This text examines a collection of ragged and damaged clothing dating from around 1900 into the 1950s, excavated from a large textile dump found in a farm barn in Normandy. Abandoned, it seems, in the mid-1950s, the dump consisted of large, bound, and compressed bales piled on top of each other and left to rot as valueless in damp, rat-infested conditions for over sixty years. In about 2010 it was discovered, purchased, and “excavated” by an architectural heritage dealer from Sussex.
This research, with its focus on women’s clothing, assesses the several lives of rag dump clothing from Normandy over a period of more than a hundred years as it has passed from one community of consumption to another. What has proved so fascinating in this object-based material culture research project has been to follow the unexpected life cycle of this clothing from birth to resurrection. No matter its condition, as Roger Silverstone has argued: “The life of an object … gains its meanings through the various social, economic, political, and cultural environments through which it passes and its passage can ... illuminate those environments in the way that [a] flare ... can illuminate the sky.”1.
This research will show that these clothes moved through six life stages: firstly used for field, domestic, and farm work, secondly passing to small scale “chiffoniers” — rag dealers — nicknamed “biffins,” thirdly sold on to large scale dealers — “chiffoniers-en-gros” — who stored the ragged textiles in large warehouses, fourthly to abandonment when no longer required, fifthly resurrected, cleaned, and finally launched into today’s world of “poverty chic” fashion — the sixth and final destination. In commercial terms, today this collection lies on the extreme edge of the vast global recycling and vintage fashion industries, much studied by dress historians such as Alexandra Palmer, Hazel Clark, Lucy Norris, Margaret Maynard, Karen Tranberg Hanson, Tracey Diane Cassidy, and Hannah Roe Bennet.2 Finding the exact whereabouts of this dump, beyond the fact that it is in Normandy, has proved impossible due to professional competitive secrecy today amongst vintage clothing dealers.
This text therefore discusses a group of garments excavated from a Normandy rag dump in about 2010. These twentieth-century ragged clothes are of a kind rejected by museums as worthless in every way, unless of precious historical value such as rags surviving from the clothes of Hiroshima victims or from Nazi concentration camps of World War II. This text, nonetheless, discusses three surviving groups of this rag dump clothing, to prove the falsity of this rejection. One large group belongs to Lois Davidson, a vintage textile dealer of Hove who purchased directly from the excavator. She then generously donated seven items to the University of Brighton Dress History Teaching Collection, creating the second group (we later purchased two more pieces from her — bringing our total to nine). We are thanking her now for her kind generosity.3 The third group discussed here belongs to Richard Rags and his son, Cosmo Wise, vintage textile dealers selling from a weekly stall in Spitalfields Market in the East End of London.4
The specific interest within these clothes lies in their survival as rare examples of worn-out rural working clothing from Normandy, c. 1900–55. Most of the garments are meticulously and heavily patched, worn, and frayed to the point where, finally, they were no longer serviceable even in the fields. Some, those hauled out from the centre of the rag dump pile, were in better condition than the ones on the edges of the dump, whose condition was worsened by chewing and eating by rats, bird droppings, the bleeding of colours, and the growth of mould as rain penetrated the storage barn (see fig. 1). Nonetheless, they offer us today a picture both of the reality of the working clothes worn in the Normandy countryside and of the region’s rag dealing trade in the first half of the twentieth century.