Sunday, 24 August 2014

Dressing on £1,000 a year

When we went to Hay on Wye back in January, it wasn’t just books that I bought. In a shop which sold only maps and prints I found a large filing cabinet, with drawers labelled “cars”, “Europe” etc. Inside were loose pages from old periodicals, which had been kept for their illustrations.

Naturally I looked through “costume”, and found a couple of sheets featuring women in Edwardian dress. When I realized that they were from the same piece, I hunted through the drawer again, and managed to find the entire article. It had no author, and this was its title.

Unfortunately, because it was just loose pages rather than the entire magazine, I had no idea of the date of publication. So, I picked the collective brains of the wonderful Historical Sew Fortnightly community on Facebook, who placed the two images I’d posted firmly at the very start of the twentieth century.

The only other information I had was the magazine’s title, which appeared at the top of every other page; “The Harmsworth London Magazine”. This turned out to be exactly the clue that I needed.

Originally launched in July 1898 as, “The Harmsworth Magazine”, it appears to have been renamed “The Harmsworth London Magazine” in August 1901, and then just “The London Magazine” from August 1903. So top marks to The Dreamstress, who suggested precisely the 1901-03 timeframe!

The magazine was marketed as “A sixpenny magazine for threepence”, with the launch editorial claiming that the low price could be achieved by means of a “gigantic circulation”. Therefore it’s safe to assume that article, with its subtitle, Being some of the trials of a society “splendid pauper”, was written with the author’s tongue wedged firmly in his or her cheek. I’m guessing that the piece was meant as a, ‘How The Other Half Lives’ (or more accurately, ‘How The Other Very-Small-Percentage-Of-The-Population Lives’) story, and that the sums quoted are reasonably accurate, and intended to provoke a response of “How much?!” from the reader.

Note: in converting the sums quoted to today’s money, I have used this conversion tool, and a date of 1902. On this basis, the society lady featured in the article has a mere £107,320 / $178,150 US per year to play with!

The article begins by detailing, “the annual campaign of smart society”. This starts with the London Season in May, June and July; a social whirl of Court functions, parties, dinners, balls, concerts, plays, race meetings, garden parties, luncheons, morning walks, afternoon drives, teas, bazaars, outings and the Chelsea Flower Show. Phew.

August brings yachting and the regatta at Cowes, followed by a (no doubt much needed) holiday in Europe. Then in September it is back to Britain for Doncaster races, followed by shooting in Scotland, before heading south again for Newmarket races in October. In November a quick trip to Paris to buy winter frocks and hats is squeezed in before the round of country house visits, shoots and more race meetings. London’s winter season follows, and then after Christmas another holiday is needed, this time to Egypt, Sicily or southern France, in search of sun. All of these events require suitable clothing, none of which comes cheap.

A ball or dinner gown costs on average £40 (£4,293 / $7,126), more if rich embroidery or hand-painted chiffon is involved, while "old lace" is too costly to even consider.

A simpler style of evening dress, known as a “little gown” costs £30-£35 (£3,220-£3,756 / $5,345-$6,235). To successfully negotiate the London season, our splendid pauper needs at least six evening gowns, plus a couple of “little gowns”.

On top of this a velvet gown is needed as the nights grow colder, and this will cost £40 from a dressmaker, or £50-£60 (£5,366-£6,439 / $8,908-$10,689) from the salons of London or Paris. A “drawing-room gown and train”, if required, is reckoned to cost at least £100 (£10,732 / $17,815).

For less formal occasions there are tea-gowns, tea-blouses and tea-coats. A tea-gown costs an average of £30 (£3,220 / $5,345), while a tea-coat costs a mere £25 (£2,683 / $4,454). However should the lady want to play billiards while wearing a tea-dress (I have absolutely no idea how likely this scenario was), she would need to splash out a further £20 (£2,146 / $3,563) for a short-sleeved dress, known as a billiard-coat.

Dresses for Ascot and garden parties cost £35-£40 for a crêpe de chine gown trimmed with “good lace”, £30 for taffeta, and £20-£25 for a “smart foulard”. Two winter and two summer frocks are the minimum which are required.

The article advises that country pursuits require their own clothing, but does not give any prices. A yachting gown for Cowes however will cost £20, and at least two are needed.

With gowns out of the way, the writer moves on to hats. These cost at least £4 (£429 / $713), and can cost up to £10 (£1,073 / $1,782).

These are piffling sums however, compared to cloaks and wraps. The author’s splendid pauper cannot possibly afford £500 (£53,660 / $89,076) for a sable jacket or chinchilla cape, her “fur fund” for one year only runs to £100 (£10,732 / $17,815). She will also want a winter wrap, for which no price is given, a dust cloak for £10, and at least two evening cloaks at a cost of £35-£40 each - or £50 if she decides to splurge on hand-painted chiffon.

Lingerie does not come cheap, either. A “modest” silk petticoat costs £4, but less modest ones can cost up to £15. Embroidered and pin-tucked handkerchiefs cost at least £5 (£537 / $891) per dozen, and even the most frugal lady needs to allow at least £100 for lingerie.

“Smart shoes” cost £2 (£215 / $356) per pair, plus ¾ as much again for ornamental buckles. Evening shoes cost £2-£3, and if each dress (that’s six evening gowns, two “little gowns” and one velvet gown, remember) requires matching shoes, that’s up to £2,898 / $4,810.

Further expenses listed include parasols (in colours to match each costume) at £7-£10 each, gloves at £20-£30 for the year, and £100 for “toilette” requirements such as make-up and hair colouring. Thus, explains the writer, an allowance of £1,000 a year “spells poverty instead of riches”. Whether the house-parlour maid earning £20 per year in 1902 would have seen it this way is another matter altogether!


  1. Fabulous article! Thanks so much for sharing!! Apart from anything else, it's a great insight into the wardrobe "requirements" of the rich. I love those sections in old sources about what you need - ranging from the simple (2 pairs of drawers, 2 chemises etc) that assisted passage emigrants to NZ were expected to bring, to those in advice for women going to India and/ or undertaking a long sea passage, but I haven't seen one (even tongue in cheek) for the well-to-do before.