‘How to dress on £15 a year as a lady by a lady’ was published by Frederick Warne in 1873. It was one of series of pocket sized “Useful Books” and cost a shilling.
In the introduction, a Lady, actually Millicent Whiteside Cook, author of several books on economy, has no illusions about her work but tells us “this little manual may be less objectionable than its title leads you to expect”
You are probably already thinking that advice on economy given by an upper crust Victorian gentlewoman has no relevance and that anyway, attempting to dress properly for £15 a day would be more to the point now; but although the costs are out of date, the advice is surprisingly pertinent and the comments perceptive and to the point. “There are some who, either from physical or mental beauty would still be fascinating even if dressed in rags; but of these unhappily there are a few”
The question, ‘why make an effort with clothes?’ is answered simply “you are pleasanter in a pretty suitable gown than in an ugly ill-chosen one; your friends will like you better”
Having to live on a fixed budget is also dealt with succinctly, “It is emphatically a “great bore” .., but then half the things we have to do are “great bores”.
What about trying to keep up with trends on a tiny income? “A walk down Oxford or Sloane Street…and a stroll up and down the High Street would teach you more in an hour than I could in a long dissertation.”
Judging by the comments made now if a female in the public eye appears looking unkempt or badly dressed, it would appear that very little has changed more than a century after the book was written. “A woman is more or less judged by the style of her dress; and further, that half her influence for good and bad depends on it also”.
Mercifully there are some things even women on a very modest income today are spared, dog-skin gloves and coarse handmade “under linen”, but nearly all of the author’s other advice is sound and makes for an engaging read.
Diane Spaul How to dress on £15 a year as a lady / by a lady, 1873. Museum no. NAL L.6052.1980 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London