This article originally appeared in the December 2000 issue of the Fencers, Dancers and Bearbaiters Quarterly.
Patched, Scratched and Mis-matched: Secondhand clothes in Elizabethan London
"Insomuch than nothing in Englande is more constant than the inconstancie of attire." - Philip Stubbes, The Anatomy of Abuses (1583)1
The last quarter of the sixteenth century in England saw a steady influx of people into London, not only from the surrounding counties, but from the Continent. This increase in population furthered the cross-culturization of London, introducing languages, customs and styles from other countries, most notably France, Holland and Spain2. Queen Elizabeth's famed love of personal adornment encouraged her Court to keep up with the constantly changing fashions, and to be seen in the same outfit twice was politically and socially inexpedient3. This ever changing display inspired Puritan invective from contemporary moralists like Philip Stubbes. It also created a huge market in secondhand clothing.
Unlike their rural counterparts, London women did not have the space, resources, or time 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 bought their shirts and shifts ready made from seamstresses; others employed servants to sew clothes from bought cloth. The rest of London supplemented their wardrobe by buying from the secondhand clothing shops. There was a bias against used clothing, much as there is with thrift stores today, but the bias 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, secondhand was simply an economical way to get needed clothes.
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. The ultimate destination of all clothes was either stuffing for upholstered items or linen paper4.
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.
Unlike today, where clothes are only a small part of a yearly household budget, clothes in the 16th century were a serious investment5. People needed their clothes to last, especially the lower classes, as the purchase of a complete outfit then could be the equivalent of buying a car today. The secondhand clothing trade, therefore, could be compared to today's used car trade.
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 enforced with any real enthusiasm. 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, and very unfashionable at the lower end. At the lower end of the scale, they could also be quite shabby, but the trade in used clothing made it possible for even the lower middle and lower classes to wear fine (if patchy) materials, and when they could afford it, they did so.
The lower down the social scale, the more patched and worn the clothes would appear. Even the fairly well-off might have discreet patches and alterations. 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, the 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 acceptable6.
1. Shakespeare's England: Life in Elizabethan and Jacobean Times, R.E. Pritchard, 1999, Sutton Publishing, Ltd., Gloucestershire
3. What Life Was Like in the Realm of Elizabeth, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia
4. The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society 1500-1914, Jane Ashelford, 1996, National Trust Publications, Great Britain
5. Susan North, Deputy Curator in Textiles and Dress, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Text and images copyright L. Mellin, 2000-2008, except where noted. All rights reserved.