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How do you like my dress?

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Question for the Hive Mind
kateelliott
Imagine you are a traveler arriving in a small market town--this doesn't have to be specifically Europe; any town that fits the parameters will do--in a time period roughly ranging between the late medieval period and early modern. Basically, when there is a fair bit of movement on roads, enough that travelers are a known commodity.

This is a world where the widespread machine manufacture of cloth is still uncommon. Obviously, the notion of ready-to-wear is not on the table.

Where would a traveler be able obtain clothing, a full rig, if you will and nothing wildly expensive or fashionable but rather serviceable, especially if said traveler does not have days to wait around for something to be made to order (although said traveler might be able to wait a day if something could be sewn up quickly enough).

I could research this, but I'm feeling lazy.

Thanks in advance.

Do what was still being done in some parts of the world up through the late 20th century -- you buy it off someone. IOW, find someone with roughly your size and build, and offer them cash.

Alternately, if disease isn't (quite as much of) an issue, there's poorhouses, where clothes are donated. Low enough class, and you might qualify for getting handouts (or clothes-outs?) there, as well.

Lastly, the simpler the garment, the more likely it could be sewn in a day, even by hand. Especially since most tailors and weavers had at least one employee and/or apprentice, if not several. The bigger the tailor's shop, the more likely it could be ready by the next day.

There's also the well-attested trade in second-hand clothes, from late-medieval period onwards.

As per the 'shonky' shops mentioned by Sir Terry in the Discworld books. Nb 'shonky' is strictly a Discworld term in this context.

Was about to say the same thing. Clothes were items of value with a high second hand value.

I;m not sure that "shonky" is a Discworld term. I have a vague idea that something similar crops up in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. I suspect that different locales had different terms.

Shonky is certainly current in Australian slang, meaning 'dubious' or poor -quality.

Yes, second hand. There would probably be dealers in second-hand clothing working in markets. Or you'd have garments you already possessed altered - dying takes time, but they can be turned, sleeves re-set, length reduced, cut changed, trim radically changed and so on.
Plus basic tailoring -- new shirt, say -- did not have to take days. A new one could be ordered at dawn and delivered at dusk.

there may not be ready-to-wear but ready-made was still an option -- there would be a basic form that could quickly be sized as needed... it wasn't fashionable or fitted, but it would do well enough, especially a shirt or skirt of plain, durable material.


In Colonial Williamsburg (pegged to early-to-mid 18th century), the stores stock *some* ready-made clothes, but they're loose-fitting shirts (like workshirts), skirts, and drawstring trousers.

The docks. Sailors and spare sail cloth. It might cost a pint or two.

A quick search shows that 'tailor' is probably the correct word for the era you describe. Maybe this will help:

http://www.lnstar.com/mall/literature/tailor4.htm

In most towns a tailor should have been able to produce serviceable clothes to order in a day or so (in places like Hong Kong and Beijing they still can) *. There would also have been a market for simple ready-made clothes - certainly these were produced for sailors (the "slops" supplied by the purser on board ships in the 18th C, mainly loose-fitting shirts and trousers, for those who lacked the skill or inclination to make their own). Most towns would have had second-hand clothes dealers; one of the perks for domestic servants was the rights to their master's/mistress's cast-off clothing, which was likely to find its way to the dealer for hard cash. Your traveller might well have been able to find reasonable quality clothes from such a source.

* In 1811, Sir John Throckmorton of Newbury, Berkshire, placed a thousand guinea bet that he would sit down to dinner in the evening wearing a coat which had been wool on the back of a sheep at dawn that day - and won comfortably, with more than an hour to spare. Two sheep were sheared, the wool washed, spun, woven, the cloth processed and dyed, and it took a team of tailors just over two hours to cut, sew and finish the coat. The sheep were roasted, and - along with 120 gallons of strong beer - provided refreshments for the crowd of spectators.

I sure hope that was a summer day and it was a late dinner. When I work with wool, the drying time, alone, is ususally more than one day. Do you have references?

It was a long summer day - 25 June 1811. They started at 5 am, and had the finished coat by 6:20 in the evening - with dinner booked for 8 pm.

The West Berkshire museum has a display on the "Newbury coat", including a replica made the same way in 1991. The original coat is at Coughton Court, the Midlands home of the Throckmorton family (now National Trust). There are plenty of references, including at
Berkshire History.

In Europe, anyway, there certainly was a trade in second-hand clothing in the early modern period (I don't know so much about earlier), involving travelling pedlars as well as more stationary shops and stalls. I believe, though I am not sure, that some of these shops also did alterations.

A tailor/seamstress of not-so-fancy clientele would I expect have been able to whip up simple garments reasonably quickly (especially if you were prepared to pay): plain sewing doesn't take so very long, even by hand, if you know what you're doing.

I was thinking that they could probably get a set of clothes - if not a matched set - by buying them in a inn? Things that got left behind by travellers or abandoned by people who have to skip out on the bill or die?

A clothesline outside the washerwoman's establishment.

(The first thing I thought of upon reading this question was the bit in Ladyhawke when Phillipe trades in his dungeon rags for stolen clothes.)

Edited at 2009-03-25 01:28 pm (UTC)

Even in the frontier West, when industrial processes were common, you'd be able to get a set of clothes in a day if you found a laundress or seamstress's establishment. IIRC, in one of the "Little House" books, Laura apprentices out to a seamstress and whips out quite a few buttonholes by hand (my books aren't here but at school). It seems like a skilled seamstress or tailor could whip up something useful in a day.

Ditto what most folks said: secondhand clothing. If this place has market days, there'd be someone selling secondhand clothes. You can also take the traditional theft route or the robbing a corpse route. If your guys need higher class clothing, there would be some ready-to-wear items available. There are woodcuts from the 16th century showing spec clothing. The fit probably wouldn't be perfect, but I doubt that would bother most. That's what a bit of stitching would fix.

When I was in Luxor, we stopped at a custom tailor in the morning. He measured some of our group, laid out a pattern, and sewed clothes that were ready by mid-afternoon without blinking an eye. There were about fifteen of us, and I'm certain he had other customers--he was very good. He had a set group of patterns he always worked with--he showed us a limited number of styles from which we could choose, which meant that he could call on a small set of well-practiced designs. I presume that he had a sewing machine and ready cloth to work with. But if in an analogous situation in earlier days, a tailor had access to a regular cloth supply (which I presume a responsible tailor would) plus apprentices to work with him, there's no reason someone in your era wouldn't be able to provide analogous services.

A friend of mine got a (nice) suit this way in Bangkok.

Most people have said second hand, though most trading posts and general stores carried the basic shirts in a few sizes. Due to the high death rate back in those days if someone order clothes and they came into the shop after the death the store would try to sell them rather than try to pay the postage to send them back to a major city to sell.
Tailors also work at a dizzying speed as some have said.

general store would also likely carry belts and loose fitting boots, else there is always the village cobbler (shoemaker) they usually can get a person measured and with a basic pair of boots within the hour so long as they have all the materials.

most area have either a special open market day or so called farmers market. these were always kind of a mix of stalls or wagons set up with the wares of families to sell unwanted items or trade them for things that they needed, as well as offer their services as help to farmers if they were travelers.

hope this is helpful

Ah. I have done this (sort of) in Rwanda. Ruhengeri is a small market town, but it also has cloth merchants, who sell cloth off of bolts. You tell them how much you want, and they cut it off for you. (If you are my mother, you believe them when they say you have to buy the entire bolt, and buy the entire bolt.) You then find someone to sew a dress (or other item) for you out of the cloth. This is often a friend of a friend, but who is well enough known that they will do a good job so that their reputation doesn't suffer. I'll wear my Rwandan dress for you sometime.

Several random thoughts:

1. If money is no object, find a tailor/seamstress who is putting the finishing touches on an outfit for someone else, then bribe him/her to let you purchase the clothes instead.

2. Rob a drunk.

3. Pretend to be a prostitute/hire a prostitute, wait 'till your prey is naked, conk them out and take their clothes.

4. Find something in a rag-cart or buy second-hand.




Ditto everyone who told of overnight tailoring. Common in South Asia. Some cheap shops will have "blanks" of items like kameez tops. Shoulder seams are sewn and the neckline is finished. The side seams and bottom hem aren't done until a customer orders. This means cutting the blank big, and trimming off excess fabric if the customer is very skinny. The most time-consuming part of the sewing (finishing the neckline, which may have embroidery) is done ahead of time.

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