Street Vendors, 1688-1702

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History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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Changes of fashion must be recorded at the date when there is a visible alteration in shape seen in dated portraits or pictures. Until the age of cheap ready-to-wear in the late 19th century these changes were only to be seen on those who wished to be conspicuous and had the leisure and money to wear and pay for them. What the rest of the world looked like was quite another matter – probably five years or more behind the times. Even now, the crowds shopping in Oxford Street look somehow different from the dummies in the windows. Luckily for the historian there are pictorial records other than the portraits of the rich or pictures of fashionable occasions. While the French court continued to parade the increasingly over­ loaded high fashion at Versailles and the English court slowly sank into a heavy torpor under its overweight and disinterested sovereigns, the life of the people quickened perceptibly. To start with, there were many more of them, despite the plague, wasting-fever and drink. Paris and London had grown into large towns, especially the latter through its importance as the world’s busiest port and trading centre. The essential difference between the two capitals, which had such dire consequences for the French nobility ninety years later, was that where Paris produced for its ornamental upper class, isolated and spend-thrift at Versailles, London was the centre of a smart, intellectual and business life where all classes rubbed shoulders together and benefited from the exchange. The rich London merchants still lived near their warehouses or over their shops, but as the menace of coal smoke grew they built themselves smart villas in the hamlets of Clapham, Hampstead or Chelsea in the first steps towards the great suburbia of the 19th century. London was not only the greatest port in the world, where she greedily pulled in the commodities from. the east, west and Africa to be processed and sold all over the country; she had become a truly cosmopolitan centre of financial dealings necessary to the running of overseas commerce, in which she was most efficiently assisted by the Jewish settlement of businessmen who had been admitted into the country during the Commonwealth. Above all, the metropolis was a manufacturing centre. London, like a great fat spider, welcomed all and sundry and grew fatter on the efforts of the tip-top craftsmen from other countries who sought refuge from religious persecution and unemployment. The Huguenots’ Spitalfields silks and brocades, the leather workers and jewellers all added to the commodities that could be consumed internally or exported. With plenty of work for plenty of labour the Englishman would seem to have been sitting pretty when Queen Anne creakily ascended the throne. In fact a great many were, but with the growing population of town dwellers the big cities began to fester into slums which, like the poor, are with us still. The Great Fire had not, unfortunately, destroyed the worst over-crowded part of the City to the east which, consequently, had not been rebuilt. Even in the west, where smart new buildings were being erected for the well-to-do, pockets of the old, crowded, insanitary housing remained and into these cheap quarters swarmed the people of no property, the casual labour and the downright vicious. Left to themselves with neither medical aid, police nor religious uplift they gradually coagulated into the hearty, tough community that has borne the brunt of keeping the wheel of the great city turning to this day. These were not ghettos: the people sallied forth to load the ships, supply and serve the great markets and titillate the rich while emptying their pockets. They also became the suppliers of the everyday needs of the large middle class and their own community. The famous markets had their licensed pitches but did not necessarily operate every day. The shops were rather grand affairs catering mainly for the rich, with quite often the younger sons of country gentry as apprentice assistants hoping to make fortunes in their turn, the English having rarely been too snobbish to engage in retail commerce – as Napoleon so rudely pointed out a century later. The needs of the humbler household had to be supplied by the street vendor who fetched the fish from Billingsgate, the coal from Thames barges and the fruit and vegetables from the market gardens of Battersea, or would mend your chairs, pots and pans or sweep your chimney. The faint echo of their cries, from the last strawberry-man, is apt to produce a nostalgic pang in these days of self-service, no delivery and no repairs. That this was a large and picturesque community we see from the popular contemporary prints of the Cries of London, from which we also see that their appearance altered very slightly, as the same pictures were issued at regular intervals over a period of years. Not for them the eccentricities of the latest style; their costume had a very independent and individual flavour which, in the pictures at least, they wore with a certain panache. But it is curious to note that when at last the high fashion changed it resembled very closely the dress of the peasant or working woman of the late 17th century. Hats are a case in point: they could hardly have been worn over a high bonnet or ‘fontange’ but we see them on the song-sellers and lavender-girls of William III’s London. It is quite probable that, much as the Cockney woman in living memory wore her husband’s cloth cap, her ancestor flaunted the man’s wide-brimmed felt over a loose kerchief tied under her chin. A few years later the grand lady looked very much the same with a fine straw or silk-covered hat tied over her tiny bonnet. The London Criers wore laced bodices, with elbow sleeves showing the frilled chemise under the cuffs, and long straight aprons, much more in the manner of the 1730’s than the short square aprons of fashionable wear in 1700. Skirts were full and gathered at the waist, preparing the way for the panniers of the next fashion, and were sensibly short to show the type of shoe that had been worn for thirty years, with the high front, square toe and wide bow. The old dissenter streak in the people of London died hard, as we see from the kerchief round the neck of the biscuit-woman in the manner of a Puritan collar, and even her bodice sports the jerkin shoulder. The men who sold coal or fish, or mended pans, had an equally typical air. They, too, donned long coats, if they were lucky enough to get reach-me-downs from a colleague who also cried his wares, wearing as many as six hats, one on top of another, on his head. As often as not their top covering was the jerkin of the country man or soldier, but their breeches were close-fitting, and all wore the slouch hats with the pliable brims which, cocked this way or that, seem to typify Defoe’s London.

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm