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Picturesque Poverty

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Watchman., Digital ID 1112012, New York Public Library“A working class hero is something to be…” -John Lennon Working Class Hero (1970) A change came in the dawning nineteenth century of great significance. The trickle down of fashion grew to encompass the lives of those of the lower orders (as they were called then). A sociological interest in the dress and habits of those people in “reduced circumstances” developed, and left its mark on costume books of the period. While, previously, these books—produced for a well-heeled, erudite audience—concentrated their focus on the clothing of royalty and the aristocracy, certain publications now appeared with a different aim entirely. From Busby’s Costume of the lower orders of London to sketches collected in a modern pictorial survey, illustrators chose to depict the dress of what would become the growing middle class. Here’s an intriguing historical note. After Waterloo, thousands of newly unemployed men, the former soldiers and sailors of Britain’s army and navy, descended upon London looking for work. While the English government was most grateful for their services, there were no such things as pensions. Any prize money given out lasted only a short time. Many veterans were missing an arm or leg or suffered from what we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder (no such diagnosis in those days, Wellington and his officers would consider our contemporary soldiers to be namby-pamby weaklings). A keeper of prints for the government named John Thomas Smith was commissioned to do a count and visual study of these down-and-out men. The result was two extraordinary books with haunting plates: Etchings of remarkable beggars, itinerant traders and other persons of notoriety in London and its environs (1815) and Vagabondiana, or, Anecdotes of mendicant wanderers through the streets of London (1817). This was the start of the fashion for picturesque poverty that survives to this day. Newspaper reports of the period grumble about young men dressing like coachmen or prize fighters. Sounds familiar, huh? Those of us who were little kids in the 1960s remember all the kerfluffle about the Beatles and other rockers...

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