Beginning in the Middle Ages, the business of selling secondhand clothing became an important trade in England. Clothing was an important marker of social status. Because clothing was made by hand, it was quite expensive. Probate records from the time would list items of clothing. For example, WilliamDauntesey’s inventory lists “in Apparell for his bodie and one liverie cloak” assessed at twenty pounds. Members of the aristocracy would often gift used items of clothing to their servants. In some cases, the servants would keep the clothing, but they would often sell it for a profit. These items would include cloaks, doublets, and skirts.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the secondhand clothing trade filled an important need. There was a demand for consumer goods because the middling sort were more likely to have cash to spend on things like clothing. This especially becomes apparent after the Black Death, when workers were able to demand higher wages. As England began to become deeply involved in international trade, the wealthy were able to gain access to a greater variety of luxury items, such as silk. The majority of people in England could not afford these items brand new, so the secondhand trade grew.
The secondhand clothing trade developed into a sophisticated network across the country. This allowed fashions from London and other cities to be distributed into smaller markets. Styles throughout the country were fairly consistent. In fact, when certain types of clothing began to fall out of fashion inLondon, they would be more acceptable in small towns and rural areas. Because this trade was often undertaken by merchants where no manufacturing was involved and who did not have to be part of a guild, some of the records are sparse. Historians also think that the loose regulations on the trade meant that women made up a sizable part of the salespeople. We will sometimes see the dealers in secondhand clothing referred to as “rag ladies”, but don’t let that name fool you. These items were still in great condition- think of things that you might take to a consignment shop in the hopes of getting some cash or store credit!
The market for secondhand clothing steadily rose through the 17th and 18th centuries. During the Industrial Revolution, advances in manufacturing meant that ready-made clothing could be made much more cheaply. This caused a decline in the secondhand clothing business. But even today, there is a market for clothing that is slightly used and well made for people who want to get quality items they might not be able to afford at full price. The Internet has in many ways become the secondhand clothing market of this century.
Original artwork from Look and Learn no. 436 (23 May 1970)
Source: Consumerism in Preindustrial and Early Industrial England: The Trade in Secondhand Clothes Author(s): Beverly Lemire Source: Journal of British Studies , Jan., 1988, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan., 1988), pp. 1-24 Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/175397