The London Times reviews John Styles' Dress of the People: Everyday fashion in eighteenth-century England:
"The mill girl who wanted to dress like a duchess" has been identified by Neil McKendrick as one of the forces propelling the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the century, sartorial upward mobility got it in the neck, from Defoe at the beginning who said that female servants ought to wear livery to stop their extravagance (an argument still heard today but in relation to school uniform) to the London Magazine, which lamented in 1783 that "every servant girl has her cotton gowns, and her cotton stockings, while honest grograms, tammeys, linsey woolseys and many other articles of wool, which would be much more becoming their stations, lie to mildew in our mercer's shops, are seldom enquired for but by paupers and parish officers". Sociological inquiries, such as The State of the Poor by Sir Frederick Eden (1797), lamented that the poor in the South of England no longer spun their own clothes: "within these twenty years, a coat bought at a shop was considered as a mark of extravagance and pride". As Styles mischievously puts it, "the modern morality tale of social bonds weakening as choice and individualisation intensify reproduces many of the anxieties expressed by eighteenth-century commentators about the perceived rise of plebeian participation in fashion".
Reading Styles's book, one is continually struck by the resemblances, on a much smaller scale of course, to today's patterns and institutions of consumption, and also by the similarities in the way elite critics then and now purse their lips and sigh for a more homespun age.
Is it me or has anti-couture pro-homespun snobbery been on the decline? Most of the pursed lips I see are directed at the extravagance lavished upon young girls, not the adult women buying $700 it-bags, and much of the longing for a simpler, purer age plays out in the politics of organic food.