When using the material object as a historical source, one of the more difficult boundaries to negotiate is the acceptable line between deduction and speculation; how far from the material evidence can our interpretations wander before they become invalid?
This question commonly arises when contemplating damage and repairs to garments, when we often have few clues as to when or how the garment was damaged, or who completed the repairs. However, I often find that contemplating a range of possible alternatives can help broaden my understanding of the material object and its social and cultural role. In order to demonstrate this, let us return to the Museum of London’s item 64.128, the checked wool dress, which has two patched repairs, one at the waistband and one at the hem.
The woolen checked tweed is a heavy fabric, especially given the relative fullness of the skirt, and as such it is unsurprising to find evidence of the weave pulled and stretched thin at the waistband, close to the area that has been patched. It is likely to have been this structural weakness that caused the fabric to tear here, although the specific location, at the front left hand side towards the seam, implies that the immediate cause may well have been a vigorous stretching movement. This is not to undermine the quality of the garment, as can be seen from the durability of its stitching and quality components, including the heavy brass zip, but is a clear indication of the heavy wear this dress has seen.
To mend this wear and tear, a patch has been sewn into the underside of the garment by machine. Curiously for a high quality item, very little care has been taken to minimize the appearance of the patch, as can be seen from the long rows of brown stitching that extend above the damaged area on the outside of the garment. These are irregular and densely packed, implying that it was the strength of the mend rather than its appearance afterwards that was of prime concern to the mender. The quality of this patch might be seen as an indication of a lack of skill by the mender. However, while we do not know the level of sewing skills possessed by whoever enacted this repair, it is not entirely unreasonable to assume that they would have been reasonably proficient; they clearly had access to a sewing machine, and it is unlikely that they would have remained untouched by the previous eight years, during which time the sewing skills of the middle classes* had been improved through the efforts of the ‘Make do and Mend’ campaign, government sewing classes, the prioritization of sewing under the 1944 education act, and the necessity to sew, and especially repair, created by wartime shortages.
The lack of care taken in this mend may mean that the repair would not have been visible when worn under the accessorizing belt, although, due to the extent of the repaired area, this seems unlikely. As such, perhaps the more likely explanation lies in the evidence that this repair covered damage caused by heavy wear over time, and as such was inflicted upon a garment that had long since ceased to be seen as ‘best’. This scenario represents the life cycle of a garment during this period, when, for the vast majority of Londoners, even the most fashionable item was purchased to be worn frequently over a long period of time, representing a period when women’s wardrobes were considerably smaller than they are today, and the purchase of a garment was a serious investment.
The damage to the hem reflects the heavy wear seen on the rest of the garment, probably having been torn after getting caught on a static object while the wearer was moving with some speed. This also confirms the activity the dress was subjected to, and the mobile nature of the wearer. The hem is mended with a similarly crude patch; leaving loose threads uncut and the thinness of the worn wool weave exposed in the remaining white warp threads. This would seem to confirm that the mender took little joy in the process of sewing. Many observers of the late 1940s noted that one of the consequences of the preceding years of shortages plugged with ‘Make do and Mend’ was that sewing became more commonly associated with mending and adaptation than creative dressmaking, and as such was more likely to be associated with boredom and drudgery than the fantasy of sartorial transformation.
While some may say that speculating so far from descriptions of the garment cannot be useful, I would argue that, providing we acknowledge that these are just one set of possibilities, such contextualizing helps us understand the broader life of the garment, relating it to its environment. Above all, it helps to remind us that what we actually see in front of us is a dress that does not only represent fashion as conceived, pictured and sold, or as merely a product of government policy, but fashion as worn, displaying the battle scars of a London life in all their messy plurality.
* There is evidence to suggest that working class sewers largely found the ‘Make Do And Mend’ campaign at best ineffectual, as they already possessed these skills, and at worst highly patronizing.