When walking through museums and galleries, I often hear people commenting on how “tiny” people “back then” really were. Often times this observation is based on just a few examples available on display. While the individual whose clothes are displayed was perhaps “tiny” it also means that she, or he, was wealthy or at least from a well-to-do family.
How do we know this?
It’s pretty simple. Their clothes are in good enough condition to be displayed in a museum. This means that the garment was either valuable or had enough sentimental value to be kept intact by family members. This may seem logical to you—you might hold on to some sentimental items such as wedding dresses or the clothing your children came home from the hospital in—but keep in mind that until recently, almost all clothing was not only mended, but worn out, and then handed down or sold to someone less well-off.
Clothing and fabric were not only expensive but scarce. Fine gowns were re-trimmed, altered, passed down to a family member or friend, mended and re-trimmed, then finally sold to someone even poorer who did the same thing, finally passing or selling it to someone who would have worn it to shreds. Perhaps it was made into linens or bed coverings. At its very final stages it would have been sold to the rag seller who would hawk his or her wares as cleaning or filling material. Scraps were stuffed into walls as insulation, mattresses as bedding, or patched together into some semblance of a bed covering or partition. There are even instances of garments being stuffed into the walls of ships during viking times. EVERY last piece was reused until there was nothing left. This is precisely why, unless someone was well off, we don’t see examples of their clothing—they simply were too useful to be kept intact.
There is also that popular misconception that people were much tinier in the past than they really were. While we have to account for smaller stature, people were not necessarily tinier as a whole. We don’t often see examples of larger size garments because fabric was valuable. A larger size skirt or dress could be re-sold or cut down into more garments once the wearer was done with it. Since almost all skirts until the late 1900’s were created from rectangular panels and gathered or pleated to create waist shape, this meant that once the seams were taken apart, you might have 10-12 yards of useable and beautiful fabric to remake two or more “new” garments with. These larger sized garments were repurposed and remade again and again until they, too, ended up in the rag sellers bin.
This dedication to reuse and repurposing lasted until about the 1980’s, from what I can tell, when fewer and fewer people were making their own clothes, catalogs became more popular, and clothing became “disposable”—putting “fast fashion” at center stage.
I’d love to see us focus again on reusing garments whenever and wherever we can. Not necessarily for necessity’s sake, but as a commitment to quality and consideration for the planet and it’s people.