirts. I'm in the process of painting the outbuildings this summer, and the worst of the summer clothes will go to paint in one day and be torn to rags the next. I'm also going to sort out my winter clothes for next fall and get rid of the most hideous. Even if I replace the worst of it with good thrift store items, I'll look a bit better.

There are quite a few websites that are all about replacing, refashioning, and reusing clothes to look put together and fashionable.
Thrift store DIY , Refashionista, 100 ways to upcycle your clothes.. Jillian, the gal from Refashionista, is pretty amazing with what she can do.

There's a ton of youtube videos on how to redo scarves, sweaters, t-shirts, men's buttondowns, etc that women who love clothes and fashion but don't have money can turn into unique and eye-catching items. Of course, when you're young, you can look cute in old gunnysack.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:11 PM on May 30 [4 favorites]


Another discussion of clothes and mending in Alcott is the stockings incident in Rainbow Valley. The whole book is full of discussions of clothes and decency and frugality though.
posted by kjs4 at 8:10 PM on May 30


Slight correction to the above comment -- Rainbow Valley was written by L.M. Montgomery, not by Louisa May Alcott. Montgomery is another writer whose characters often mend and make do. One of her short stories related how a character makes a party waist for her sister out of the very pretty rosebud silk fabric that had been used as a lining for an old quilt, another has a character making a new dress to wear to a friend's wedding out of an old dress of hideous green silk with brocaded pink and yellow flowers and toning down the silk by using an old black lace shawl to make an overlay for it. Montgomery herself was brought up to waste anything and she relates in her journals how, even as a very successful author with a high income, she spent some time making a petticoat out of an old skirt even though it would have made more sense to spend that time writing because she couldn't bring herself to simply discard the skirt.
posted by orange swan at 6:26 PM on September 6 [1 favorite]


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