“A Price for Fashion: A Young Working Class Woman’s Wardrobe in 1930’s London.”, Cheryl Roberts, compte-rendu journée d’étude du 15 juin 2012

A Price for Fashion: A Young Working Class Woman’s Wardrobe in 1930’s London.

by Cheryl Roberts, PhD research, University of Brighton

This interdisciplinary material culture analysis, ‘A Price for Fashion: A Young Working Class Woman’s Wardrobe in 1930s London’ will investigate the design, manufacture, retailing and consumption of fashion for a working class woman in the 1930s. This paper will explore a young working class woman’s fashion interests and purchasing power probing the influences of issues such as modernity, peer group cohesion, leisure and related dress, along with the reactions of their parents and peers. As Todd notes, ‘as rising numbers of young women worked in larger factories, shops and offices, so workplaces increasingly became a venue for friendship and for disseminating information on fashion and appearance.’ In the context of work, income, family and gender expectations, this study will thus explore the life, work and aspirations of a young working class woman in the 1930s through the contents of her wardrobe.

Key Themes: Three key themes will be acceptability, accessibility and affordability. Accessibility will discover the influences on a young working-class woman in her purchasing choices with reflection on magazines; cinema; mass manufacture and ready-to-wear; peers and parents. Affordability of fashion will research where the young working-class woman of London in the 1930s would have been purchasing her clothing by investigating high street retail; mail order catalogues; the tallyman; the pawn shop; markets; home-dressmaking and the power of window shopping. The final key theme, acceptability, unravels where a young working-class woman in London would have worn the clothing in her wardrobe, be it to work in the office, the factory or in the retail sector; for leisure activities, such as dance halls or sport; and to church.

Research Methodology: Written testimony at The Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, which records British social history in public surveys from the 1930s onwards, will be explored along with editorials and advertisements from period magazines such as Mabs, Home Chat, Picture Post and the Picturegoer. Documentary photography from pioneers Humphrey Spender and Edith Tudor Hart along with amateur photographs will be closely assessed. Film analysis will explore both the influence of the cinema visit and amateur film footage will be applied as a tool into researching material culture. Object-based study closely assess surviving dress in collections at Worthing Museum, Walsall Museum and the University of Brighton Teaching collection.

Critical Debate: In the interwar years a young woman’s role and status within the working class household underwent significant change. As Selina Todd writes, ‘The rise in the working-class standard of living from the mid-1930s is frequently viewed as diminishing the importance of young wage-earners into the family economy, but their earnings were in fact largely responsible for the increase in working-class leisure and luxury consumption.’ The impact of growing new media such as magazines and the influence of the cinema may have reflected in the aspirations of a young working-class woman, with the affects becoming apparent in her fashion choices. Paris fashions were still reported to be a consideration yet so were opinions closer to home. The growth of the synthetic textile industry and light-weight ready-to-wear women’s apparel retailers contributed to the accessibility and affordability of a young woman’s clothing, However, the Mass Observation archive reveals that for many young working-class women the contents of their wardrobe was symbolic of their social position; ‘I look in shop windows and discuss my choice with the family before making the purchase. These are two of many similar responses to the Clothing and Personal Appearance directive, that reveal for many young working-class women, their selection of garments was dictated by the fear of not being accepted amongst peers and relatives and to the detriment of her respectability.


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