Proceedings of the Nordic Consumer Policy Research Conference 2007
Klepp, Ingun Grimstad
National Institute for Consumer Research SIFO
Care and maintenance, a contribution to the planned Western Europe
volume of Berg's Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion
Conference theme 8: Design and fashion in consumption
Our clothing is not just a result of the clothes themselves and the way they are
produced, but also of how they are maintained. Today laundry is an important part of
this maintenance, but a few decades back laundry was far more infrequent, and
techniques such as stain removal, airing and particularly repairs were crucial in
securing a presentable appearance. I will show some of the principal features of this
development and discuss how changes in perceptions of cleanliness, the value of
textiles, the increase of affluence, technology and access to water, electricity and
detergents can help explain them. The article is written as a contribution to the
planned Western Europe volume of Berg's Encyclopaedia of World Dress and
Fashion. In addition to discussing the content I would like to discuss this to discuss
the Encyclopaedia as a literary genre as a literary genre.
Care and maintenance, a contribution to the planned Western Europe volume of
Berg's Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion.
The two enclosed texts about care and maintenance and Why do women throw out
clothes? are both written for this planned Encyclopaedia. The publisher has provided
the authors with a detailed agreement which contains the content, style and “tone” of
the planned publication. A short version of this and a description of the project was
formulated as follows by Kathryn Earle, Managing Director, Berg Fashion Library
The Berg Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion will be published in
2010 by Berg Fashion Library Ltd, a subsidiary of Berg Publishers/Oxford
International Publishers Ltd, a leader in book and journal publishing in fashion and
cultural studies. A ten-volume scholarly reference, The Encyclopaedia will explore
all aspects of dress and adornment across cultures. The overall encyclopaedia
project is edited by Joanne B. Eicher, Regents Professor Emeritus of the Department
of Design, Housing, and Apparel, University of Minnesota, USA. It will contain 655
articles, all written by scholars and organized by theme within geographical sections,
as well as 500 images per volume. An international collaborative outreach effort, this
thorough, cross-disciplinary reference will convey the full breadth of scholarship on
dress and fashion, making it accessible to students, researchers, scholars, and non-
specialists in school, academic, and public libraries around the world for many years
In order to serve a wide range of readers, we ask that all articles be written in
a clear, intelligible manner. Articles should include all relevant factual information
and be even-handed in presenting any controversial issues.
At the conference Dressing Rooms in Oslo in spring 2007 Lise Skov, Editor of the
Western Europe volume, presented the paper Encyclopaedic knowledge of dress and
fashion. In her paper she discussed why we just now get not only one, but in fact two
such comprehensive publications, with reference to how knowledge about dress and
fashion is constituted today. In her paper she wrote:
... in the last decade or so, there has been a veritable explosion of publications
which for the first time make it possible to talk about something like fashion studies.
Yet the demands of the new discipline are contradictory. On the one hand, the need to
legitimise research seems best met through imitation of humanities paradigms that
emphasise aesthetic or cultural autonomy. On the other hand, the need to prove the
value of fashion research calls for a closer association with practices in design,
production or marketing. In this respect, the emerging field of fashion studies stands
at the epistemological crossroads on a foggy day when neither of the beaten tracks
seems to lead to a reliable destination. (Skov 2007:1)
Skov concludes that the encyclopaedic form suits this situation because it allows
“more dissonance” than for instance a textbook does. In contrast to a number of other
academic texts this type of text is characterised by not contrasting and arguing against
the findings and views of other researchers. On the contrary, the texts should appear
to be authoritative in their field and not as an argument for or against different views.
At the same time it is clear that both the content, i.e. the selection of authors, subjects
and perspectives, and the texts themselves will represent different ways of
understanding dress and fashion. I will for instance be interested in the relationship
between understanding clothes as a result of the thoughts and ideas of producers and
vendors versus understanding clothes as something that is constituted through
The choice of subjects and authors is partly based on a wish to cover the great
variety that exist, and partly on the basis of current research in the various fields. That
means that some of the texts – like the two that are enclosed here – are based on
extensive previous research. Other texts, on the other hand, will have to cover more
or less white spots on the map and be based on much weaker empirical evidence. One
by-product of the work with the publication will thus be to identify precisely such
white spots. Out of the texts that I will contribute, “Clothes for Sports and Outdoor
Life” (maps the development of dress for outdoor life and sports in Western Europe
from 1800 to the present) is an example of such a white spot. One problem with the
first type of texts is that the research is usually situated in one country, in my case
Norway, whereas the text of the Encyclopaedia is supposed to cover a greater
geographical area, in this case “Western Europe”.
I want to discuss this literary genre based on these two texts.
• Are they “clear, intelligible”, and do they include “all relevant factual information
and be even-handed in presenting any controversial issues”?
• Does the relationship between the predominantly Norwegian empirical evidence
work in comparison to the wider geographical area they are supposed to cover?
In addition I want a wider discussion about whether this is a type of publication that
will advance “fashion studies”, in contrast to textbooks and journals about clothes, or
articles about clothes in publications where the dominant theme is not clothes, but
consumption, material culture etc. Of course I do not think that it is a matter of either-
or, but that it may be important for an academic field in rapid development to reflect
on how the field should be constituted in the years to come.
Care and maintenance
Care and maintenance are important for durability and the way clothes look, they
have been both an advanced craft and a time consuming part of women's unpaid work
in the home.
Throughout much of Western European history clothes and textiles have been
among the most precious possessions of a household. The many labour intensive
processes, from the cultivation of flax and shearing of sheep to the finished clothes,
made extensive use of repairs and maintenance profitable. Hard physical labour and
few items of clothing per person resulted in a lot of wear. In poor families the mother
stayed up past bedtime because repairs had to be made when the clothes had been
taken off for the night. Many people did not own more than what they wore. Even for
better off women mending and patching were significant everyday tasks.
Techniques for repairing textiles were important parts of home economics
training for girls, which became common with the introduction of primary schools at
the end of the 19th century. The girls were not trusted with repairing real clothes, but
practised on mending and patching samplers that were later used as models for their
own work. In the domestic science schools that emerged during the same period
repairs were an important part of the curriculum. Repairs should be as invisible as
possible. The girls also learned different techniques to prevent wear and ensure that
future repairs would be as simple as possible. Closely associated with this knowledge
were ways to use and store clothes to prevent wear, wrinkling and soiling as much as
possible. Protective clothing worn over regular clothes in the form of aprons,
overcoats and galoshes was part of this.
Proverbs show that wearing clothes with holes was associated with shame, as
opposed to properly mended clothes, which did not dishonour a man (examples from
Denmark? England?). Inability to use textile remnants, rags and patches to the last
fibre was also associated with shame. Patches were either used in repair work or
made into new textiles by sowing small pieces of cloth together. If the remnants were
of poorer quality they were used as padding, woven into rag rugs or carded and
mixed with new fibres. Several of these techniques had a revival during and
immediately after World War II, when the access to new textiles again became more
In the post-war era the standard of living in Western Europe has increased
rapidly, and most rapidly in Norway, which was among the poorest countries and
today is among the richest. Along with growing affluence access to clothes and
textiles increased. The rag heaps grew rapidly both in quantity and quality. The
techniques that had been used as a virtue of necessity were associated with frugality
and diligence, good feminine virtues. With the hippie movement, women's liberation,
anti-fashion and not least the increasing focus on creativity these economising
techniques enjoyed an upswing in the 1970s as fun ways of “making something
yourself”. The patches should no longer be invisible, but were used as decorative
elements. Torn and tattered clothes were no longer unambiguous signs of poverty and
deprivation. The transition between repairing and decorating clothes was blurred.
Patches were increasingly produced by new materials, and patching techniques were
no longer a way of making use of resources, but had an independent aesthetic value.
Laundry; changes in techniques and increase in quantity
Whereas repair work has decreased drastically, the time spent on keeping the clothes
clean and the home clear of clothes on their way back to wardrobes, drawers or the
laundry basket has increased significantly. This increase has occurred in spite of new
and effective laundry aids.
In the middle of the 19th century the quantity of laundry was still very limited.
Among the general population in Norway the practice of using various interior
textiles such as table cloths, napkins and curtains had not yet arrived, and clothes
were to a limited extent washed. We have good information about this through Eilert
Sundt's comprehensive description of “cleanliness in Norway” (1969). He reports that
it was not common to own a towel in rural areas of Norway. The most frequently
washed clothes were the underwear, which was usually washed between once every
fortnight and once every 2-3 months. However, many people did not wear underwear
and wore clothes of leather and homespun. Leather was not washed and homespun
was only washed in exceptional cases. The body was washed a couple of times a
year, or possibly only during the annual Christmas bath. Sundt writes that many a
pair of pants were worn out without tasting any other water than the occasional rain
shower. Socks were not washed in rural areas, and Sundt comments that this is no
stranger for rural people than it is for city dwellers not to wash their shoes.
The transition from beds with fur rugs and ticking – which were not washed –
to feather-beds with sheets and quilt covers as well as the increased use of interior
textiles contributed to the growth of laundry. So did the spread of underwear and
other linen and cotton clothes. Laundry was organised as seasonal work, ideally once
a year. The work took several weeks and was performed by professional
washerwomen. The techniques that were used for washing linen were common to
large parts of Europe. The clothes were boiled with lye made from ashes, or simply
boiled with ashes. After that, the clothes were beaten clean of dirt and ashes, usually
in brooks or lakes. The use of soap in addition to lye was on the increase during the
19th century and contributed to whiter laundry. After being boiled with lye the
laundry was laid or hung out to bleach in the sun. The shining white textiles were the
measure of the washerwoman's art, and also a strong symbol of feminine purity and
chastity – a point that producers of detergents later would put into words and images.
Soap has been industrially produced in Norway since the early 19th century,
however, home-made soap from fat and ashes was not uncommon up until after
World War II. Soap was one of the earliest consumer goods, and a product that has
made strong use of advertising and other forms of marketing all along . Sunlight is
regarded as one of the first branded goods. Soap has also been an important export
article from the West to the colonies, both as an regular commodity, but also
ideologically closely linked with civilising black people.
Laundry was hard work, and as the amount of laundry increased, there were
experiments with new and improved methods. The first major improvements were
zinc buckets, which lightened the transportation of water, and the washboard, an
American invention from the 1860s. At the end of the 19th century different manually
operated washing machines and laundromats appeared, in 1925 came the first electric
laundromat from the USA, and the first fully automated laundromat appeared in
1949. The organisation of the work also went through major changes. The amount of
laundry increased, also for regular people, and access to cheap female labour and
house maids was more limited. Thus more and more women washed their own
family's textiles. The laundry moved into washhouses and cellars. Laundry experts
were eager to turn laundry into a professional service, but nevertheless most of the
laundry was done in the home, particularly in Scandinavia, where commercial
laundries are little used. The housewife, a female role that transcends economy and
class, thus became the performer of this ancient female profession.
The increase in the amount of laundry was one of several aspects of the
increase in cleanliness and hygiene in Europe in the 19th century up until the 1960s.
This development was a grand alliance between medical reformers and educational
and political reformers who aimed to improve public health and fight the great
epidemic diseases, but also to cleanse society of disorder and undesirable elements.
The housewife became an important ally in this fight, with a particular task in
keeping the home clean and teaching the rising generation the importance of a
pleasant and hygienically clean home. Domestic science schools were important both
in the training of housewives and in the establishment of institutions that developed
and administered domestic science knowledge.
Attention had primarily been directed at infrastructure, water and sewage, but
after this had become more organised during the 19th century, the attention moved
inside the homes and to the individual's body and clothes. Doctors, domestic science
experts and not least advertising for hygiene products argued in favour of
increasingly frequent body and clothes wash, and of doing the laundry more often
instead of letting it accumulate into big laundry days. At the start of the 20th century
the underwear – which had become a matter of course by that time – was washed
once a week together with the weekly body wash in the city and once every fortnight
in the Norwegian countryside. The weekly change of underwear survived as a norm
until the 1950s and -60s. Today it is common to change underwear every day. In
Norway 88 % change this often, whereas 98 % of the Dutch population put on clean
underwear every day. The corresponding figure for washing t-shirts in Norway shows
that 52 % put on clean shirts every day, whereas 71 % of the Dutch did so in 2002.
There is good information about laundry in 1955 through a Swedish public
survey “tvätt” (“laundry”). If we leave underwear aside, the average annual laundry
for a man included 78 shirts, 24 collars, 12 shirt cuffs, eight sport shirts, three
overalls, two pullovers, a track suits, four shorts or other casual pants, three slipovers
and a windcheater. For women the annual laundry included 64 aprons, 12 overcoats,
42 blouses of different kinds, 12 jumpers, 14 dresses, four sweaters, a windcheater
and four shorts. On average she washed a protective item of clothing for housework
between once and twice a week, more often than she washes sweaters, blouses,
jumpers or dresses combined. Long pants and skirts were not part of the laundry.
Compared with the great amounts of training and leisure wear we wash today, an
annual laundry consisting of one training overall, a windcheater and four shorts is of
course surprising. In the Netherlands in 2002 jeans were usually washed after being
used twice (38 %) and after five times or more in Norway (35 %). The survey from
1955 also shows the importance of protective clothing. Dirt was still perceived as
something that came from without in the form of dust and filth. Today the focus is
rather on dirt that comes from the body through sweat and bodily grease. It is the
smell and not the stains that decide whether something needs to be washed.
Hygiene was an important argument for the shift towards washing laundry
once a week, but for the shift to even more frequent washing other arguments were
used. These were partly tied to the danger of smelling and thus for social
stigmatisation, and partly to the new synthetic materials that “required” more
frequent washing to preserve their good characteristics. At first nylon stockings and
shirts were not part of “the laundry”, but had to be rinsed by hand after use, which
according to both advertising and domestic science books in the 1940s and 1950s
would save work.
In 2000 an average washing machine in UK washed 274 washing cycles with
an average 2 kg load. The Americans washed approximately twice as much, 1332 kg
per year, three times as much per household as in 1950. The growth in laundry was
particularly due to more clothes, more washable clothes, increased changing
frequency for clothes and towels, and the fact that the washing machine has replaced
other methods of keeping the clothes in order. During this period there was little or
no change in the washing of bed linen, and possible a decline in the washing of
interior textiles. The latter is due to less use of such textiles and a shift to other
materials, such as paper napkins and oilcloths. Sanitary towels and diapers
disappeared from the laundry and were replaced with disposable products. In the
period from 1950 until today many new fibres and the shift towards coloured textiles
has resulted in more complex laundry. The main laundry is no longer white. Even
though underwear is washed more frequently, this has not lead to more laundry
because the individual items of clothing have become smaller and lighter, and
because fewer types of underwear are in use.
Laundry today is completely dominated by washing with water and soap,
mostly in privately owned fully automated washing machines. Only a couple of
decades ago other techniques were equally important. Stains were removed as soon as
they appeared, and clothes were aired, brushed and pressed. If we go even further
back, a plethora of different techniques were in use to keep textiles reasonably clean
and free from vermin.
The finishing work has changed considerably. Smoothing was an important
part of the work with the white woven linen and cotton fabrics. The tools for this
purpose have changed, from smoothing stones, via rollers and mangles to irons first
warmed with coal or on the stove, and later with electricity, like the ones we use
The shift to other fibres, more use of knitted fabrics and changing ideals for the
use of women's time and for the look of textiles have reduced the use of smoothing.
Today not everybody iron the most obvious “ironing fabrics”, such as canvas woven
cotton. Others have extended the tradition of smoothing all textiles to the new “non-
ironing” fabrics such as terry cloth and jersey.
Even though many people have cut down drastically on the smoothing, this
does not mean that laundry no longer requires finishing. With the large amounts of
clothes that are used – and washed – today, a lot of work goes into sorting, folding
and putting the clean clothes back in place. This work is closely associated with
keeping track of the family's clothes, what they have, where it is, where it should be
and whether it is clean and presentable when it is supposed to be used. This also
involves defining when something needs washing and putting it in the laundry basket.
The latter is an issue that often leads to conflicts because of diverging standards and
different perceptions of the boundary between keeping one's own things in order
versus joint housework chores. The laundry basket is often used as a way of tidying
up, a place to dump the heap of more or less used clothes that pile up on available
surfaces, such as chairs, beds and floors.
Pure female honour
One aspect of care and maintenance has not changed; the work and the responsibility
for the work did and does lie with the women despite persistent attempts to achieve a
more equal distribution of the unpaid work in the home. Today, laundry is the most
female dominated part of housework. Therefore laundry can be used as a point of
departure for understanding the interplay between men and women in relationships
(Kaufmann), or to discuss why not more has changed in practice after several decades
of gender equality as a publically accepted discourse (Klepp).
An obvious way of explaining why laundry is so dominated by women is quite
simply that after all most things to do with clothes and textiles are. But there are also
Eilert Sundt writes that women competed to have the whitest laundry and that
an unkempt person in a household would dishonour a woman. In the world of the
fairytales the ability to wash white is associated with pure, proper femininity and
distinguishes a real bride from trolls and other non-Christians. Hard work in wash
houses was regarded as a cure for loose women. Generally there is a close connection
between external purity and feminine purity, interpreted as sexual innocence. Even
though it is not expected that women today are virgins when they marry, the idea of a
more delicate female purity is still alive. Women wash their own clothes more
frequently than those of their men. Dirty children and unkempt men will still hurt a
married woman's reputation.
Women are supposed to be pure, but at the same time the feminine is closely
associated with dirt and the intimate. Whereas no-one reacts when mother sniffs her
family's clothes that lie around to find out if they are dirty, a man with his nose down
his wife's or daughter's panties will arouse quite different associations. Men are
assumed to be uncomfortable with bodily secretions and intimate care for children,
sick or elderly people. When women want to keep laundry to themselves part of the
explanation may be that they do not want to let men get so close to their dirty clothes.
The most important reason why women do the laundry “themselves” is men's
alleged lack of skills and inability to learn to sort laundry properly. Kaufmann shows
how formerly good washers among French men slowly, but inexorably became bad
washers after they established themselves with a female partner. It is more difficult to
wash other people's clothes than one's own, and women's clothes are more complex
and therefore more difficult to wash than men's. Nevertheless, it is striking that men –
who do not generally have learning difficulties – so consistently are thought
incapable of learning this.
One practical explanation of female dominance over laundry is that clothes are
so intimately associated with social life. This, too, is a female-dominated field in
Western Europe. Women dominate arrangements about social events, and not least
know (or determine) what is suitable to wear on different occasions. The laundry
work is closely interwoven with organising the family's clothes, and thus also
knowing what is clean and in order at any time. If women hand over control of
laundry, they may also have to renounce on the possibility to control what the family
wears on different occasions.
After going without clothes, wearing dirty clothes is the most obvious violation of
clothes norms, possibly next to breaking the gender specific dress norm for men. As
long as the clothes are clean and proper, they may be both old-fashioned and “wrong”
with regard to occasion and age.
For centuries being well-groomed has been regarded as one of the most
important criteria for being well-dressed. But what is regarded as well-groomed has
changed. Today the focus is on the absence of odour, and on newly washed clothes.
Today putting on fresh clothes every day is regarded as a way of showing that you
are a responsible and reliable person. But this norm – like most clothes norms – does
not apply equally to all, and certainly not equally on all occasions.
The norm about clean clothes is stronger for women than for men. Whereas
women cannot be too clean, overly meticulous men are not masculine. Thus there is
an ideal of a (slightly) unshaven, unkempt man, while a corresponding ideal does not
exist for women. Similarly chalk white has different significance depending on
gender. On women it is associated with innocence, as in the virgin's shining white
bridal dress. On the contrary, men dressed all in white are immediately sexually
suspect. For a man in a suit, the norm says that the shirt should be immaculate, and as
long as it is, no-one questions the cleanness of the suit. For women varying between
different outfits is an important way of visually showing that the clothes are
frequently changed and thus also washed.
The norm about cleanness also changes with age. Small children should be
allowed to get dirty. Particularly in the Nordic country, where a good childhood is
strongly associated with active play in nature, children full of mud and dirt are a sign
of happy and healthy children. For school children the focus on cleanness increases.
Among adults the rule is that ill-groomed elderly people are even more unsavoury
than ill-groomed adults.
The relationship between occasion and cleanness is complicated. But the
requirement for cleanness increases when you leave your own home, when you are in
the company of others indoors, and in situations where your professionality or other
forms of reliability are at stake. Due to the great focus on body odour, training –
especially indoors – has gradually become a place where the clothes should be newly
Washing and maintenance of clothes are important for how they look and thus
for how a person appears. As in most other areas to do with clothes there are
numerous nuances and distinctions in this field. Some of them are durable, tough
structures, such as the perception that this is primarily women's responsibility. Others
may be short lived and break with traditions, such as the production of new clothes
with apparent dirt and wear. With regard to the social significance of the cleanness of
clothes this is a field within clothes research that is little developed.
Kaufmann, Jean-Claude 1998. Dirty Linen: couples and their laudry. London:
Middelsex University Press.
Klepp, Ingun Grimstad 2005. The meaning of cleanliness: modern demonstrations of
female purity, i Hagemann, Gro & Hege Roll-Hansen (red.) Twentieth-century
housewivs: meanings and implications of unpaid work. Oslo: Unipub.
Klepp, Ingun Grimstad 2006. Skittentøyets kulturhistorie: hvorfor kvinner vasker
klær. Oslo: Novus.
Klepp 2007 a og b
Shove, Elizabeth 2003. Converging conventions of comfort, cleanliness and
convenience. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Sundt, Eilert 1975 (1869). Om Renligheds-Stellet i Norge: Til Oplysning om Flid og
Fremskridt i Landet. Oslo: Gyldendal