Foreign visitors to England would often remark how well dressed the English* women were, one traveller has been quoted to say that English women would wear velvet on her back when she had not a crust of bread in her house. It shows that England did not have the ragged poor of Europe. Britain had not had a peasant class since mediaeval times and this was reflected in the appearance of its people.
*There may have been minor regional differences, for the purposes of re-enactment a broad-based English style is appropriate.
It was easy to tell the status of a person by the clothes they wore. The richer you were; the better fitted, brighter coloured and more decorative were the clothes you and your family wore. This extended to any servants you had. Clothes were part of servants pay, a well favoured servant could also expect to receive presents of cast off clothes from master or mistress, to be worn or sold on. The second hand market for clothing dressed the poorer in society and helped to finance the fashions of the aspiring rich.
Clothes were looked after, they were kept as clean as possible and were maintained in a good state of repair. The proverb ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ came from the days when if a repair was not rapidly done, further damage would be caused. Clothes were patched and darned until repair was no longer possible, when the item might be taken apart to be made into something else, for example, used to line quilts.
When researching early costume, the clothing of the poor is more difficult to trace. There are no surviving garments and few artists bothered to record what the poor wore – they could not afford to pay for portraits. However there are various ways to find out what was worn by the ‘common folk’.
The word contemporary is very important here, anything written or recorded by artists at the time is far more relevant to anything written or recorded after that period. Therefore to find out who in history to trust you have to do research, discover contemporary artists and writers. The Civil War period has been of interest over the centuries, which is why, for example, the Victorians painted many Civil War scenes, however these are not contemporary and should not be trusted for any costume information.
Although British artists based in Britain, provide excellent reference material, there were not many of them. European artists can be used for research. However social conditions were different and this is reflected in the national costume. Countries close to Britain would have shared similar fashions. French fashions influenced the British Court. The English middle classes had strong trading links with Holland. The Dutch were mainly Protestant with a powerful merchant class, their clothes appear to be similar to that worn by British people of similar status. The wealthy spent some of that wealth on ornamenting their houses with portraits of themselves, their families and more importantly, for this article, their servants. The servants were probably in their best clothes, as were the bourgeoisie but the differences in the clothes gives an indication of how they were worn. Which is why Dutch Old Masters can be used as reference material.
When looking at any European artist you must ask yourself whether the paintings would have any relevance to British costume. Another important factor to consider is that the artist could lie, either to flatter or to make the picture look more aesthetically pleasing. The lines of stitching might not be painted in, colours may be brighter, the oils used in the painting may have deteriorated to produce colours not intended.