Published by EH.NET (June 2009)
Laura Ugolini, Men and Menswear: Sartorial Consumption in Britain, 1880-1939. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007. xiii + 292 pp. $125 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-0384-0.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Clare Rose, Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University.
Laura Ugolini?s book is an important addition to the literature on the sale of men?s clothing, building on Christopher Breward?s Hidden Consumer, and Brent Shannon?s The Cut of His Coat. It reflects the author?s position as a Director of the Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution at the University of Wolverhampton, but goes further to examine the attitudes and behavior of consumers as well as retailers. Autobiographies and excerpts from the popular press are counterpointed with texts from within the clothing trade to give a three-dimensional view of menswear consumption as an indicator of both personal and national wellbeing. So the products of cheap multiple tailors are examined as a result of shifts in consumer incomes, as a threat to the bespoke trade, and as an expression of the wearer?s social status, with fine distinctions between rival chains as well as between ready-to-wear and bespoke.
The book is structured in three sections, each of which spans the period 1880-1939. The first, ?Consuming Menswear,? deals with the symbolic meanings of clothes, using autobiographies extensively to examine ?Identities? and ?Non-conformity? across the period, and shifts in the meanings of consumption during and after World War I. The second section, ?Selling Menswear,? is chronologically structured, with chapters on the periods up to 1914, 1914-20, and 1920-39. The third section, ?Buying Menswear,? is thematic, with chapters on ?Shopping Decisions? and ?Making a Purchase.? This organization leads to some overlap, and tends to blur the major shifts in the tailoring trade over this period. However, it does allow for a more discursive examination of issues such as the symbolic importance of consumption to those whose lack of income limited their opportunities to practice it.
The strength of Ugolini?s research is demonstrated in the chapters in sections I and II dealing with World War I and its immediate aftermath. The dislocations of war were reflected in a shift in production, with clothing factories turned over to uniform production, resulting in a 300 percent rise in the price of ready-to-wear suits. Even with the higher wages available from war work, such increases tended to depress consumption, negating accounts in the popular press of the spendthrift munitions worker. At the upper end of the market, bespoke tailors suffered disproportionately from the high casualty rate among their army officer clients, many of whom died leaving unpaid bills. In Chapter 3 Ugolini identifies an ethos of wartime restraint in clothing consumption even for those who could afford it: ?those accustomed to dress well must manage to look shabby. Nice clothes must be sold and got rid of to help win the war.? The price rises, social dislocations, and changes in attitudes to fashionable dress led to attempts to stimulate consumption through posters saying, ?You can save your country by shopping as usual, and so prevent unemployment.? There was also some opportunistic rebranding of goods with war-themed names such as Zeppelin, Dreadnought and Torpedo. These points are demonstrated through a selection of cartoons from the popular press, which Ugolini uses as sources of information, rather than merely illustrations.
The importance of presentation for retailers as well as consumers is one of the major themes of the book, and Ugolini details the rise in consumer expectations of display, accommodation and service from 1920 onwards. She shows that these changes were initiated by multiple tailors selling ready-to-wear or wholesale bespoke suits. While Burton?s were the most successful and long lasting of these chains they had many predecessors and competitors, such as Hepworth?s, Price?s, Southcott?s, Blackburn?s and Hope?s. By the mid 1920s, journals of the bespoke trade such as The Tailor and Cutter had to acknowledge the advantages of multiples in terms of production, marketing and display.
The evidence for the early domination of mass-production presented in Chapter 7 raises the possibility that some of the ?tailors? mentioned in autobiographies elsewhere in the work were in fact multiples, or independent retailers selling mass-produced goods as their own. Chapter 5 examines attitudes to tailors, and the response of the trade to allegations of sweating and profiteering, and to the prevailing anti-Semitism. However, changes in the realities of production and marketing do not seem to have been reflected in terminology, with multiples calling themselves tailors and imitating the ?atmosphere,? ?tradition? and ?service? of the bespoke, even if the door marked ?cutting room? led only to the staff cloakroom. This slipperiness of terminology means that caution needs to be applied in interpreting texts. The other slippery area in the sources cited is the dating of some incidents described in autobiographies. It would have been helpful to have dates of birth for authors in order to clarify changes in consumption patterns over time, as well as over the social and geographical locations represented here.
Overall, this book represents an important contribution to our understanding of retailing and of consumption practices, drawing on a wealth of material not available elsewhere. It locates the genesis of ?modern? retailing in the 1880s, and details its flowering in the 1920s. It also demonstrates the importance of consumption in forming the self-consciously ?modern? individual, especially for those whose social horizons were limited: ?I wanted good clothes, money to spend, to see fresh places and faces.?
1. Christopher Breward, The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion and City Life, 1860-1914 (Manchester, 1999); Brent Shannon, The Cut of His Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860-1914 (Athens, Ohio, 2006).
2. See also, Laura Ugolini, ?Men, Masculinities and Menswear Advertising, c. 1890-1914,? in John Benson and Laura Ugolini, editors, A Nation of Shopkeepers: Five Centuries of British Retailing (London, 2003) and ?Clothes and the Modern Man in 1930s Oxford,? Fashion Theory 4(4): 427-46.
3. On this, see Sheila Blackburn, A Fair Day?s Wage for a Fair Day?s Work? Sweated Labour and the Origins of Minimum Wage Legislation in Britain (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007).
Clare Rose is a historian specializing in the production and consumption of mass-produced clothing. Her monograph Buying, Selling and Wearing Boys? Clothing in Late-Victorian England will be published by Ashgate in late 2009, and she is currently Chief Editor of a set of volumes of historic documents on Clothing, Society and Culture in Britain 1830-1914 for Pickering and Chatto.
|Subject(s):||Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: Pre WWII|