Gender and identity: The relationship between femininity and dress in Victorian mining districts in England and Wales

The nineteenth century saw a redefinition of gendered roles and identities of which dress codes were an important aspect. My research investigates changing female costume in mid-Victorian coalmining comparatively studied by regions. It specifically analyses the unique and practical costumes of women who worked in the coal industry, in relation to pressure for dress reform and the influence of local dress customs, while focusing on issues of female identities and ‘feminised’ characteristics.

Wigan Pit Brow Lasses c.1890 ,

There was enforced masculinisation after the 1842 Mining Act which finally ended the employment of women underground in coal mines. Those women who continued to work in the industry negotiated changing ‘femininity’ via their dress. I am particularly interested in trouser-wearing women and perceptions of gender identity. Therefore, my research explores what female workers were wearing and the practicality of this clothing for their manual occupations. It questions why some women adopted a costume of trousers while others did not and whether this had any bearing on their identity as women.

Uniquely, my study looks at the relationship between occupation, clothing and notions of feminine identity. Parallel changes in dress codes were occurring in many sectors, e.g. the decline of smocking in agriculture, in Welsh women’s costumes, localised hat design, in underwear and in sporting and leisure costumes. My work addresses this wider cultural swathe of change and the social history of working-class dress, bearing upon key issues of gender identity and Victorian attitudinal changes towards women. Dress history has often been divorced from social, cultural and working-class history and this research opens up exciting opportunities to show clothes in use in a social context and from a woman’s perspective.


Material Culture as Heritage

In the nineteenth-century photography changed the way people viewed and recorded the world.[1] The pit brow lasses were often considered a curiosity by ‘outsiders’ to their community and as such they were extensively photographed and depicted in cartes-des-visite. Unfortunately there is an absence of material culture in the form of clothing as these items were worn, patched, and re-fashioned into other garments. The wonderful photographic collections of pit brow lasses and bal maidens offers the social historian an opportunity to research the hypothesis that each geographic area had a distinctive ‘dress-code’ and local costume that was specific and unique to the locale. However, the idea that photography presents ‘actuality’ and ‘true’ life must be critically considered.[2]

This interpretation of visual sources opens up opportunities for exhibitions and, additionally, I see opportunities for media engagement in the form of radio, television and documentaries. Growing enthusiasm for heritage and history has expanded the public’s interest in the past and legacy, which has facilitated the need for innovative ways of representing history. Furthermore, it has launched exciting forms of presenting heritage: interactive public events, displays, plays, and art installations.



I completed my BA in English and History at Bishop Grosseteste University with a first class honours and the Chancellors Award for Academic Achievement in 2015. I was awarded an Academic Excellence studentship from Leicester University to study at the prestigious Marc Fitch Institute – The Centre for English Local History, for a Masters. That same year my essay ‘What makes a particular locality distinct’ won the esteemed Harold Fox Award. My dissertation investigated the tripartite relationship between women, clothing and emancipation during the period 1890-1920s. I was supervised by Professor Keith Snell and was awarded a distinction. Currently I am an AHRC Heritage Consortium PhD student based at Teesside University supervised by Dr. Charlie McGuire and Professor Natasha Vall from Teesside University and Dr. Nicola Verdon from Sheffield Hallam University.

History and historical endeavour have become a major part of my life. Consequently I am an active member of several history societies. I am involved in the City of Lincoln Historical Association, both as a committee member and as a local historian who enjoys the social aspect of lectures and events. Furthermore, I have maintained excellent relations with tutors from my previous institutions and continue to work with them on local events and research projects.



  • Cultural Conflict in Ilfracombe: Fern-collecting, and the Cottage Garden Society’s Prize-Giving Controversy of 1860. (2015) The Devon Historian. Vol. 84
  • How the sights and sounds of the city made an Impression on one writer. (18.06.2014) Lincolnshire Echo, pp.60-61
  • Visions of Conflict: Learning about the War. (03.04.2014) Lincolnshire Echo: Lincolnshire Nostalgia. Edition 2, p.21
  • On the Nature of the Weather, in Bright’s Intelligencer, Ilfracombe’s Newspaper for 1860-1 (Spring 2014) Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries. XLI (v) pp.131-134.

Radio Interview

  • Christmas in Lincoln, 1914. Melvyn in the Morning. BBC Radio Lincolnshire 25.12.2014.

[1] A.Briggs, A Victorian Portrait: Victorian life and values as seen through the work of studio photographers (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1989), p.6.

[2] Ibid.



Dr. Charlie McGuire – Teesside University

Professor Natasha Vall – Teesside University

Dr. Nicola Verdon – Sheffield Hallam University