I have a quote/note on my desktop from the Fashion in Penury book. It starts by saying that contemporary sources often mention that the social signifiers that indicate status weren’t always obvious.
—it was exceedingly troubling to see ‘ordinary people in very glossy coats’ who were actually socially significant and to see distinguished-looking men who were not ‘gentlemen’. Many accounts other than this one ascribed to colonial inhabitants a lack of orthodox signifiers of social distinctions in dress. This was a very clear acknowledgement that public statements about class were difficult to read.
Yet the problems of recognising class, as described in so many contemporary tests, do not seem to match entirely with surviving garments or with visual images. S.T. Gill’s image of The Queen’s Birthday Review of 1856; for instance, clearly shows the top hats and fine clothes of the elite watching the parade, with a group of less affluent peddlers in the foreground in ill-fitting working-class dress.
Now this seemed a bit, well, backwards. These people in top hots and fine clothes are elite because they are wearing the top hats and fine clothes of the elite, even though that might not indicate that they are indeed elite.
Although on reading further, she seems to be arguing that there were social starta in 19th c Australia, as if the “lack of orthodox signifiers of social distinctions” meant there were no social distinctions. At all. Obviously there were different social strata, if not as clear-cut as in, say, the mother country, and probably more flexible, and just as obviously, there were difference between what the upper and lower classes wore.
If you look at something like this from the State Library of Victoria (it’s obviously not Cascade Brewery in Launceston), then there are some fairly obvious social differences between the driver and the passenger. Look at the hats!
Also some quayside workers form the 1870s, from taken from an image at the State Library of Victoria. (Of course, once they’re finished for the day they might all put on their top hats and fine coats to go home 🙂 )
And while we’re looking at pictures, this this lovely one from the National Library. Lovely because you can go full screen and zoom in! In regards to fashion, look at the women on the right and the couple in front of her; the foursome in the carriage (cab?), he seems to be wearing the white “tropical” outfit rather then the darker “English” clothes and the woman and couples on the left. The picture at the top of the post is from this.
Back to my thoughts. So there’s social strata and there’s difference in what was worn, but the finer distinctions might be lost, or at least not noticeable to outsiders; or the hierarchy wasn’t “properly” observed. (New thought: were their social distinctions known to locals but not obvious to outsiders?) Probably much muddling in the middle. Working men in the better paid jobs dressing better than they “should”? Wealth businessmen might not care as much about dressing appropriately? Certainly there was socially mobility in the middle of the century. Farm labourers became farmers. (Convict) servants became business men & women, or wealthy landowners. They might not have absorbed the finer details of socially appropriate dressing.