Dressing and Redressing the Patient

Mental Health Patients and Clothing, c. 1850s-1950s

Joseph Melling (University of Exeter)


The clothing of mental patients has received little attention from social and cultural historians though the evidence from mental institutions suggests the importance of dress to an understanding of the way that asylums and mental hospitals functioned and sustained their regime of care. This paper is based on research undertaken with Nicole Baur into South-Western mental patients and traces the role of clothing in public and fee-paying institutions. We suggest that the changing policies and practices of these establishments in regard to dress tell us a significant amount about the nature of care and the changes which took place in the long period of time we survey. The analysis offers a transaction model of care in which clothing figured as part of the human fabric of the institution and of exchanges and negotiations between those who peopled and staff these places.