Date of this Version
Published in The Social Fabric: Deep Local to Pan Global; Proceedings of the Textile Society of America 16th Biennial Symposium. Presented at Vancouver, BC, Canada; September 19 – 23, 2018. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/
During the late-nineteenth century, descriptions of the fashions worn by the summer residents of Newport, RI appeared in magazines and newspapers all around the world. Though contemporary interpretation romanticizes the idea that Newport’s style leaders wore their ensembles once before discarding them, letters and diaries from the Newport Historical Society and the Preservation Society of Newport County detail how clothing was reused and remade across all levels of society during the American Gilded Age. While Newport’s belles sold and traded gowns with friends, remodeled afternoon ensembles into evening gowns, and re-cut and re-dyed their clothing to fit the latest styles, over 100 peddlers were licensed to sell and trade worn clothing and textiles on Bellevue Ave., the street known as “Millionaires’ Row.” Newly arrived from Italy and Western Europe, these peddlers raised money remaking and reselling textiles in Newport, before opening their own stores and factories in nearby Providence, RI, a nineteenth-century textile production center. With only a few streets separating America’s wealthiest industrialists from newly arrived immigrants, boisterous sailors, and puritanical year-round residents the incredible income disparity present in Newport makes the town a valuable case study. From dye houses and shops that specialized in remaking, to boutiques selling salvaged textiles from European estates, the clothing and textile trade in Newport was an active local industry. By examining how textiles moved throughout the community, we can see how the value of clothing and textiles changed during the second half of the nineteenth century and better understand the impact of the ready-made clothing industry. This paper reconsiders the history of the second-hand clothing and textiles trade in late-nineteenth century America, demonstrating how textiles were reused and valued across all levels of society, showing that there is nothing new about buying used clothing.