Stobart, J. (2007) In and out of fashion? Advertising novel and second-hand goods in Georgian England. Panel Presentation presented to: 2007 Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution (CHORD) and Association of Business Historians (ABH) Conference: Business Links: Trade Distribution and Networks, University of Wolverhampton, 29-30 June 2007.
Historians of consumption have placed great emphasis on the growing importance of fashion as a stimulus to demand in eighteenth-century England. For McKendrick (1982), the ‘hypnotic effects of fashion’ were central to processes of social emulation and class competition: it was part of conspicuous consumption, designed to underline wealth and augment social standing. In doing so, fashion built on notions of taste and distinction – not, perhaps the ‘difficult’ consumption that we associate with Bourdieu’s (1984) theorisation, but a means of codifying goods as elite, rare and discriminating. Indeed, Simmel (1971) defines fashion precisely in these terms: the coding of objects in order the claim membership of particular (elite) groups. This coding, according to Berg (2005), built on notions of taste and the sensuality of goods; on the idea of novelty and newness, and on the ability to imitate and assimilate new goods into established genres. Yet the idea of fashion – with its connotations of tasteful, new, ‘networked’ goods – brought with it the corollary that other goods would be out of fashion. These are often seen as occupying a distinct circuit of exchange – the second-hand market – which gave poorer sections of society the opportunity to engage in ‘fashionable’ consumption and to own goods which were, more or less, fashionable (see Lemire, 1991). This lower tier was linked to the consumption of fashionable new goods through common cultural values (not least the importance of fashion) and through the flow of goods from the upper to the lower tier. But it was differentiated by financial barriers, social distinctions and geography. These divisions can be too easily overplayed: they were often linked together through the activities of buyers and sellers, both of which groups could be intimately engaged in both first-hand and second-hand circuits of exchange (Stobart, 2006). In this paper, I want to explore the ways in which they were linked together through the practices and ‘virtual’ spaces of newspaper advertisements. Both the London and provincial press carried a growing number of advertisements in the eighteenth century, many of them placed by shopkeepers. These drew on and promoted the idea of fashion as a key selling point, both for goods and for the shopkeepers themselves. Indeed, the construction of the shopkeeper as a conduit or even arbiter of taste and fashion is a key aspect of these advertisements. In both respects, connections with London were often portrayed as central in defining fashionability. At the same time, newspapers also carried advertisements for second-hand goods, so that new and used: in and out-of fashion were juxta-posed on the page of the broadsheet. Moreover, the two could be linked together in the same advertisement as tradesmen and women advertised both new and used goods for sale at their shops. This served to blur the distinction between new and old; novel and established; fashionable and unfashionable. It also questions the established motivations for buying second-hand goods (usually seen in economic terms) and the centrality of fashion to eighteenth-century consumption