Identity and Identifier: Two of the Many Roles of Fashion

by Dale Peers

The source of inspiration for this blog came from a book gifted to me by Professor Jenifer Forrest entitled, “Threads of Feeling” by John Styles.  This publication, from The Foundling Museum in London, describes the archive of 5,000 small textile items dating from the middle decades of the middle 18th century found there.

These items accompanied the children accepted into the care of the London Foundling Hospital during this time as an identifier of not only the child but also of their parents.  They were included in the child’s records in the event that the parents were able to return at some later time to take back their child.  As most of the parents (and most of these would have been the mother) were from lower social classes and often illiterate, something that could be attached to the Hospitals records was presented.  These might be a bit of cloth from the mother’s clothing, a ribbon/keepsake or sometimes a sleeve from the baby’s clothing.  Sadly not all babies were accompanied by such tokens.  In fact, according to the author “between 1756 and 1760 there were more than 14,934 children” left at the hospital – almost 3 times the number of tokens.

In studying this archive it is not only possible to examine the sad, social commentary of these children and their parents but also the varied textiles left behind as these important identifiers.  Most museums will focus on the beautiful fashions and techniques used to produce the attire of the very wealthy.  These expensive textiles created fashions that would identify the wearer in terms of status.  Those of the Foundling Museum provide a very different look at textiles worn by individuals at the opposite end of the status continuum.

The textiles include serviceable goods like wool, flannel and cotton but surprisingly bits of more expensive fabrics like satin might also occasionally be found.  The donation of an expensive and obviously prized possession could be linked to the precious child sadly left behind.

Fabrics were not all plain and serviceable.  Brightly coloured and printed fabrics demonstrate that even members of the lower economic classes were likely to copy the fashions of those members of the upper classes.  While the costly fabrics produced in Lyons or Spitalfields for the fashionable members of society would be out of reach, copying the illusion of prints on silk was possible.  We could assume from this that, regardless of social standing, having beautiful clothing was coveted by all.  And the more iconic something might be the better an identifier it would become.

Our choice in clothing and fashion as a way of expressing our personal identity, as a form of communication and as an outward symbol of our values is as important to many of us today as it was in the past.  While we might consider our present day fashions to be more democratic than those of the 18th century our desire for something unique to express our individuality continues to be one driving force for consumers of fashion.

We have a myriad of price points, products and possibilities available to us when we shop but, even so, we attempt to find something – a colour, a pattern, a style – that will be a reflection of our “self.”  And, we alter that image or identity depending upon the impression we are looking to make.  Do we want to look more professional in a workplace boardroom or on a Zoom call?  Do we want someone to see our creativity in the way we have put a “look” together?  Do we want to make a fashion or status statement by wearing a recognizable brand?

(Does the black and white, Marilyn Brooks print above imply a sense of humour attributed to the wearer? Does the asymmetrical Pauline Trigere gown below imply a unique, one-of-a-kind style and personality?  Is the wearer of the striped, scooped neck Sonia Rykiel sweater looking to stand out in a Zoom meeting?)










The study of fashion goes beyond looking at the hemlines, colours and silhouettes of a garment.  It is more than the choice of textile, the drafting of a garment or the method of construction.  We can identify a garment on the basis of these but we can delve further into the meaning that garment had for the wearer, the observer and society.

Seneca’s Fashion Resource Centre, like The Foundling Museum, offers the opportunity to study not only the styles of an era but the social, political, economic and personal meanings that are tied to each artifact.




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