Fashion Sense and Sensibility

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Imagine you live in one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S., say the 4th wealthiest. And that your family is prominent in the community, commerce, and politics. Your home is exquisite and has been built with unique features to showcase your family’s social status.


Nathaniel Russell Home in Charleston

Now think about your wardrobe. Of course you have garments that were specially made for you. But how many pieces of clothing do you suppose you own? Two-hundred? More than that? At least 50? As few as 25?

If you were a young woman in Charleston around 1840, and your family was as described above, the number would be closer to 4 dresses, along with a few sets of appropriate undergarments.

While touring historic Charleston homes recently I not only heard this information about wardrobe size, but I also repeatedly heard that hangers were not invented until the early 1900s.┬áDresses and other large items were hung on pegs, and additional items were folded and stored in large dressers. I found this somewhat hard to believe. After all, there was already photography, the steam engine, and the telegraph. Hangers did not seem like a particularly sophisticated item. A little research revealed that hangers, at least some similar to today’s models, were invented in the late 1800s but were not in common use until the early 1900s when adopted by merchants and a more user-friendly design was patented.

What a difference between that time and what we consider a sufficient wardrobe and closet space today. I’m almost embarrassed to say that when I retired and began weeding out clothing I no longer needed I came up with several bags to give to former co-workers and the local hospital thrift shop. And I still have plenty of items from which to choose; I suspect I could go years without buying one new thing. And as for hangers, they seem to multiply on their own.

Cotton bale as it would have been transported by boat in 1800's.

Cotton bale as it would have been transported by boat in the 1800s.