Clothing, Dress, and Fashion
CLOTHING, DRESS, AND FASHIONparis and the birth of the fashion designer
charles frederick worth and fashion design
fashion production and distribution beyond couture
living the fashionable life
During the nineteenth century, fashion (that is the design, manufacture, promotion, retailing, and consumption of clothing created according to the dictates of cyclical trends) became one of the defining cultural products of European civilization. The production and circulation of fashionable dress drove the expansion of industrial and commercial empires and formed a focus around which urban societies structured complex hierarchies based upon the expression of class position and the exercising of taste. Beyond the elite, whose engagement with fashion had long symbolized high social status, access to fashionable sartorial products was opened up to a broader constituency than ever before as new systems of manufacture and a revolution in communications brought modish goods within the reach of middle and working-class consumers with unprecedented speed.
This is not to suggest that fashion was a new concept in itself. Since the fourteenth century at least, court societies in the Italian and German states, France, Spain, England, and the Low Countries had developed magnificent systems of corporeal display, drawing on trade in rich textiles, innovative cutting techniques, and regularly changing silhouettes. By the end of the seventeenth century, the political and competitive power of fashion had been harnessed by the court of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715), whose chief minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683) famously observed that "fashion is to France what the gold mines of Peru are to Spain." With Paris swiftly recognized as the European center for the creation of luxury goods and the source of fashionable knowledge, by the following century other nations began to challenge assumptions that all fashion originated in the French capital. In Britain, for example, the mass production of cotton clothing, utilizing raw-materials and "exotic" designs originating from the British Empire together with the harnessing of local technological and entrepreneurial expertise, formed the basis of interlinked industrial and consumer revolutions that set the context for an increasing democratization of fashion. London was also widely recognized as the prime location for male tailoring from the 1780s onwards.
Yet it is fair to claim that Paris never lost its reputation as international capital of high fashion, and from the 1790s its marchandes de modes (forerunners of the modern couturier or fashion designer), were well placed both to benefit from traditions that had been in place for a hundred years and to institute new directions in the origination and control of fashionable dress. The French Revolution failed to completely eradicate the deeply hierarchical and conservative organization of the Parisian clothing trades, and the international renown of its most revered practitioners ensured that the city's close association with luxury and chic endured into the 1800s and beyond. Dressmakers to the new nobilities of the Directoire and the empire could continue to purvey a distinctively elegant product to clients with sufficient money or social connections in the same manner that their well-known predecessor Rose Bertin (1714–1813) had ministered to Bourbon circles (most famously Marie-Antoinette [1755–1793]) until 1789. Louis Hippolyte Leroy—skilled at structuring the subtle lines of the new neoclassical styles of dress—enjoyed the patronage of the Empress Josephine (1763–1814), Queen Hortense (r. 1806–1810) and the Duchess of Wellington. The elaborate work of Mesdames Palmyre, Victorine, and Vignon was similarly prized by the leading socialites of the July Monarchy.
By the 1840s the rarefied rue Saint Honoré, which had housed the showrooms of these elite establishments, had been joined by the rue Richelieu and the rue de la Paix, forming the heart of an aristocratic fashion district. The neighboring Palais Royal, together with the rue Saint Denis, reflected changing times in their provision of ready-made fashion goods for the rising middle classes and for tourists eager for the latest "look." What all these areas held in common was the strong belief of their inhabitants and customers in the global supremacy of Parisian fashion. This was the local business context that fostered the emergence of grand couture from the 1850s and eased the birth of the modern fashion system with the designer at its apex.
Widely credited as the first autonomous fashion designer (creating and dictating trends rather than merely responding to the demands of clients) and an undoubted giant of the nineteenth-century fashion scene, the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895) founded his empire in the rue de la Paix in 1858. Prior to this, Worth had trained as an apprentice at the draper's Swan and Edgar in London's Piccadilly Circus (followed by a short period at Lewis and Allenby, silk mercers
of Regent Street), and then from 1845 he had worked as an assistant and then as chief cutter at Gagelin-Opigez in the rue de Richelieu. In this manner, Worth accumulated valuable experience in the selection and presentation of a broad range of textiles and an understanding of the power of new selling techniques which co-opted the drama of display as a means of encouraging consumer desire. His later success was credited to a unique ability to choose and manipulate fabrics to suit a client's appearance and mood, and an almost theatrical skill in styling ensembles to create atmosphere and impact. These skills were clearly honed in the innovative retail sectors of London and Paris, rather than via the more usual workshop training available to aspiring dressmakers, but their influence was felt most directly in the aristocratic scenario of state balls, court receptions, military parades, and gala performances that formed the center stage for the development of a fashion sensibility in the mid-nineteenth century. The rue de la Paix venture, entered into in partnership with the Swedish businessman Otto Bobergh, brought Worth's work to the attention of the Princess Pauline Metternich (1836–1921) and via her to the Empress Eugénie (1826–1920), who by 1864 relied on Worth for the supply of all her official and evening wardrobes.
With the seal of royal approval firmly set, and concerned to ensure that his products were not reduced to the level of mere commodities, Worth was able to raise his prices and refine his public image. Part of the value of his work lay in the fact that his designs were associated with the aesthetic ideals and tastes of one man alone, and with this in mind Worth spent much effort promoting himself in the manner of an artist rather than a tradesman, as a self-conscious arbiter of style. Published portraits depicted him in the velvet bonnet and furlined cape of Rembrandt, and his huge country villa at Suresnes outside Paris became the focus for the ostentatious display of Worth's collections of paintings, furniture, and ceramics and the setting for extravagant shows of hospitality. At the rue de la Paix, Worth conducted his professional affairs with a similar imperious flourish. Regardless of her status, the personal client had to keep to an appointment system, submit to the couturier's vision, and select her garment from his current range, to be made up to her precise measurements.
The salon closed temporarily on the collapse of the Second Empire in 1870. But from its reopening in 1871 to Worth's death in 1895, the company enjoyed a turnover and international reach of extraordinary proportions. In 1871 Worth employed 1,200 draftsmen, cutters, seamstresses, hand and machine embroiderers, clerks, vendeuses, models, and traveling salesmen. His business ran from the bespoke dressing of an individual client to the syndication of a model for reproduction across the globe (rich Americans formed an important market for his aspirational goods) via the medium of the new fashion and society magazines. From decade to decade, Worth's output dictated the look of middle- and upper-class women in Europe and beyond. His sketchbooks record the introduction of the flat-fronted crinoline and gored skirts in the mid 1860s, the mermaid-like "princess line" of the 1870s, and the revival of gigot sleeves in the 1890s. Whether or not his intensive promotion of such styles constituted a form of invention is beside the point. What was significant was the bracketing of Worth's reputation with such glamorous novelty. The prominence of his name undoubtedly benefited from his distinctive artistic vision and his ability to encourage the consumer to believe in the spectacular uniqueness of what was essentially a serial, industrialized product. This trick of perception set a distinctive template for the enduring myth of modern high fashion, marking out a path for the careers of such celebrated designers as Jacques Doucet (1853–1929) and Paul Poiret (1879–1944) in the 1890s and 1910s and situating Paris at the heart of a reinvigorated couture culture.
Paradoxically, the myth of sartorial individualism promoted by Worth that so encouraged the symbolic predominance of couture also influenced the increasing provision of mass-produced, readymade and wholesale fashion clothing to an ever broadening market from the 1850s onwards. So much so that sometimes the boundaries between bespoke garments—tailored on the premises to the measurements of the individual customer—and those that were ready-made—constructed to a range of sizes in bulk or to order, either in a factory or by a network of outworkers, and sourced directly through a wholesaler—were very blurred. It may then be most useful to view the production of fashionable dress in the period as a complex and interlinked chain, its sections informed by cross-cutting considerations of the supply of raw materials and labor, and the application of skill, technology, distribution, and marketing know-how that traverse national boundaries and reveal the nineteenth-century fashion system to have been a truly global phenomenon.
Beyond couture, other methods of production provided bespoke garments to a middle-class and provincial market that could not stretch to Paris prices, but may well have been inspired to acquire approximations of the latest Worth-endorsed trends by their reading of fashion plates and paper patterns included in the fashion magazines published in London, Berlin, and Paris. Skilled professional tailors and dressmakers were widespread in all European towns and cities and were well able to coordinate the cutting-out of intricate shapes, the manipulation of seams and the insertion of bones, pads, and trimmings that went toward the creation of fashionable dress. Much of this work was completed by a team of workroom employees, but certain elements might also be sent out to pieceworkers or "sweaters" who worked from home for low wages, paid according to the volume of items finished rather than the time spent in employ. Sweating was a form of employment associated particularly with immigrant (especially Jewish) workers, whose presence played an increasingly significant role in the development of urban life in most major European cities.
When the services of a professional were not available, the respectable woman could rely on her own creativity and perhaps the assistance of a maid to provide a proportion of her wardrobe herself. The acquisition of sewing skills was viewed as a prerequisite in the education of working- and middle-class girls, who could be expected to produce simple underwear, children's clothes, and men's shirts as part of their domestic duties. From the 1860s, with a range of new household publications to guide her, the ambitious home-sewer could also attempt more complicated patterns on the sewing machine, including mantles, washable day dresses, and some formal wear. Though machines were first patented in the United States (in 1846), their introduction made a gradual and significant impact on the production of garments in the commercial and domestic spheres across the globe. Undoubtedly the complex construction of nineteenth-century women's clothing and a residual suspicion of the social worth of cheap ready-made clothes meant that full mechanization was embraced more quickly by menswear producers. However, the circulation of half a million sewing machines worldwide in 1871 (from just over 2,000 in 1853) contributed toward a rapid fall in the price of clothing and a huge increase in the scale of operations in the garment trades.
The economic (as opposed to the cultural or aesthetic) supremacy of the nineteenth-century department store probably has been overstated. Smaller and longer-established high-street competitors accounted for a much higher proportion of custom than is often realized, and in Britain alone department stores probably only accounted for about 10 percent of clothing sales around 1900. Consumers thus directed much of their custom to independent dressmakers, drapers, haberdashers, and milliners. For men, a complex network of tailors, outfitters, and hosiers provided the essential elements of the dandy's wardrobe. Small independent stores thus used display and marketing techniques that were as radical as any proposed by Aristide Boucicault (1810–1877, the proprietor of the innovative Paris department store Le Bon Marché, founded in 1852). This is not to suggest that the impact of the department store on the tenor of fashionable life was inconsequential. As built edifices dominating the street with their plate glass and architectural whimsy, and as dreamlike spaces informing the psychology of shoppers, their effects were considerable. By the 1860s the act of shopping at such establishments had become part of the fashionable round, their goods and displays offering the consumer a guide for living according to capitalist principles.
The proliferation of fashionable styles promoted by an expanding fashion industry also ensured that the social signals given out by dress became increasingly complex during the nineteenth century. Following the relative freedom offered by neoclassical dress in the late eighteenth century, by the 1830s the respectable woman's wardrobe echoed a much narrower conception of idealized femininity. Close fitting bonnets, sleeves, and corseted bodices, heavy skirts and enveloping shawls bespoke the gentle submission of the "angel in the home"—that domestic paragon to which most genteel European women aspired. By the 1860s the opportunities afforded by new technologies had introduced bright synthetic dyes and the extraordinary support of the wire crinoline to the middle-class wardrobe. In this manner the expanding horizons offered by consumer culture dictated a more assertive display of fashionable products. The fashionable woman had to learn to use the decoration of her body as a sign of her family's prosperity and good standing. Individual elements of the wardrobe came to be associated with the rituals of life-patterns, so that a woman with pretensions to Society might be expected to change several times a day. This effect found its most concentrated form in the intensified clothing
regulations applied to christenings, coming-of-age and court presentations, weddings, and deaths in the family.
If a tightening of the rules of etiquette was necessary to ensure that an engagement with fashionable display was properly "moral," then their loosening could also be a sign of the heightened sensibility of the fashion consumer. The emergence of "countercultural" modes of dressing from the 1870s onward, especially in Britain, Belgium, Austria, Spain (Barcelona), Scandinavia, and Germany, played an important role in the modernization of clothing habits for many ordinary European men and women that was in full progress by 1900. Aesthetic, Artistic, and Rational dress was partly a means of self-identification for those members of metropolitan circles who associated themselves with bohemian pursuits and with progressive political sensitivities, and partly a response to the unhealthiness and perceived ugliness of contemporary fashionable style. But it reintroduced a real notion of freedom and common sense with its incorporation of "natural" colors, "tasteful" historicist, folkloric, and non-Western inspiration, and unrestrictive cut. Prominent proponents of the style included the German dress reformer Gustave Jaeger, the London retailer Arthur Liberty (1843–1917), and the Belgian architect Henry Clemens van de Velde (1863–1957).
Masculine clothing had benefited from a more rational design since the 1770s in a process that later fashion writers were to identify as the "Great Masculine Renunciation." Yet despite the apparent simplicity and uniformity that the respectable male wardrobe seemed to offer, the acquisition and use of its content were just as complex as its female counterpart. With different styles of coat for a variety of professional and leisure contexts and a whole range of accessories, from sticks and gloves, to shirts and hats, shopping for men's fashion was a serious business. Underlying the wearing of such clothing was a theory of "gentlemanliness" that bound the "correct" usage of the male wardrobe to a celebration of moral rectitude, physical prowess, and aesthetic "good form." In its more adventurous forms—for example, when the dapper evening suit was taken up as a badge of belonging for London dandies and Parisian "boulevardiers" in the 1890s, or when the relaxed lounge suit began to break down the stuffiness implied by the frock coat in the same decade—male fashion offered a universal template for modern dressing. Women rapidly took up its adaptable components, like the washable shirt and the tailored suit, to form a wardrobe more suitable to the expanded lifestyle of the New Woman in the early twentieth century. Like other aspects of European fashion, the man's suit proved to be a flexible barometer of cultural change. Its development illustrated how accomplished fashionable consumers were at reconciling the material plenitude of contemporary life with their social and emotional needs.
Abler, Thomas S. Hinterland Warriors and Military Dress. Oxford, U.K., 1999.
Breward, Christopher. The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion, and City Life 1860–1914. Manchester, U.K., 1999.
——. Fashion. Oxford, U.K., 2003.
Coleman, Elizabeth Ann. The Opulent Era: Fashions of Worth, Doucet, and Pingat. London, 1989.
Cunningham, Patricia A. Reforming Women's Fashion 1850–1920: Politics, Health, and Art. Kent, Ohio, 2003.
Perrot, Philippe. Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1994.
Steele, Valerie. Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age. New York, 1985.