Clothes Make the (Wo)Man: Interpreting Evidence of the Secondhand Clothing Trade in Late Medieval England

Clothes Make the (Wo)Man: Interpreting Evidence of the Secondhand Clothing Trade in Late Medieval England

By Erin Kwan

SUURJ: Seattle University Undergraduate Research Journal, Vol. 1 (2017)

Man holding clothes, near two women. – from British Library MS Royal 10 E IV f. 162v

Abstract: Although fashion history and medieval studies have gained popularity among scholars in the past few decades, research on medieval fashion history has not attracted much attention, likely due to the lack of evidence available to modern scholars. There is very little work done on the topic of secondhand clothing in the Middle Ages, but what has been done has revealed a new phenomenon that reshaped the social structure of medieval England.

The topic of secondhand clothing in medieval England examines the development of a “middle class” born out of a unique economic event occurring after the Black Plague and tracks the social movement through the creation of a market for secondhand clothing. A close reading and analysis of only three documents revealed hints of a secondhand clothing trade that was selling clothing of good quality and attracting the attention and coin of those in a lower social strata.

Through the evidence gleaned from these meager sources, it is clear to see the rise of a new social sector in medieval English society that would not have been able to exist without the circumstances surrounding the Black Plague—all through the topic of secondhand clothing.

Introduction: Affectionately known as “thrifting,” the secondhand clothing trade has become a wildly popular mode of fashion in our modern day and age. However, the concept of thrifting has its roots in the fashion economy as early as the twelfth century in England. In its nacent stage, the secondhand clothing trade resembled the practice of hand-me-downs more closely than thrifting. The gifting and refashioning of old clothes is part of the circulating gift exchange that dates back well before the fourteenth century in the form of handing down clothing in wills and testaments. The secondhand clothing trade expanded beyond passing down clothing; instead of circulating clothing among personal relations, people began circulating clothing into a public market of buyers who had the demand and desire for fashionable clothes on the cheap. As the epigraph by Fontaine hints, the donning of secondhand clothing is a complex topic, one that conjoins economic and social history to fashion history.

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