Clothes tell us both well-hidden secrets and widely known facts about the people who produced, wore and sold them. Today, clothes labels show which country a product was made in, who sold it, and details about the fabric. This garment’s ‘label’, which is actually a stamp on the fabric itself, reveals that the cotton was exported from India under colonial rule.
Clothes are now readily available to be bought and discarded quickly, without much thought. The phenomenon of ‘fast fashion’, where cheaply manufactured clothes are available to the masses, is a relatively recent concept. Before this, a garment was chosen carefully, maintained, and worn until exhaustion. Sending clothes to the landfill just was not an option.
When examining this cotton dress, dated from around 1805, what struck me was how carefully it had been preserved, despite being over 200 years old. At the time, cloth was expensive to buy and could be difficult to maintain, so quality clothes were seen as an investment for a household. The process of buying clothes was also very different to today. Where we can go to numerous shops in person or online and pick out any style of clothing in a variety of colours and sizes, people in the early nineteenth century would buy fabric to take to a seamstress or tailor, who would then talk through designs with them, take their measurements, and create a bespoke garment. This way of buying clothes was slowly changing with the increased availability of ready-made clothing.
In addition to this, in the early 1800s the task of getting cloth to this point involved importing raw cotton, spinning and producing the fabric, then block printing patterns on by hand. Although the spinning of cotton was becomingly increasingly mechanised in Britain by this point, higher quality material was still being produced by hand spinning, weaving and printing in India.
On close examination, original darning can be seen on this dress around the shoulders and lower sleeves, areas with higher degrees of wear and tear. This is an attempt to increase the lifespan of the dress, although the fact that we have the full piece of clothing at all suggests a bit about the life this dress led. With the growth of the middle classes in Britain came a middle ground for the way textiles were bought and used. We have lavish dresses and high-quality fabric objects preserved today because the wealthy could afford to buy new clothes more frequently, and with a bigger wardrobe came less wear for each item of clothing. In contrast, the poor were limited in what they could afford, leading to the use of hand-me-downs, repurposed fabric, and second-hand clothing markets. Clothes were ordinarily replaced once they were heavily worn, which is one reason why so few working-class clothes survive in museum collections. This dress appears to be somewhere in the middle. It was not worn until it fell apart, but the repeated attempts to darn and fix holes implies that this dress still needed to be worn and perhaps wasn’t replaced quickly. Being able to handle a dress with signs of wear, visible stitches and mending gives us a very personal connection to the people who created and wore it; somebody chose this fabric for the statement of the pattern and chose the style for its flattering and fashionable qualities, just as we do today.
Being from around 1805, this dress might have been totally hand stitched. It wasn’t until the early to mid–1800s that sewing machines became widely available, which greatly decreased the workload of seamstresses and began the evolution towards ready-made pieces entering the market. The sewing of clothes wasn’t the only aspect of the textile industry that changed rapidly during this period. Mechanised looms appeared in the late 1700s and became more and more widespread until the cottage industry in Britain was almost totally replaced by industrial mills, which could produce far more in much less time. This revolutionised how the north of England developed, particularly Lancashire, Manchester, Bradford and Leeds. Cotton became a major export for the country and a huge money maker for those at the top of the chain, but created terrible working conditions for those in the mills. Gott’s Mill, near Holbeck and the city centre, was an example of a hugely successful operation and was the precursor to Armley Mill, now Leeds Industrial Museum.
The impact was not only felt in Britain. By this point, Britain had colonial rule over India, where skills in cotton weaving and printing had previously been unrivalled. Up until the 1820s, Indian handloom weaving had still been competitive, and continued to create high-quality material throughout the century, but it faced major competition when the cotton industry in Britain took off. Britain imported raw cotton from several countries including India and, due to technological advancements in this period, began to produce fine cotton cloth. This cloth was used in Britain but it was also exported back to India at a reduced price, causing a large decline in traditional Indian handweaving from 1820 to 1880. By the 1880s, the industrialisation of weaving in India meant they were reinstated as a dominant power in the global cotton industry and continue to have a monopoly now.
As it was 200 years ago, cotton and clothing production truly is a global operation. Most of our clothes are produced in China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh and imported on a larger scale than ever seen before. As this 1805 dress shows, the cotton industry has been global for centuries but the way we consume and value clothing is now fundamentally different. It is rare that we take on historical values, but the way clothing has previously been appreciated is something we could all learn from, in efforts to preserve the planet’s resources and make use of what we already have.
For a look at other cotton garments, both older and more modern than the dress examined here, check out the Cotton Detectives’ film created with Nick Singleton, available to see at Lotherton.
By Anna Duffield, Cotton Detectives volunteer