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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree Christmas 2017 > Fashion behind the shop counter

Fashion behind the shop counter

As we head to the shops this Christmas, whether to the local butcher for our turkey or a high street department store for gifts, Jayne Shrimpton looks back at the work dress of our ancestors who were employed in retail


On display

In this scene depicting Harrod’s millinery department (1911), well-heeled customers wear high-fashion ‘hobble’ skirts, the elegant sales assistant a stately black silk trained gown

Millions of our forebears have served on stalls or in stores, for part or all of their working lives. The retail industry, immensely important to Britain’s economy, especially in the past 250 years, may seem attractive, yet shop work has been one of the poorest-paid, most exacting occupations. Glossing over the hours of exhausting toil and frequently sub-standard working conditions, neat clothes and a polite demeanour have long been the public face of sales staff peddling food, fashion and furniture – appearance is everything.

Early traders

Historically, our ancestors shopped for basic foodstuffs, replacement dress items and household and work essentials from market stalls, small shops and street traders, or directly from local artisans and craftsmen.

Some salespeople from coast and countryside travelled long distances to their customers and dressed to impress. Fisherwomen who netted shrimps and gathered bait in bare legs, skirts hitched up into loose breeches, took care to look decent in stockings and shoes when walking into town to sell the day’s catch at market. Men bringing supplies from rural districts into the metropolis, from broommakers to dairymen, wore a smart hat and often a clean smock over their shirt and breeches. Even plain, functional work clothes were precious possessions: many early traders used large aprons to protect their garments from dust, grime and stains.

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About Family Tree

Welcome to the Christmas issue of Family Tree – we’ve got festive family history treats galore in store for you. Dive into our delicious feast of digitised documents – rare historic collections for you to enjoy browsing and researching on your device. Enjoy some genealogy jollies: a family history crossword, quiz and memories of Christmas traditions from centuries past. And last but not least, this issue sees the launch of the Family Tree Academy – this is your opportunity to hone your family history skills. In part 1, this issue, we’ve got documents for you to decipher, old handwriting for you to transcribe and a research case study for you to pit your wits against. Join in with our learning experience today to become a better family historian!