wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Harold Perkin

The Origins of Modern English Society

The pattern is set by a superior; and authority will at any time countenance absurdity. A hat, a coat, a shoe, deemed fit to be worn only by a great grandsire, is no sooner put on by a dictator of fashions, than it becomes graceful in the extreme, and is generally adopted from the first lord of the Treasury to the apprentice in Houndsditch.
Indeed, the fashion cycle aptly illustrates the exact degree of diifference between England and the rest of Europe. Since it can only nourish in a society with sufficient openness and emulation between its upper ranks, it was peculiar to European civilization. Beginning in the fifteenth century at the break-up of strict feudalism, with cycles of perhaps half a century, it gradually speeded up until in the eighteenth century it went round about once every decade. Within this European context the peculiarity of English society was that the fashion cycle by the eighteenth century reached so much further down the scale. Foreigners like P.J. Grosley and Per Kalm noticed that the very servants and labourers wore the paniers and sacks, the knee-breeches and occasionally even the peruques, of their betters, and their observations are amply confirmed by the paintings and prints of Hogarth, Stubbs, Rowlandson, Cruikshank and Gillray. Alone amongst European nations, including the Celtic fringe, England was without a 'national costume,' that euphemism for peasant dress. With the significant exception of the smock-frock, the working overall worn by the agricultural labourers in the more backward parts of southern England, where the gap between the 'labouring poor' and their 'betters' survived down to the late Victorian age, the common people, at work and especially at leisure, wore a conscious imitation of the dress of their immediate superiors.

Cotton was the leading industry of the Industrial Revolution because it admirably suited the demands of the emulative fashion cycle. So versatile and yet, potentially, so cheap a fabric, variable in colour, pattern and texture, yet washable and hard-wearing, could make endless reappearances in the salons of high fashion, and just as repeatedly spread down the social scale. Wool was less versatile, yet mass consumer demand played a significant part in the rise of the West Riding and the decline of the older areas: the decline of the West Country cloth industry has been attributed less to the competition of machine-production—which a number of West Country manufacturers adopted—than to the shift in taste from their solid, expensive cloths to the cheaper and lighter woollens and worsteds of the Yorkshire mills. In the pottery trade Josiah Wedgwood consciously used the 'lines, channels and connections' of his noble and royal clientele to spread the fashion for his wares to the rest of society: 'Few Ladies, you know, dare venture at anything out of the common style till authorized by their betters—by Ladies of superior spirit who set the ton'; and he sought out Queen Charlotte's patronage not so much for his artistic productions as for his Queensware, the plain cream earthenware with which to woo the mass market. And even in agriculture and the brewing industry the technical revolutions were due not merely to the increase in population, but to the increasing preference of the 'lower orders' for the fresh meat and wheaten bread of their superiors, and the shift in taste from the lighter ales to the strong, dark, highly-brewed, mass-produced porter. Indeed, social emulation could even operate in bad times, in the refusal to lower standards under the harshest pressure: in the near-famines of the war years the agricultural labourers of the south refused to accept oats or potatoes in place of wheaten bread, and the poor law authorities had to concur.