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What to wear at work

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September 2009

When you dress for work tomorrow in your hard-wearing, easy-care fabrics, give a thought to those whose working lives took place in the 1800s. Their daily grind was not so accommodated by practical fashions and Geraldine Marchant came to the Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society one evening in September to illustrate for us examples of occupational fashion in various settings.

English working fashion was characterised by its practicality. Whilst our continental neighbours remained preoccupied with retaining a fine silhouette, English men had long preferred figure-hugging trousers prevented from riding up by loops under the feet, and short jackets facilitating ease of movement. For those gentlemen, and ladies, whose daily lives required the riding of a horse, for protection from the risk of a broken neck in a fall, many adopted high-collared garments which for some became a feature of fashionable dress of the time.

Equally of fashionable note, was the penchant for silver buttons on the livery of male members of household staff. Even to the modern observer these would have looked particularly striking and given status to the head of the household. Far from being short in height by today’s standards, many of those working in this kind of service would have grown up ‘below stairs’ and so would, as children, have received three meals a day by the grace of their parents’ employer. These splendidly liveried individuals must have cut a dash as they went about their master’s business although the preference for silver buttons was short-lived when it was found that some staff would cut off some of the less prominent buttons and sell them to supplement their incomes. Their employers’ solution was in time to see silver buttons replaced by much less valuable pewter ones!

Whilst some enjoyed brightly coloured work-wear to attract the attention of and impress others, those working in more rural environments adopted roomy white or cream smocks. A smock was essentially an over-garment with sufficient room beneath to allow many layers of warm clothing to be worn to ward off the cold of working outside. Underneath, a man would wear his stockings or trousers if he needed to protect his legs from a particular hazard. Smocks had a tradition of being made for a man by his wife or someone who loved him with the intricacies of the smocking being a visible sign of the woman’s devotion to the wearer. In fact, there was a tradition of a woman declaring her love for a man through forcing over his head a smock that she had made essentially ‘bagging him’ for herself!

Colour also played an essential role in the dress of some professions. Butchers traditionally wore shirts of blue vertical stripes which easily hid the dried marks of the carcasses they were handling if they came into contact. Fishmongers wore similar red striped shirts. Household staff, cooks and bakers commonly wore white aprons, whilst the aprons of blacksmiths, for example, would be made of leather in order to offer protection from the heat of the tools plied in their trade.

And on their heads... those whose employment occupied them inside usually wore caps, but outdoor workers needed something more robust and so often wore bowler, top or boater hats. There were, of course, some professions that were characterised by their headwear and one of these was the brewery trade whose members were easily identifiable by their red caps.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society is very grateful to Ms Marchant for an evening that was both enjoyable and enlightening.


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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