- Making, Selling and Wearing Boys’ Clothes in Late-Victorian England
To this day, I can still remember some of the respectable and unique clothes my mother either made or purchased for me when I was a young boy. While my hairstyle left much to be desired, I always felt I was properly and even fashionably attired; my clothes obscured my economic class and allowed me to fit in amongst my peers at school. These early sartorial memories and the culture of consumption which revolved around my mother in large measure have come to inform the way I fashion my masculinity as an adult. Herein lies one of the most important premises of Clare Rose’s extensive survey, Making, Selling and Wearing Boys’ Clothes in Late-Victorian England : that boys’ clothes reveal and symbolize contemporary notions of gender, class, and social status. As part of Ashgate’s multidisci-plinary series The History of Retailing and Consumption, edited by Gareth Shaw, Rose’s [End Page 155] book is one of a number of important recent texts which expand the context and parameters of our understanding of the cultures and economies of production, consumption, and distribution of fashionable and mass-produced products.
As Rose correctly alerts her reader, the end of the nineteenth century, specifically 1870 to 1900, marked an important moment in the history of children in Britain. The 1870 Education Act, fears around racial degeneracy fuelled by the Boer War, and the creation or expansion of numerous organizations and homes for orphans and children of the poor led to the proliferation of a discursive, material, and visual culture that focused its lens on the health, well-being, and status of the young boy. What is remarkable and largely unusual in contemporary scholarship is how the author explores numerous facets of a garment’s life, from its creation and production to its retail and consumption. Adding to this, Rose intelligently bridges the great class divide by exploring in depth core concepts of “raggedness and respectability”—to borrow from the title of chapter 1—and argues that these discursive attributions toward identity formation were, in fact, sartorial designations. The barriers marking out social need from social status, she claims, were reinforced by a subject’s appearance, specifically his clothing. One of the most compelling and fascinating of Rose’s investigations is her discussion of the actual use and symbolic potency of the white collar. She argues that the white collar was a means to bridge raggedness and respectability for working-class families who lacked money for other sartorial components, but, nevertheless, opted to include it in their boy’s attire to ensure and signify respectability. This becomes all the more palpable in Rose’s examination of numerous images from the Thomas Barnardo archives. In her approach to these images, which have variously figured in other scholars’ work, including John Tagg’s brilliant Foucauldian study of photographic representations of prisons and asylums, Rose dispels the long-held assumption that the children entering into Barnardo Homes were, as Barnardo himself claimed, “Taken out of the Gutter” (qtd. in Rose 53). Rather, through her discussion of the white collar, Rose corroborates Lydia Murdoch’s assertion that many of the children who entered his homes were from families that privileged the education he could provide them in addition to the physical care they could not. Respectability, then, in both education and clothing, was a badge of honor for the middle and elite classes, but also for the working and urban poor.
From here, Rose takes the reader on a journey of boys’ clothing from its design to its advertising, ending with a discussion of the cultures of consumption that doubles as an exploration of a boy’s life from his entry into education to his migration into the workforce. In a chapter entitled “Masculine Symbolism in Boys’ Clothes,” the author engages with some of the extensive and excellent scholarship on masculinity in the Victorian era; for example, she importantly introduces the role of imperialism and hero worship...