Frugal Housewife or Fashionable Spendthrift?: Why the way we describe women’s clothing matters 

Guest post written by Elizabeth Spencer, author of Describing Women’s Clothing in Eighteenth-Century England.

In March 1765, the gentlewoman Catherine Ettrick began proceedings in the Durham Consistory Court to obtain a separation from her husband William Ettrick. By the time of the suit, William and Catherine had been married for over twelve years and had two children together, but an apparently explosive Christmas period in 1764 provided the spark for her to leave him after years of allegedly cruel treatment. The resulting case would drag on for three years, be heard by two different courts, and would see the testimonies of sixty-four witnesses, becoming enormously expensive.  

Reading through the numerous documents generated by the case, I quickly became fascinated by Catherine Ettrick’s experiences. At times, accounts of her husband’s cruelty are extremely shocking, with Catherine alleging that he would ‘abuse her and her whole Family and Curse and Swear at her’. It was her clothing, however, which gripped my imagination as a historian of gender and material culture. Both Catherine, William, and a number of witnesses described what she was (and, in some instances, was not) wearing. The case can therefore tell us much about women’s relationships with and to their clothing in eighteenth-century England.  

In this period, the so-called ‘law of necessaries’ meant that, though married women could not make economic contracts in their own right, they were empowered to purchase ‘necessaries’ as agents of their husbands. ‘Necessary’ was a slippery term, however, and was largely defined by their husband’s status. Catherine’s allegation that William had not provided her with clothing appropriate for a gentlewoman therefore became one of the key contentions of the case. In her suit, Catherine claimed that, whenever she had asked for money to ‘Buy Cloaths or necessarys’ for herself, William ‘always complained he was so Poor that he could not afford it and has only Bought her one Silk Gown…since the time they were Married’. Most of her clothing had been inherited from her mother rather than newly purchased, she continued.   

In contrast, William claimed that, although he had only ever purchased ‘one Silk Gown’ for his wife, he had ‘bought her many other gowns her Superiors would think very handsome ones’. Indeed, he told the court that when she left him, Catherine had more clothing than was ‘necessary or fitting for any Woman in the County married to a Man of similar Circumstances’. While they offered competing accounts, in describing Catherine’s clothing both parties attempted to appeal to contemporary stereotypes surrounding women. By emphasising that she had survived on inherited and plain clothing, Catherine appealed to the ideal of the frugal housewife. In telling the court that his wife had more clothing than was necessary, however, William implied that she was a fashionable spendthrift, a figure of much derision in the eighteenth century. 

Even as late as 1767, when his wife had already been living apart from him for two years, William continued to claim that she was simply being manipulated into pursuing the suit by a brother who held a grudge against him. However, despite his attempt to appeal the verdict, Catherine was eventually granted a separation from her husband and the two lived apart for the rest of their lives. William died at the age of eighty-two in February 1808, leaving behind a number of eccentric instructions for his funeral. Catherine is harder to trace. However, their son William Ettrick did note that he was finally able to ‘assist’ his mother with a yearly allowance of £20 in 1787, she ‘having been parted from my Father before I left him, and reduced to great straits by his Severity’. Catherine died at the age of sixty-eight in November 1794, having lived apart from her husband for almost twenty years.  

We will never really know what Catherine Ettrick’s clothing looked like, or whether she really was a prudent household manager or the spendthrift her husband accused her of being. It is likely that, like most eighteenth-century women, her life was more complicated than these two contemporary stereotypes allow. However, the case still tells us something about the importance of clothing for women in this period. While her husband used descriptions of her clothing against her, Catherine was also able to mobilise it in her own defence. Looking at how, why, and where women described their clothing in eighteenth-century England helps us to draw out these complexities and learn more about their lives.  

ELIZABETH SPENCER is a Lecturer in Eighteenth Century and Public History at the University of York. She is also Director of the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past. She holds a PhD in History from the University of York, and has published on women, clothing, and consumption in the long eighteenth century. 

Proofed readers save 35% on all featured titles with code BB897

Subscribe to the Boydell & Brewer blog via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

* indicates required

Recent Posts