Standard Cuts and Lace Collars: What Patients Wore in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Asylums

Jane Hamlett and Lesley Hoskins

Forthcoming article ‘Comfort in Small Things? Clothing, Control and Agency in County Lunatic Asylums in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century England’

This photograph offers us a glimpse of the women’s day ward at Long Grove Asylum in Surrey in the early twentieth century. The nurses standing in the background are immediately identifiable by their uniforms. The patients, meanwhile, are dressed apparently warmly and comfortably, but their clothes seem to have been cut to a standard pattern. There are, however, some small variations in hue and fabric, evident even in this black and white image. A closer look shows other small differences — two of the older women sport large collars — which they could well have crocheted or knitted for themselves.

Of course, this photograph, which was probably produced to showcase the asylum’s achievements, offers a rather optimistic view of what life was like on the ward. The patients’ clothes, however, are typical of institutional provision in this era. Most public asylums (which were funded by the state) kitted pauper patients out in standardized dress — male and female patients were thus provided with reasonably comfortable, but uniform-looking clothing. Towards the end of the Victorian period some commentators called for more variation, arguing that an interest in personal appearance could aid recovery, while too uniform-like dress could further depress sufferers. Such hopes may have inspired these minor variations in colour and cloth. But at the same time, asylum management was driven by the need to keep costs low. It was cheaper to provide, and easier to organize the washing and distribution, if everyone had the same. So despite such pleas, standard dress remained the norm in public asylums well into the twentieth century.

Why does it matter what patients wore? When a patient entered an asylum they were usually stripped and bathed, and all personal items and clothing were taken away and docketed for future reference. They were then given a standard set of clothes. The patient thus had their previous identity physically removed from them when they entered the asylum, a process that was often deeply disturbing for the already unwell. Thus the granting of small things could offer a measure of consolation – some were allowed to have their wedding rings back – a vital sentimental link with the outside world. Some, like the patients in this photograph, were allowed to make small improvements to their dress — and female patients in particular were often encouraged to engage in needlework. The lace worked collars in this photograph thus symbolize the patients’ own efforts in the process of recovery — and a small push towards self expression and distinction in an otherwise uniform material world.

Jane Hamlett and Lesley Hoskins


Jane Hamlett is Lecturer in History at Royal Holloway University, London. Her publications include Material Relations: Middle-Class Families and Domestic Interiors in England, 1850-1910 (2010). She is principal investigator on the ESRC-funded project ‘At Home in the Institution? Asylum, School and Lodging House Interiors in London and South East England, 1845-1914’.

Lesley Hoskins is Visiting Research Fellow in Geography, Queen Mary, University of London. She was Research Fellow in History, Royal Holloway, University of London, on the ESRC-funded project ‘At Home in the Institution? Asylum, School and Lodging House Interiors in London and South East England, 1845-1914’. Her most recent article is ‘Stories of Work and Home in the Nineteenth Century’, Home Cultures, (2011).

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