Boys' clothes and the formation of gender and class identity in England 1837-1901
Dr A Davin (external supervisor)
To examine the ways that boys’ clothes expressed their position on the scale of age, class and gender identities. To analyse the different expressions of masculinity allowed to working-class and middle-class boys, and to see how these changed over 60 years. To analyse the relationship between changes in ideas about childhood and masculinity and changes in boys’ appearance. To analyse critically the different types of visual and physical evidence (actual garments; photographs; drawings; texts) in order to determine the limitations and biases of each.
AHRB funding for tuition; Pasold Research Fund grant for travel to research archives in the North of England.
My doctoral thesis draws on a wide variety of materials and sources, each of which requires its own methodology and analytical tools. It is grounded in material culture approaches to Dress History, as expressed in Lou Taylor’s books. It is also underpinned by Social History approaches to the study of childhood, as defined by Anna Davin and Hugh Cunningham.
I started by surveying the key issues defining boyhood in the late 19th century, from the legal framework regulating school attendance and employment to theories of child development. Differentiation between social groups (middle class and working class, respectable or 'ragged’) seemed to be built into 19th century theories. I then went on to look at modern commentaries on 19th century masculinity, from Tosh, Dawson, Nelson and others. These had largely been based on a narrow range of texts and I needed to test the validity of their conclusions against material culture sources.
In order to determine the 'meaning’ of any set of clothes it was necessary to identify the range of possible outfits available to the wearer (following Bourdieu’s theory of Distinction).
I approached this first from the standpoint of production, and examined thousands of documents from clothing retailers and manufacturers, including the Board of Trade and Stationers’ Hall archives at the Public Record Office. I tabulated the data on boys clothes and formulated a series of databases which show which manufacturers and retailers were involved in providing boys’ clothing, at what dates, and to what extent. I also analysed several hundred images of garments by type in order to show when and how different types of garment were introduced, and at what price ranges. The large mass of this data demonstrates unquestionably that boys’ clothing was extremely important in the formation of the ready-to-wear clothing industry from the 1850s onwards. Moreover, boys’ clothing was being produced and marketed on the basis of fashionable design, not of cost.
I then went on to examine the choices surrounding the consumption of boys’ clothing. I approached this from family and school photographs (including the collection of the Documentary Photography Archive, Manchester). I also catalogued over 100 examples of garments worn by boys surviving in museums throughout England. Both of these types of sources proved to be heavily weighted towards upper-middle class experience, and to be lacking in reliable dating. I then went on to research the clothing practice of poor families, looking at autobiographies, documentary photographs, and charity records. In the archives of Barnardo’s Homes I found over 20,000 portraits of boys taken on entry. These give the boys’ ages and the date of entry, and show boys in their normal clothing (not dressed up, as is sometimes assumed). 800 portraits have been selected from this archive and are being analysed to show what types of clothing were worn by the boys, who include some pairs of brothers. This data will then be compared with the data from family photographs to show whether there was a consensus across different social levels on the proper way to dress a boy.
My conclusions were based on comparisons between the different types of sources, using the analytic databases and graphs which I have developed. These allowed me to identify and neutralise the biases inherent in each source. I was able to look through advice on suitable clothing, or predictions of coming fashions, and see the clothing actually worn. By setting out the range of styles and prices available to each family I was better able to judge their intentions in dressing their boys. I was also be able to clarify the ways in which age-specific ideologies of masculinity were formulated and expressed on boys' bodies.