Ethics and Identity

Dressing for the Simple Life in the Late Nineteenth Century

Charlotte Alston (Northumbria University)


This paper explores the kinds of clothes made, worn and advocated by members of the simple life movement, and other sympathetic social and personal reformers in the late nineteenth century. The quest for honesty and simplicity in personal and commercial life manifested itself in many different spheres of life – from diet to marriage and the use of money. Dress was not always at the top of this list of concerns, but it was the most visible way in which reformers could demonstrate their opposition to conventional society. An interest in ethical dress united reformers of many different stripes, and their objectives and practices were not always compatible. This paper investigates some of the competing rationales for simplified dress. It looked at attitudes to the manufacture and wearing of clothes, to clothes ownership and to recycling. It also explores the ways in which individuals embraced ‘crankiness’ and anti-uniformity, and alternately the ways in which some sought to put their beliefs into practice sartorially without attracting too much attention to themselves.


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