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Garments deliberately concealed in buildings

Dinah Eastop

Published in: Wallis, R and Lymer K. (eds.) 2001. A Permeability of Boundaries? New approaches to the Archaeology of Art, Religion and Folklore. BAR International Series S936. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 79-84.

This published paper was originally delivered at a conference called 'A Permeability of Boundaries? New approaches to the Archaeology of Art, Religion and Folklore' at the University of Southampton in 1999.

© Copyright 2001 Dinah Eastop

This article may not be reproduced without the author's prior permission. This article may be used for research and education purposes only and must be appropriately cited.


This paper explores the permeability of the person/object boundary as manifested by the apotropaeic (protective/propitiatory) practice of deliberately concealing garments (and other artefacts, and cats) in buildings. Although the practice of deliberately concealing worn shoes in buildings is well known, the practice of concealing other worn garments in buildings is poorly documented.

This paper has several aims. First, to draw attention to the practice of concealing garments in buildings and to the risk of loss or damage to rare garment finds resulting from the current lack of familiarity with concealment practices. Second, to highlight some recently uncovered garments and their importance to an understanding of the history of dress. Third, to introduce a new research project dedicated to the study of these artefacts and the practice of concealment. And finally, to demonstrate the benefits of crossing disciplinary boundaries.

Concealments as propitiatory offerings

The practice of deliberately concealing objects within the fabric of buildings has not gone unnoticed. One famous example is the cache found in Lauderdale House, Highgate (Swann 1996: 4). It consisted of four dead chickens, a candlestick, a broken glass goblet and two plaited rush thongs. Apotropaeic practices have been investigated by Merrifield (1987), Easton (1995) and Lloyd et al. (this volume), and are currently the subject of PhD research (Hoggard n.d.). The most comprehensive record of the practice of garment concealment is the documentation of shoes found in buildings (Swann 1996, Cameron 1998). An analysis of desiccated cats found in buildings lists twenty five such finds (Howard 1951). Howard divides the finds into three categories: foundation sacrifices, vermin (rat) scarers and accidental enclosures. It has been suggested that the cats in the first category may have been immured as human substitutes.

Concealed garments

The practice of concealing shoes is well recorded largely due to June Swann, former Keeper of the Boot and Shoe Collection in Northampton Museum. A card index of shoe finds has been kept at Northampton Museum since the late 1950s (Swann 1996: 56). By 1996 the museum had records of over 1500 once-concealed shoes or boots. They were found in a wide range of buildings, and most often in or near chimneys or fireplaces. From this data it appears that the second most common location for concealing shoes was under the floor or above the ceiling. The third most common location was within walls. Although finds other than footwear have been noted in the museum index, there has been no systematic recording of other garment finds. Of the associated finds noted by Swann 1996, fifty-nine were other items of dress. Of these fifty-nine, nineteen were hats and caps. Other finds included animal bones and bottles, and twelve shoe finds included seeds or nuts.

In the last few years conservators at the Textile Conservation Centre1 have been asked to advise on the preservation of two very rare doublets. They were both found concealed in buildings, but were not associated with shoe finds. The so-called Reigate doublet (TCC Ref. No. 1851) was found creased and soiled in a wall cavity during the restoration of a stone-mason's premises in Reigate, Surrey. It is made of plain weave linen, and its cut and construction date it to the early seventeenth century. It is thought to be a rare example of a man's everyday wear, possibly the livery worn by a young man. The presence of a row of hand-stitched eyelets along the lower edge of the doublet, concealed beneath the waist tabs, shows that the doublet would have been worn with hose, which would have been laced to the doublet to stop them falling down. The doublet is currently preserved as an example of a deliberately concealed garment. Despite its crumpled condition, a pattern was taken and a replica doublet is now displayed alongside the fragmentary original (Stanton 1996).

The Abingdon cache

A second doublet was found in a house in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in 1994. This doublet was also in a worn, soiled and fragmentary condition (TCC Ref. No. 2304.1). The Abingdon doublet has a brown wool outer fabric, a bast fibre interlining and a wool and bast fibre lining. The button-holes are worked in rather big stitches in a blue linen yarn. Dye analysis revealed that the brown wool contained indigotin, a blue colourant, indicating that the doublet may have been bluer when new. Enough remains of the fragmentary doublet to replicate its cut and construction, which indicate it is a child's doublet of c.1625-30. One unusual feature of this doublet is the absence of tabs at the waist. This and its small size may indicate the doublet was made for a boy who was still young enough to be dressed in skirts rather than hose (Hayward forthcoming).

Another unusual feature of this doublet is the layers of paper or card used to stiffen the collar, evident under x-ray examination. The only other example of such stiffening in a doublet of similar date is a very luxurious silk doublet, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York2. The rough materials and the construction of the Abingdon doublet suggest that it was made by the woman of the house rather than by a specialist (Hayward forthcoming).

The doublet was found in a hop-filled wall cavity during restoration work in the attic of a house at 26/26a East St. Helens Street, Abingdon, Oxfordshire. It was found with a group of other artefacts, including a mid-eighteenth century pocket, a baby's cap, five coins, a trade token and some document fragments (Harrison 1998a; Harrison & Gill in prep.). The trade token bears the words, 'JOHN TODERVEY/OXON MILLINER/1660'. The document fragments are from three receipts given to a Mr Roberts for payments made in 1670, 1687 and 1674 or 1679. The earliest coin is dated to 1573-7 and the latest is a cartwheel penny of 1797. It is unclear whether the cache was formed at one time or whether it was added to between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. When discovered in 1994, the pocket contained the cap, the token, the coins and the document fragments.

The pocket (TCC Ref. No. 2304.3) consists of a small cloth bag fitted with ties. Women of all classes wore detachable pockets in the eighteenth century, either singly or in pairs, under full skirts. The pockets were tied around the waist and were worn over the chemise but under full skirts. Late eighteenth century engravings show poorer women wearing pockets over their skirts, although generally hidden by large aprons (Harrison 1998a). The pocket is made with an outer layer of printed cotton fabric and a lining of yellow silk, and is edged with braid. The undyed cotton fabric (dated to c.1740) is block-printed in one colour (maroon) with a small sprig pattern. The slightly indistinct lines of the printed design indicate that the printed fabric is not of high quality. Examples of such fabrics survive inside packing cases and they have been used as dress fabric for the cheaper end of the market. Only one other example of a printed cotton pocket has been identified to date. Such pockets were not decorative or fashionable and therefore, under normal circumstances, would have worn out and been discarded. This makes the Abingdon pocket a rare example of a cheap, and what was once more common, type of pocket. The combination of a cheaper outer fabric and a more expensive silk lining is unusual. It is possible that the pocket was made from another garment, and that turning the more robust material outermost was a protective measure. This pocket is a particularly rare example of everyday wear. It is interesting to note that the pocket was not new when hidden, but was worn, torn and repaired.

The creased and soiled baby's cap (TCC Ref. No. 2304.2) found in the cache is made of a slightly stiffened linen fabric, decorated with two different types of gauze-weave lace, a relatively cheap form of lace. The cap is typical of those dated between 1740-70. Although it has signs of wear, the cap is not as worn or damaged as the pocket. As noted above, the cap was found inside the pocket, together with the coins, token and document fragments. The presence of the baby's cap is significant because deliberately concealed garments are often children's clothing. This has led to speculation that such garments may have been hidden to protect the household against infant deaths and/or to promote fertility/fecundity. The presence of the child's doublet and a baby's cap enclosed in the womb-like enclosure of the pocket may also be significant. Recent research in the fields of archaeology and anthropology has stressed the metaphoric associations of artefacts (notably Mackenzie 1991 and Tilley 1998). The former's analysis of string bags widely used in central New Guinea where they are attributed gendered characteristics may help in understanding the cap enclosed in the woman's pocket.

Careful examination of the pocket before conservation treatment uncovered plant remains, identified as dried hops. Hops have long been recognised for their healing and protective properties. It is surmised that their presence in the wall cavity was deliberate and may have enhanced the protective efficacy of the concealed garments. The presence of the hops in this cache reinforces the idea that worn garments concealed in buildings were accorded some sort of protective function. It is also interesting to note that from the end of the seventeenth century hop-pickers were paid with metal tokens. Growers guaranteed that the tokens would be redeemed for cash once the crop was harvested. Traders accepted tokens because they could be exchanged for cash after the harvest (Harrison 1998a; Harrison & Gill in prep.).

Other concealed garments

Other examples of deliberately concealed garments include a brown felted wool hat found walled up in a buttress of a church near Saffron Walden (TCC Ref. No. 0299). The cap has been dated to the fourteenth century because it was found immured in a buttress dated to c.1350. It is a very rare example of medieval dress and one preserved in remarkably good condition (Finch 1983). Another example is a knitted cap from Basle in Switzerland (Historical Museum Basle no. 1981.10), a rare example of everyday wear of the mid fifteenth century (c.1460). The cap was found during restoration work under the wooden floor of the choir screen of St. Leohard of Basle. Such caps were made by specialist beret makers ('Barrettlimacher'). They were loosely knitted from woollen yarn and were shrunk and felted to the desired shape. The front of the cap has been roughly cut to form a fringe and it is thought that the cap's owner probably cut the fringing (Historical Museum Basle 1994: 264).

Another interesting find from the upper Rhine region is from the monastery of Alpirsbach in Southern Germany. Five linen garments and a linen pouch (possibly a school bag) were found under floorboards during restoration work. There were three shirts, a youth's doublet dating to the period 1540-1575, and a pair of hose with codpiece from the first half of the sixteenth century. All bear signs of having been worn (Stangl & Lang 1995: 48-56). The doublet and hose are extremely rare and are therefore of great importance to dress historians.

Other finds in Germany may also be significant to a study of deliberate concealment of garments in buildings. Recent finds in abandoned synagogues have revealed the extent to which obsolete ritual and secular artefacts were deposited in the attics of rural synagogues (Wiesemann 1992). These artefacts were often placed under attic floorboards, where they have remained concealed and undisturbed until recently. Finds include small cloth bags (for tefillin), hats and bonnets, a wig base, and torah covers and binders. Secular artefacts include many worn boots and shoes (TCC Ref. No. 1846). These places where ritual artefacts are hidden or placed for safe-keeping are called genizot (plural genizah) (Wiesemann 1992: 16). Concealment is a way of showing respect for artefacts with ritual associations, but appears to have been extended to secular items too. Such concealments do not appear to have had a protective function; they are the outcome of safekeeping rather than safeguarding practices. These finds provide material evidence of the small, scattered Jewish rural communities of Germany, for which there is little other evidence due to the Holocaust.

Concealed Garment Research Project

It is largely a matter of chance whether once-concealed garments are recognised as being of historical importance. The Reigate doublet was saved from the skip when the dirty linen rags were recognised as a garment because of the prominent buttons and buttonholes. It is important to emphasise that such concealments are not just historic practices, but probably form part of current building practice. In 1974 a woman in Lincoln was pestered for an old shoe by her builder, and when she eventually gave him one, it was found that the builder's old Irish labourer had already put an empty bottle between the chimney and the wall lining (Swann 1996: 58). In another recent case a worn rugby boot was used as a substitute for an eighteenth century patten (over-shoe) removed from a building (Swann 1996: 58). Similarly, when boots and shoes were found concealed on the National Trust Colby Estate in Pembrokeshire, the farmer's wife demanded that they be boarded up immediately (Brooks 2000: 68).

The need for a database of concealed garments has been recognised (Swann 1997), and the Textile Conservation Centre is in the process of establishing a Concealed Garment Research Project in association with Northampton Museum, probably as a funded three year PhD project. The project aims include: the establishment of a database of garment and associated finds to complement the Northampton museum records of concealed footwear; analysis of finds and the practice of concealment, to include comparison with existing records of shoe finds; and, the establishment of a web site to encourage interest in the project and to foster awareness of the practice and the historic importance of the resulting finds.

Swann noted builders' reluctance to discuss the practice of concealment, and attributed this to their fear of being considered superstitious (Swann 1996: 65). Most footwear finds are uncovered by workmen, but reported by women. Although establishing the nature and extent of current practices of deliberate concealment may prove problematic, recent research has shown that co-working with the building trade can prove effective (Hoggard n.d.). The Concealed Garment Research Project includes strategies for assessing current practice, including liaison with the building trade to draft (and field test) guidelines for identifying, notifying and documenting concealment finds (artefacts and site). A similar scheme proved very effective for building site excavations.


Concealments provide fascinating material evidence for the way artefacts move between categories of value and rubbish (Thompson 1979). They also highlight ethical issues fundamental to the conservation profession. Once finds have been identified and documented, should they be removed permanently or re-concealed, as demanded by the farmer's wife in Pembrokeshire; or should substitutes be hidden in their place? One might even consider whether additional propitiatory offerings should be made.

From a textile conservation perspective, what treatments, if any, should such finds be subjected to? Should they be left largely untreated, and left in their 'as found' state? This 'minimum intervention' policy was adopted for the Reigate doublet, where public access issues were addressed by the making of a replica to display alongside the original (Stanton 1996, Eastop 1998). What significance or 'evidential value', if any, should be attributed to the soiling and creasing? (Brooks et al. 1996; Eastop & Brooks 1996; Eastop & Brooks 1998). If soiling and creasing is retained because it is considered significant, what are the likely effects of this in terms of the textile's preservation? A preliminary study of the effects of leaving soiled textiles untreated was carried out by Harrison (1998b). Her investigation indicated the environmental conditions for the storage and display of such artefacts would require particularly careful control and monitoring.

When considering the ethical questions raised by attempting to preserve deliberately concealed garments, it may be helpful to adopt the social-life-of-objects model proposed by Kopytoff (1986). Plotting the changing cultural biography of an eighteenth century Chinese thangka (now part of the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum), and comparing its expected and actual 'biographies' helped to highlight both curatorial and conservation issues (Bacchus forthcoming). Similarly, the analysis of an Egyptian mummy and coffin, now in a Surrey museum, showed clearly how the values attributed to these 'artefacts' had changed over time and space (Crowhurst 2000). The fact that many objects, particularly textile artefacts, have multiple and competing histories is becoming more widely recognised (Eastop 2000). Such awareness does not diminish the problems of conserving deliberately concealed garments, but it can help to bring issues into sharper focus and hence help 'heritage workers' review their practice.

This research manifests the permeability of both disciplinary and institutional boundaries. The practice of concealment itself straddles a number of boundaries. The garments are concealed at the boundary of inside and outside, and often mark the additions of new building components to old. The worn garments stand at the boundary between objects and subjects: they bear the imprint of those who wore them and they are presumed to have some agency; in these ways they exhibit properties of both subjects and objects. Kopytoff's work has particular salience in this discussion because he was interested in the 'permeability of the boundary between the world of things and that of people' (Kopytoff 1986:87).

The particular significance of the shoe and the footprint as a carrier both of the physical and metaphorical imprint of the person merits further investigation. For example, McCarthy (this volume) notes the burial of a shoe on top of the coffin in his research of African-influenced burial practices of ante-bellum Philadelphia, and Bradley (1997) suggests the footprint may have been a significant boundary-crossing medium and symbol in prehistoric rock art.


The Concealed Garment Research Project should lead to a better understanding of past and current practices, better data on known finds, and reduced risks of loss or damage to finds and associated material. The documentation and analysis of the practice of concealing garments in buildings provides a wonderful opportunity for inter-disciplinary co-operation between anthropologists, archaeologists, conservators, curators, historians and scientists.


I wish to acknowledge the many conservators, who as postgraduate students and/or colleagues, share my enthusiasm for concealed garments, notably Sue Stanton and Anna Harrison. I also thank Nell Hoare, Director of the Textile Conservation Centre and Deputy Head of School, Winchester School of Art, for permission to publish.

1 The Textile Conservation Centre was established as an independent charitable company limited by guarantee in 1975, when it was also granted grace and favour accommodation at Hampton Court Palace. In 1998 the TCC legally amalgamated with the University of Southampton. In summer 1999 it moved to a custom-designed building on the Winchester campus of the university. Contact details: TCC, University of Southampton, Winchester Campus, Park Avenue, Winchester, Hampshire, SO23 8DL, UK. Tel. + (44) 023 8059 7100. [back to text]

2 Paper presented by Chris Paulocik at the ICOM-CC Textiles Working Group interim meeting, Palermo, 22-24 October 1998, published as R.Varoli-Piazza (ed.) Interdisciplinary approach about studies and conservation of Medieval Textiles, Preprints of the ICOM-CC Textiles Working Group interim meeting, Palermo, 22-24 October 1998. Rome: Il Mondo. [back to text]



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