Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How Many Clothes Did an 18th C. Woman Own?

Isabella reporting,

There are many misconceptions flying around the internet about how many clothes an 18th c. woman owned. Between the two (false) extremes of "average women only had two outfits because they had to process and spin the fiber, weave the fabric, and make everything by hand" and "aristocratic women only wore a dress once" is the much more reasonable truth: women of every rank had their clothes made by professional seamstresses, and remodeled and refurbished older garments to keep up with the fashions. Much like today, the size of the wardrobe depended on the size of the budget.

And then, of course, there are the women of every age who just plain love clothes. Into this category I'd have to place Mrs. Ann Bamford.

This fascinating document, above, was recently posted on Twitter by the Lewis Walpole Library of Yale University. It's an "Inventory of wearing Apparel and other things the late property of the deceased Mrs. Ann Bamford," carefully itemized by a now-unknown clerk with very neat penmanship. Inventories such as this were made as part of settling the deceased person's estate.

This is only the first page of three, which I'm assuming means only one-third of her belongings are shown on this page. Even with just this first page to consider (and how I'd like to see the rest!), and that it likely represents a lifetime of clothes, it's clear that Mrs. Bamford must have been a stylish lady who enjoyed looking her best.

The variety of the items here is fascinating. Women's clothing at this time was complicated and full of detail, as the fashion plate form 1781, lower right, shows. To cut a fashionable figure, Mrs. Bamford owned at least a dozen gowns listed (a "night gown" is a style of dress at this time, not a garment meant for bed), ranging from brocaded silk to sprigged muslin. There's a "Goldlaced Jacket and Petticoat [of] Silk Grosgrain" which sounds very elegant,  and an equally stylish "Goldlaced blue Sattin Cloak." In fact there are quite a few cloaks listed, including five white silk cloaks, a "Green Sattin Cloak",  a "Black Sattin Cloak", and a "Gauze Cloak."

There are what we'd call accessories, "5 Handkerchiefs of different sorts for Wearing," "a Printed Muslin Shawle," and "A Black Velvet Bonnot," plus more personal garments, including "Three Pair of Stays" (corsets) and "A Pair of Pocket hoops." I'm also intrigued by "A Parcel of black Netting in a paper," which I'm guessing was how the netting was being kept from snagging.

There are also items that reflect how all 18th c. clothes were made to order: "One Brocaded Silk Night Gown, unmadeup" and "A Piece of Printed Muslin for a Gown," both that never were completed. I especially like that term "unmadeup" (having far too many handwork projects of my own in that same category), and I also like how the clerk was obviously corrected by whomever was doing the evaluating and dictating. You can almost hear that person crossly saying "no, no, not a NIGHT gown! Cross that out directly!" The clerk did have his problems with spelling some of the lady's wear, with "stomacher" phonetically spelled as "stummager."

I can't help but wonder what became of Mrs. Bamford's clothes after this inventory was done. Were they given to a sister, a daughter, or other relative? Was her lady's maid permitted to choose a few pieces as a memento of her mistress? Were they packed away and given to the poor, or sold into the thriving second-hand clothing market? I wonder....

To read the inventory more easily for yourself, click here to go to the Walpole's blog, and click again on the image to enlarge it.

Above left: Inventory of wearing Apparel and other things the late property of the deceased Mrs. Ann Bamford, manuscript, c. 1780? Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
Lower right: Robe blanche de Mousseline unie, fashion plate, c. 1781. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


  1. What a great find, Isabella! I wonder if the netting in the paper was because it was still wrapped as it came from the milliner or lace merchant? There are also pieces of silk in a paper--as if she'd brought home samples. I'd love to see the other pages--there's no mention of jewellery, which a lady so much interested in fashion surely must have had in quantity. I don't know if that qualitifed as "wearing apparel," in England, but you find the same omission in probate inventories in colonial Virginia. And what is a catgut shade - worked? A kind of parasol?

  2. Scrapiana - Don't know about you, but I have LOTS of projects that are in the "unmadeup" stage. It's such a perfect description....

    Chris - I know, I REALLy would like to see those other pages, too. As for the catgut shade - perhaps your expert daughter would know? :)

  3. Oh where, oh where are the shoes?

  4. Okay, a night gown wasn't something to wear to bed. Was it an evening gown? She seems to have had a lot of them as opposed to day gowns. Or are the day gowns all on the next pages?

  5. I'm not sure anyone's determined what separates a gown from a night gown (there are quite a few different definitions floating around), but it might be degree of fanciness. I'm going to look into this!

  6. Clothing wasn't always purchased for the sake of wear. Without reliable cash banking, linens and other durable dry textiles were ways to convert your assets to something tangible and inheritable. I'm guessing that's the importance of things which are "unmadeup' - that there' enough silk to make the dress, but it has value because anybody who bought it could make it up as they wanted.

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  12. This is an excellent article and a fascinating read! I especially like the comment from “anonymous” about a woman’s clothing being a tangible way to convert assets. I suspect as a woman of that era not being able to hold a bank account, holding or passing down assets in the form of apparel or other household goods such as silver, fine china, linen, etc. could keep one’s fortune well intact or make it more accessible for a granddaughter or niece who’s cash or property assets would be tied up in trust... This way one could still sell, trade, or at the very least keep up appearances in proper society. On a final note, designer dresses even these days can go for thousands and fine French lace is still extremely expensive and valuable.

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