Think Victorian women outspent Victorian men on personal consumables? Think again.
It has been a common misconception that the Victorian American woman was a little more than fond of retail therapy and large scale personal consumption. Much of the basis for this misconception has been that the little data that has been analyzed has been approached from the standpoint that those buying the consumable goods are those consuming them. Add to that the contrasting images of males and females we have culturally assumed for the Victorian era (women in large poufy dresses and Parisian hats, compared with the austere, polished and serious patriarch from the male fashion plates) and we have a nice historical myth. But just because Victorian women purchased more goods, does not mean they consumed them.
Consumer Society in America has an article that claims that according to the 1890 census, men consumed 2.5 times more on clothing than women. And that’s not all. Though men’s clothes were at the top of list ($446M), liquor and alcohol came second ($290M). Then footwear ($274M) and tobacco ($197M). Compare the almost $200M spent on tobacco with the $183M American women in 1890 spent on women’s clothing. Further down the list are perfumes and cosmetics, sporting goods, billard table materials ($2.8M!), and some other androgenous cosumables such as pocketbooks and watches that were likely consumed more by men.
The article states that the numbers are accurate, since the census did purposefully divide men and women’s clothing into two separate categories. What this does not include are clothing items made at home, in which case women were producing what they consumed. Men would have been more likely to buy more of their clothes off the rack, rather than relying on a wife or female member of the family to produce them at home.
But, as the article continues, even if the clothing items are entirely removed from equation, the consumption of men and women becomes basically identical. If, for example, the census numbers missed a third of female consumption on clothing, that would still only put women at about 44%, claims the article. So the assumption that Victorian consumerism was highly skewed towards the feminine is entirely wrong.
Though this is just a theoretical scenario, could it be possible that women were better at keeping their clothes in good shape? With all that liquor and tobacco being consumed, there were bound to be some casualties (think clothes with cigar holes, sloppy eating). Also, I believe that women’s clothing, particularly those in the middle class, was more designated into functional categories. She had house dresses, visiting dresses, walking dresses, perhaps a formal dress. Though this is just a theory, perhaps feminine ritual resulted in women dressing appropriately for the purpose. Other factors entering into the equation could be that women had more structure to their clothes – such as boning – that preserved their clothing from wear.
There is also the possibility of price discrimination across genders. Men were the income earners. Their image was important. Women, on the other hand, did not earn income, and were usually dependent on a male family member for spending money. Women in 2009 will spend more money than a man on their clothing and hair because they likely perceive a financial benefit resulting therefrom: better job, richer boyfriend. She may be on the dating or job market for years, whereas a Victorian women could be married before she was 20.
In any case and for whatever reason, unless there were a lot of women running around in men’s clothes, drinking copious amounts of alcohol and smoking cigars (a la Lilian Russell), women were not the big consumers of the Victorian era.