The Artistic Depiction and Preservation of Victorian and Edwardian Working-Class Dress

Emily Gallagher is an MA Fashion Curation graduate from the University of the Arts London. Her thesis critically analysed Victorian and Edwardian working-class dress in England’s museums. As part of this research, she located and identified 700+ surviving dress objects. Emily is a prospective PhD candidate, commencing her research on feminine ‘sartorial-Victorianisms’ in museums in England since 1901, later this year. Her research interests include museology, the Victorians in the 20th and 21st centuries, Victorian art, photography, and dress. She is a member of BAVS and tweets at @emilymayga

The works of British artists of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries have been extensively utilised by dress historians as sources that reveal the form, use and sociocultural significance of dress, as both types of self adornment and inanimate material objects. Moreover, their pictures have offered insights into the modes of dress that are absent from our museum collections – as is often the case for working-class clothing. Yet, less attention has been given to the ways in which Victorian and Edwardian artists engaged with and comprehended the sartorial objects they painted and the dress collections they accumulated as part of their practice. This is particularly true for those who depicted the contemporary urban working-class. In response, this blog post will explore the artistic depiction and preservation of working-class dress from 1850 to 1910. In doing so, it shall speculate the origin and comprehension of the working-class dress that artists portrayed and/or collected. The artists chosen for discussion are Talbot Hughes, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Frederic Shields.

Artists and dress collections

Artists of the long-nineteenth century collected dress earlier than the museums who later acquired their vast collections (Clark, de la Haye and Horsley 2013, Petrov 2008, Taylor 2004). Rossetti, Hughes, William Holman Hunt, Kate Elizabeth Bunce, Eyre Crowe, and John Seymour Lucas were among those who collected garments to clothe their sitters. Reflecting the dominant aesthetic and artistic preoccupation, whereby mythical and historical narratives were favoured, their collections chiefly comprised armour, exotic, folk and antique garments. However, as this blog post will reveal, the pictures and collections of some Victorian and Edwardian artists featured contemporary working-class dress and in turn unknowingly preserved and recorded their clothing and contributed to the earliest acquisitions of working-class dress objects by museums in England.

Talbot Hughes’ clogs

The earliest acquisition of a working-class dress object by a museum in England was a pair of clogs, donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (V&A) in 1913 along with 150 objects that made up the dress collection of genre artist Talbot Hughes (1869–1942). My research has revealed that the clogs are one of 210 pairs located in England’s museums[1].

A pair of clogs in the Talbot Hughes dress collection, housed at V&A. Accessioned in 1913. Victoria and Albert Museum (T.538-1913). © Victoria and Albert Museum

Hughes collected costumes to clothe the subjects of his paintings of idealised images of femininity and historical scenes. Accordingly, his collection comprised antique garments, such as a floral brocade robe-à-la-francaise and embroidered Tudor caps. The inclusion of a pair of nineteenth-century worker’s clogs – a style of shoe exclusively worn by the industrial working-class – is therefore unusual.

Curator Julia Petrov (2008) suggests that the V&A may have acquired Hughes’ collection due to its ‘artistic provenance’, for the garments had likely featured in the artist’s paintings. However, as the shoes do not adhere to Hughes’ idealised narratives and thus do not appear in any of his paintings, Hughes’ collecting strategy and the purpose of his possession of a pair of clogs is perplexing.

There is, however, evidence that the clogs were acquired and acknowledged as material culture deserving of preservation. The V&A’s acquisition of Hughes’ collection was celebrated with a publication entitled Old English Costumes, featuring photographs of models wearing a selection of the garments. Regrettably, the clogs do not appear in the photographs. Nevertheless, author Philip Gibbs refers to a pair of clogs, writing; “[a] clog with a wooden sole, belonging to the early sixteenth century, shows that the fashion which still persists in the North of England, where the ‘clang o’ the wooden shoon’ is heard when the workers go to the mills, is of ancient date” (ibid, p.11). Although those Gibbs refers to are suggested to belong to an earlier period, the acknowledgement and description of a pair of clogs evidences an early awareness of occupational and regional styles, as well as the value of clothing as social records.

In contrast to the surviving dress collections of artists, there are ‘virtual’ collections of working-class dress objects which appear in Victorian pictures, though their physical existence and survival are unknown. Nevertheless, their portrayals reveal insights into the ways in which artists collected and comprehended contemporary working-class dress.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Found, Dress and Social Legibility

Like Hughes, artist and member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) collected dress[2]. Regular letters sent to his assistant Henry Treffry Dunn reference specific garments and thus offer insights into the contents of Rossetti’s dress collection. A man’s sage dress, a white medieval woman’s dress and a crimson silk dress are among the garments itemised in his correspondences.

Notably, in 1873, Rossetti wrote to Dunn regarding clothes for Found – an unfinished painting depicting a contemporary streetwalker hiding in shame from a surprise encounter with an ex-lover en-route to a London market to sell his calf[3]); “About clothes for Found […], could you look in second-hand shops? The woman should wear something with a pinkish tinge I suppose, to balance the sky – also a mantle of some sort – pretty showy, but seedyish” (Rossetti in Pedrick 1964, p.140).

     Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Found (1854-1881). Delaware Art Museum (1935-27).

    The social legibility of Victorian clothing was often employed by artists who painted modern life. Though it has been suggested that the things in Rossetti’s paintings were not intended to be narrative devices or act as symbols, but were intended to subvert and destabilise the complex social-legibility of contemporary dress (Codell 2017, 2018 and Logan 2018). However, the garments in Found are exceptional. Smocks and gaiters were exclusively worn by rural labourers and countrymen and were therefore conspicuous signs of one’s occupation and social class. Likewise, the woman wears a bonnet topped with trimmings, marking her as a streetwalker[4]. Thus, Rossetti was evidently fluent in the language of modern dress codes and exerted such narrative devices in Found.

As Rossetti preferred painting from life, the clothes in Found were likely in his possession[5]. Continually scouring second-hand shops or commissioning garments to be made, Rossetti’s concern with selecting adequate garments was obsessive, as can be seen in his correspondence with his circle. In 1881 – still searching for a shawl for Found Rossetti wrote to Matilda Shields: “There is not one of Liberty’s shawls that would suit. […] By far the best is your own” (Doughty and Wahl in Ormond 1974, p.26).

Matilda and Frederic Shields

The origin of some of Rossetti’s dress objects have been traced back to Matilda Shields – the wife of Frederic Shields (1833-1911), an artist and friend of Rossetti – who seemingly contributed to his work and thus arguably influenced and determined his depiction of dress. Unlike Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth who created garments for Rossetti, Shields collected and loaned dress objects. Shields’ collection evidently included contemporary working-class dress as we know she loaned the countryman’s smock seen in Found to Rossetti.

Matilda and Frederic Shields lived in Manchester where their exposure to and comprehension of working-class dress likely developed. The dress of Lancashire’s working-class set the region’s colossal workforce apart from those in England’s southern counties. Lancashire women did not wear hats or bonnets and instead draped shawls over their heads and shoulders when in public. Men, women and children all wore wooden-soled clogs. In Lancashire museums today, such dress objects survive as material culture of the region’s working-class past.

© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, L2018-45).

By the 1910s, 870,000 women were employed in England’s textile industry, the majority of whom likely owned and wore a shawl. However, according to my research, only seventy-four examples of shawls survive in England’s museums. One of which is currently on display in Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum, alongside a pair of worker’s clogs.

Left: Frederic Shields, Factory Girls at the Old Clothes Fair (1875). © Manchester Art Gallery (1917.257). Right: In Manchester Art Gallery’s collection, a day dress once worn by a housekeeper throughout the 1880s survives (© Manchester Art Gallery, 2002.44). The dress is uncannily like the one depicted in Shields’ picture and thus presents a curatorial opportunity whereby, in tandem, the dress and painting could exhibit alternative histories of working-class sartorial experiences and personal dress possessions, rather than homogeneous occupational identities.

Frederic Shields captured this recognisable attire in his picture Factory Girls at the Old Clothes Fair (1875). Although Jeremy Paxman has described the image as merely “a group of factory girls having a jolly time buying dresses” (2009, p.63), the painting is in fact remarkable for its portrayal of working-class sartorial aspirations. Here working women are divorced from their occupation. Instead, Shields depicted the ways in which working-class women and girls acquired personal dress possessions. Thus, Shields clearly observed and comprehended the sartorial experiences of the working women he saw daily.

Both Frederic and Matilda Shields were seemingly preoccupied by observing, recording and preserving the material experiences of their working-class neighbours. Though regrettably, little is known or documented about Matilda Shields’ personal life, collection and contribution to the artistic work of those in her circle. Nevertheless, from what is known, it seems that Matilda Shields had a pioneering interest in collecting the clothes worn by folk and labouring communities – marking her as one of the earliest collectors of contemporary working-class dress.


The case studies above offer insights into the ways in which Victorian and Edwardian artists comprehended, portrayed, acquired and collected contemporary working-class dress. While one evidences the earliest physical existence of a working-class dress object in the collection of a genre artist and museum, the others present ‘virtual’ collections of dress whose actuality are unknown but are present within artworks and textual sources. Regrettably, the survival of these ‘virtual’ collections are undiscovered and the influence of Matilda Shields’ collecting and contribution is uncharted. Nevertheless, taken together, the artists’ possession and/or portrayal of working-class dress suggest a concern and comprehension with the clothes and sartorial experiences of the ‘lower-orders’. As a result, they unknowingly preserved and recorded the dress of an under-documented social stratum of the past, providing records of modes of everyday Victorian dress (such as the personal dress possessions of working women and garments worn by streetwalkers) that survive in museum collections far less than any other.


Bury, S. (1976) ‘Rossetti and His Jewellery’, in The Burlington Magazine, 118:875, p. 94-102.

Clark, J., de la Haye, A. and Horsley, J. (2013) Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Codell, J. (2017) ‘Dress and Desire: Rossetti’s Erotics of the Unclassifiable and Working-Class Models’, in J. d. Young (ed.) Fashion in European art : dress and identity, politics and the body, 1775-1925, p.91-119. London: I. B. Tauris.

Codell, J. (2018) ‘Displaying Aestheticism’s Bric-a-Brac: Rossetti’s Material and Virtual Goods’, in L. Glazer and L. Merrill (eds.) Places of Art: Whistler and the Art Worlds of Aestheticism, p.121-134. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute.

Harrods (1914) Old English Costumes: A Sequence of Fashions through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. London: Harrods.

Logan, T. (2018) ‘Rossetti’s Things: The Artist and his Accessories’, in H. Kingston and K. Lister (eds.) Paraphernalia! Victorian Objects, p.58-77. New York: Routledge.

Ormond, L. (1974) ‘Dress in the Painting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, in Costume, 8:1, p.26-29.

Paxman, J. (2009) The Victorians: Britain Through the Paintings of the Age. London: BBC Books.

Pedrick, G. (1970) No Peacocks Allowed; Dante Gabriel Rossetti and His Circle. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Petrov, J. (2008) ‘The Habit of Their Age: English Genre Painters, Dress Collecting, and Museums 1910-1914’, in The Journal of the History of Collections, 20:2, p.237-251.

Taylor, L. (2004) Establishing Dress History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[1] Clogs constitute the largest percentage (29.5%) of the dress objects located.

[2] Rossetti’s collecting practice and collection of sartorial ‘things’ have been studied in detail by Leonee Ormond (1974), Shirley Bury

(1976), Julie Codell (2017 and 2018) and Thad Logan (2018) – the latter created an inventory of jewellery and accessories in Rossetti’s paintings and drawings. Additionally, much has been written about jewellery objects once belonging to Rossetti that survive in our museums, some of which were bequeathed to the V&A by May Morris in 1939.

[3] Such scenes and characters were common in graphic art of the period, however – although moral undertones were frequent in the work of the PRB – Found sits apart from Rossetti’s other paintings in that it portrays a contemporary scene. Rossettis’ working-class mistress and muse, Fanny Cornforth modelled for the painting.

[4] Additionally, she wears a printed dress and shawl – the former was a repeated trope in illustrations of streetwalkers. I would like to thank Hollie Geary-Jones for her insights on the dress of Victorian sex workers. (I have included streetwalkers here, as many were of working-class origin).

[5] However, Rossetti commonly edited the material he depicted in favour of idealised representations. Therefore, the dress objects in his possession may not have been exactly as they are depicted.