‘She has not good clothes to go in’: Faith and Dress

by Kate Gibson

One of the central questions of this project is to investigate the impact of religion on urban-dwellers daily lives: on their daily routines, how they ran their businesses and how they interacted with family and friends. One way in which the intrusion of religion into daily life can be measured is in its relationship with what people wore and when. As historians such as John Styles and Vivienne Richmond have shown, clothes could symbolise social status, maturity, identity and moral rectitude, but they could also be used to exclude and control.

A common thread in many of our sources, from different denominations, is the desire to appear at a place of worship dressed only in ‘decent’ clothing. Although none of our case studies used the phrase ‘Sunday best’, which Vivienne Richmond found was a common concept in the later nineteenth century, eighteenth-century individuals did often worry that they lacked clothes good enough to appear at public worship. As Styles has shown, the labouring poor often found it difficult to keep clothes clean and in good repair, particularly if they lacked more than one change of clothes or had particularly dirty occupations. The travelling tract seller John Burnthwaite stated in October 1830 that ‘I intended to have gone to Church, but my Cloths are getting so bare that I am ashamed to go amongst deacent dressed people.’ After being on the road for three months and covering nearly 750 miles, ‘the roads very wet and dirty’, he concluded ‘my Shoes are completely done and do not know where to get another pair’.

Sunday School accounts are full of families stating that they did not attend church due to lack of suitable clothing. When Manchester Sunday School teacher Benjamin Braidley met satin stitcher Ellen Bibby, he ‘asked her “Does your Mother regularly attend the Church?”’. She replied ‘“No Sir, I am sorry to see her excuse herself, because she has not good clothes to go in, and she is afraid of seeing somebody that may know her”’. In response, many Sunday schools started clothing funds. In 1812, the Liverpool Old Church Sunday school started one fund ‘to be applied in aid of many poor Children of the School, who are prevented from attending Divine Service on Sundays, though want of Shoes and decent articles of apparel. A small sum for this purpose is already in hand; as many Ladies during the last Year have contributed in this way to increase the comforts of these Children of Poverty: and it will afford the Governors the liveliest pleasure to be able in their next Report to state the good Effects which so charitable a plan has produced.’ The following year, the school extended this for children leaving for ‘respectable situations’, providing money ‘towards furnishing the Girls with articles of apparel, in order to enable them to appear decently & comfortably at Church on Sundays, and other public occasions’.

Northcote, James, 1746-1831; Black John of Tetcott
James Northcote (1746-1831), ‘Black John of Tetcott’, Royal Cornwall Museum, CC BY-NC. The tears on Black John’s coat indicate the difficulties that the labouring poor had in maintaining their clothes.


Although gifts of clothing will have been useful to struggling families, the Sunday school clothing funds were heavily paternalistic, and focused on displaying poor children as credits to their wealthy patrons. Accounts often state that clothing was to be worn on public occasions such as processions, creating a type of uniform that would display the piety and success of that Sunday school. In 1813 the Liverpool Old Church Sunday school resolved ‘That the Girls of this School be supplied with a Cloak, Bonnet & Tippet each at the Expence of the Institution, to wear on Sundays and other public occasions; and that they do appear in such Dress for the first Time at the opening of St Nicholas’s Church’. Later that year the school boasted ‘of the excelling of the Institution and of the good effects it produces in the habits & manners of the poor children… who are thus happily rescued from the paths of Ignorance & Vice. And nothing certainly can more evidently elucidate this truth than the display of the Children at the last Annual Meeting of the Charity Schools in town… exhibiting to public view 259 Boys & 189 Girls who were all enabled to join the Service of our excellent establishment.’ A plain, uniform, dress that demonstrated conformity and physical and moral cleanliness was key in this display of evangelical success. In a crowded and competitive urban market, patrons were keen to ensure that their Sunday school, and their church and denomination, appeared the most successful in reforming the morals of the poor.

The public nature of collective worship was significant in the association between piety and ‘decent’ clothing, and indicates the codependence between churchgoing and urban sociability. Governess Ellen Weeton scathingly mocked the social exclusivity of Christ Church in Liverpool in 1808 when ‘Mrs C. told me the other day that she could not for shame take me to Christ Church, I had nothing fit to go in… to be “clothed in rags” was once a recommendation to the Church of Christ; but now, the surest way of being denied entrance into it. Fashion in times of old could no more gain admittance into that church, than a woman into a Turkish Mosque; but the present age are so little scrupulous, that Fashion, whatever garb she wears, is permitted, indeed every pain taken to allure her, to take her seat in Christ Church: that Church is altogether Fashionable’. Church was a place to see and be seen, and the additional status of Sundays as a key leisure time for both rich and poor contributed to a desire to dress well. Beverley lawyer John Courtney regularly went straight from church to the assembly rooms or coffee house, as well as to the parlours of women he was courting, requiring him to look his best in both social and religious spaces. Display was particularly significant in cathedrals or urban minsters, where civic and religious duties combined. On one visit to York Minster in March 1763, Courtney ‘heard a Sermon & a new Te Deum composed by Revd Tho Bridges of York’, adding ‘The High Sherif was most magnificently drest in Pompadour & Gold.’ Courtney himself had a ritual of always going into mourning on a Sunday, waiting for example five days following the death of his uncle in order to appear first in mourning at Sunday service at Beverley Minster. When he transitioned into second mourning on Easter Sunday, he appeared in ‘my light grey Frock Suit made at London’. Church was a key public arena in which to display sartorial choices, particularly those which signalled both fashionable gentility and propriety.

This is not to say that concern over dressing well at church was all about competition, status and outward appearance. Just as individuals were concerned about going to church in the right frame of mind, free from worldly cares and ready to receive instruction, so they may have perceived their clothing choices as part of the ritual of worship. As John Styles and Peter Jones have found, ‘decency’ was both an economic and a moral concept, conveying virtue, industry and moral cleanliness. Poorer individuals may have felt unable or unworthy for worship if they felt indecent, particularly if it was associated with shame or worldly stresses that could distract from religious practice. For both conformists and nonconformists, dressing appropriately for church shows the interaction between religion and worldly reputation. Biblical injunctions to be clean, wholesome and plain for communion with God chimed with class and gender ideals, to appear as a member of the deserving industrious poor, or as an upstanding member of a mercantile community.



Cumbria Archive and Local Studies Centre (Barrow): BDX/215/2, Diary of John Burnthwaite, 1830-1, Sunday 10 October and Wednesday 15 September 1830.

Manchester Archives: M103/18/6/1 – Diary of Benjamin Braidley, 1815, pp. 1-4.

Liverpool Record Office: 283 NIC/11/1/1, Minute book of Old Church Sunday and Day Schools, Moorfields (1809-1844), pp. 11-14.

Wigan Archives: D/D2 EHC vol 165a – Ellen Weeton, letters to correspondents, vol. 2, pp. 140-1, letter 94, Ellen Weeton to Mrs Braithwaite, 7 Nov. 1808.

Hull History Centre: U DDX/60/2, diary of John Courtney, vol. 2, pp. 3, 26, 38. Entries for 6 March 1763, 8 January 1764 and 22 April 1764.

Peter D. Jones, ‘”I cannot keep my place without being deascent”: Pauper Letters, Parish Clothing and Pragmatism in the South of England, 1750-1830’, Rural History (2009), 20.1, pp. 31-49.

Vivienne Richmond, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

John Styles, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).


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