Non-elite clothing acquisition in post-Famine Ulster

  • Eliza McKee

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The consumption of clothing among the lower classes in Ireland has been overlooked in existing historiography. This thesis sheds light on the routine consumption practices among the poorer classes in the province of Ulster by focusing on one essential commodity, clothing. lt utilises a range of manuscript sources, folklore, ethnographic recordings, and visual sources relating to all nine counties of Ulster to investigate how the poorer classes obtained clothing and used clothing supply networks. The sources enable an analysis of clothing acquisition by non-elites in different locations within the nine counties of Ulster, including an industrial city, market towns, and villages. This thesis explores on- and off-the-market acquisition options that were available to address clothing needs and investigates the importance of formal and informal or non-commercial channels of clothing acquisition. The results show that the lower-class consumer could obtain clothing from a variety of outlets, using different strategies. Acquisition methods utilised to obtain clothes by non-elites included use of shop retailing, commercial clothing clubs, cheque trading, mail order retailing, itinerant selling, sedentary and travelling bespoke makers, domestic production, crime, informal and illicit networks, and clothing distributed via the poor law and charity.

This thesis demonstrates that the lower classes utilised a web of overlapping acquisition methods and that they had a complex relationship with their clothing. The research also assesses the social ideas that influenced the acquisition of clothing among non-elites and the clothing distributed as charity or welfare, the role of gender in acquisition, the impact of industrialisation, if supply or demand drove acquisition methods utilised, and change through time. This thesis reflects on clothing obtained at different life stages when relevant. lt draws comparisons between the experiences of urban and rural communities, exploring geographical variations between industrial Belfast and rural Ulster. Examining the ways in which non-elites accessed and acquired clothing reveals important new knowledge about the lives, consumer practice, adaptive strategies, and aspirations of non-elites in Ulster. lt contributes to our understanding of dress, class, crime, philanthropy, migration, mobility, and poverty in the province.

Thesis embargoed until 31 July 2027.
Date of AwardJul 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsAHRC Northern Bridge DTP
SupervisorElaine Farrell (Supervisor) & Olwen Purdue (Supervisor)


  • Clothing
  • poverty
  • working-class clothing
  • clothing trade
  • Ireland
  • Ulster
  • nineteenth-century
  • vernacular culture
  • social history
  • dress history

Cite this