Clothing and Appearance

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Clothing and Appearance




Pre-Industrial Clothing. Clothing has always served as a richly revealing expression of differences in social status, age, wealth, and sexuality. During the period between 1750 and 1914 there was a revolution in clothing production and distribution patterns, in styles and materials, and in the meanings of fashion. Nothing like the modern retail-clothing business existed before the nineteenth century. Before standard-sized ready-to-wear clothes could be bought off the rack, Europeans purchased apparel to order. To have a suit of clothes made, one visited a draper to purchase cloth by the yard, a mercer for ornaments, fasteners, and other accessories, and a tailor, who assembled the outfit to the buyer’s specifications. Such a decentralized system of production was reflected in a wide division of labor in the garment industry. There were underwear makers, dressmakers, tailors for men“clothes, tailors for women”s and children’s clothes, seamstresses, glove makers, hatters, hosiers, and many other artisans, with their own customs and clientele. Great couturiers satisfied the demands of court and “high society” while respectable but less expensive tailors fashioned the clothing of middle-class consumers. The lower classes and the poor had to make do with previously owned clothing discarded by (or perhaps stolen from) their betters. Sometimes little better than rags, these items filtered into the inventories of street vendors from the servants of prosperous folk. Until the nineteenth century, used-clothes dealers, known as fripperers, were suspected of carrying disease and fencing stolen clothing. Most of them maintained small shops, either adjacent to open-air markets or— as in Lyon—on a few city streets that became known as centers for the used-clothing trade. In Paris during the first decade of the nineteenth century, four sheds covering more than ten thousand square meters were constructed to house this flourishing trade.In each shed an array of items could be found, ranging from well-worn rags piled in bins and sifted through by the truly destitute, to work clothes and housewares, or even a rare still-stylish outfit discarded by its well-to-do first owner.

Paying for Clothes. Compared to food allowances, money for clothing was typically a much smaller part of the household budget, at least for those on both extremes of income, with expenses for women’s clothes consuming a greater proportion of the family budget than those for men’s garments. A worker earning £78 annually in the 1890s might spend only£5 for clothes, as compared to £21 for food. This man had a meager wardrobe, much of which was purchased second- or thirdhand. At the same time, a single working woman earned less but spent more on clothes—perhaps as much as £10 a year, which would buy a

new dress, a pair of shoes, underwear, and some accessories. Clerks, cashiers, and salesmen were expected to spend higher proportions of their earnings on clothes, and their employers frowned on their wearing used or tattered attire. The cost of social emulation would be even higher for the bourgeoisie, with more than 10 percent of the family income devoted to the purchase of fashionable apparel. The wealthiest people in absolute terms spent more on clothing than anyone else, but a relatively small portion of their annual income, about 6 percent.

Ready-to-Wear. As the European population grew during the nineteenth century—especially in cities, where people almost never made their own clothes—the need to purchase clothing increased as well. To meet the demand, manufacturers and merchants began producing and selling ready-to-wear clothing at prices affordable to the swelling working class and lesser bourgeoisie. New retail shops displaying such items began t appear after 1800. In 1824 Pierre Parissot opened the doors of his Paris shop and sold inexpensive work clothes tagged with fixed, clearly visible prices. Parissot’s success led to an explosion in the making and selling of ready-made clothing. Legions of tailors, seamstresses, cloth cutters, and other garment workers were enlisted to work in an increasingly standardized industry. By mid century the sewing machine was replacing hand stitching and increasing the efficiency of clothing manufacture. As ready-to-wear clothing flooded the market, the used-clothing vendor and the independent tailor nearly disappeared. By mid century, off-the-rack dresses for bourgeois and working-class women were increasingly common, but the ready-to-wear industry found it difficult to meet the demands of female fashion. Men preferred staid, loose-fitting, durable, and predictable daily attire and were thus fairly easy to fit with ready-to-wear clothing. Women, however, demanded a precise, individualized fit, which limited the degree to which feminine dress could be mass-produced.

The Department Store. The revolution in ready-made clothing coincided closely with the beginnings of the department store. Eighteenth-century London shopkeepers and even provincial merchants had already begun to use innovative window displays and store decor to attract shoppers, and ready-to-wear merchants had already experimented with fixed pricing that eliminated haggling when the stores that became modern department stores opened in the late 1830s. They began as dry-goods stores—or what the French called magasins de nouveautes (novelty stores)— selling a diverse array of clothing accessories, ready-made outfits, dressmaking fabrics, furs, umbrellas, gloves, hosiery, and other goods, transforming retail commerce by selling in volume at low prices to turn over their wares quickly. These vendors advertised broadly and encouraged browsing (a departure from the tradition by which shoppers were expected to buy if they looked), and they offered fixed-price merchandise in well-lit and attractive displays. As this formula proved profitable, the novelty store increased in size and expanded the range of merchandise it offered, rapidly taking on the dimensions and organization of modern department stores. In Paris, Au Bon Marche, the Louvre, and the Bazar de I’Hotel de Ville all opened in the 1850s, and another precursor of a epartment store, Printemps, was founded in 1865. The arrival of the first true department store in France is generally dated 1869, the year in which Aristide Boucicaut began construction on a new building for Au Bon Marche that featured the kind of organization and display areas that have become common in modern department stores. In England, mass-produced footwear and men’s clothing, generally for working-class consumers, were marketed through networks of stores. British department stores on the Parisian model, such as Harrods, Whiteley’s, and Swan and Edgar’s, opened during the 1880s. The department store was an entertainment attraction in its own right, thus encouraging consumption.

Fashion. In the eighteenth century, aristocrats of both sexes dressed in vivid colors and richly textured fabrics. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, colorful, elaborate dress and the “folly”of fashion belonged to women alone. Perhaps at no other time in European history had fashion served so effectively to differentiate the genders or had stylistic conformity been so widely observed. Victorian women’s fashions contrasted distinctly with the styles of female dress during the decades on either side of the period. Dresses in the Empire style of 1800-1815, inspired by Roman and Greek clothing, were cut with a high waist and made of light-colored linens or flimsy silks contoured to flow with the body. Around 1900 light, clinging fabrics and dainty colors were again the rage. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, however, wire hoops and later an entire cage made of whalebone, steel, or watch-spring wire widened the base of the skirt and kept crinoline petticoats away from the legs. Padded shoulders, wide sleeves, V-shaped corsets, and bodices combined with these full skirts to produce the coveted hourglass figure. During the middle decades of the century, skirts and petticoats expanded to near-comic proportions. By the end of the 1860s, however, styles that hid the figure had been replaced by a new, fitted dress that accentuated the bust and the buttocks while also attracting attention to the thighs. To achieve this fashion statement, a woman wore a “Grecian bend” corset that thrust the bust forward and accentuated the buttocks with a bustle and padding as well as flounces and bows on the backs of her gowns. By the 1890s, attention had shifted from the skirt, with its exaggerated bustle and folds of cloth, to the bodice. This new fashion made a woman seem more statuesque, erect, and voluptuous than the wasp-waisted female of the mid nineteenth century. After the turn of the twentieth century, the fashionable silhouette became increasingly vertical, no longer molded by bustles and corsets but by brassieres and girdles designed to flatten and shape. This look, which was the basis for fashion during the entire twentieth century, carried connotations of sexual liberation, relaxed femininity, and elegant good taste.

Trendsetters. Ironically, the women who set fashion trends for the middle and upper classes were the women of the demimonde (on the fringes of polite society): divorcées, mistresses of the famous and well-to-do, or actresses. At balls, races, promenades, seaside resorts, theaters, or onstage these demimondaines inaugurated new styles and attracted the attention of fashion journalists, couturiers, and, of course, the wives and daughters of respectable bourgeois businessmen. Because they were closely associated with scandal, fashion innovations drew the ire of moralists. Nonetheless, new styles drew the attention of middle- and upper-class women, who wanted to distinguish themselves from less affluent women wearing cheaper, ready-to-wear imitations of the previous year’s styles. Mass production and effective publicity ensured that fashion trends established in Paris or London rapidly spread to cities across the Continent. Middle- and upper-class women from Moscow to Madrid took their clothing cues from couturiers in Parisand London, even in the face of protests by prominent clergymen that, as the Austrian Bishop of Lainbach contended in 1913, “The newest fashions in clothes are designed to serve the cause of lust.”

Dress for Every Occasion. A woman’s wardrobe provided a means by which she could dress to indicate her mood swings, moral qualities, wealth, and social rank. She also dressed to suit the time of day and the season. As one anonymous wit put it in 1857, women had:

Dresses for breakfasts and dinners and balls;
Dresses to sit in and stand in and walk in;
Dresses to dance in and flirt in and talk in;
Dresses in which to do nothing at all.

Morning apparel, either a dressing gown or peignoir, was for the home and suggested domestic warmth as well as luxury. Beneath the morning robe, awoman wore a full-length day shift and corset. Completing the ensemble were slippers, a bonnet, or hair curlers hidden under a lace head covering. Neither the heat of the season or the relative privacy of the domestic setting was adequate excuse to dress more lightly. Strangers were not to see a woman in her morning wear, so a change of clothes was required for afternoon public excursions. Calling on others required a careful evaluation of the status of the host and the purpose of the visit. Consoling the bereaved or visiting the poor necessitated somber dress. A trip to the homes of good friends might allow for more casual dress, while visiting those of higher social status demanded appropriately respectful attire. Seated in the family carriage and parading with the carriages of other reputable women in an after-noon procession—during which women scrutinized each other’s apparel, judging taste, income, and social status accordingly—women could dress somewhat more extravagantly, tastefully yet bordering on the provocative. In the evening a bourgeois woman could display her sexuality and her husband’s material wealth. Plunging necklines suggested erotic potential and revealed the milk-white skin that distinguished these elite women from the suntanned inferior classes. Necklaces or strings of pearls ornamented bare shoulders and boasted the wealth of the wearer. Fans, calling cards, or bouquets of flowers were held in gloved hands, their movements suggestive and graceful. Long trains, shimmering fabrics, gold brocade, and delicate laces exhibited the wealth and taste of the fashionable woman. The revolutionary “bloomers,” introduced by Amelia Bloomer in 1851, shocked the public because the long pantaloons displayed beneath a knee-length tunic suggested masculinity as well as immodesty. Despite their practicality, as the journal Le Sport editorialized in 1873, “Lepantalon” in a word, is a man’s article of clothing . . . and because of that, women who have the true intuition of elegance of their sex will always abstain from it.”


The used-clothing trade did not have an honorable reputation. In 1614, for example, an anonymous tailor charged in Discours de deux marchands fripiers et de deux maitres tailleurs (Discourses of Two Fripperers and Two Master Tailors):

All the clothing you have comes from hanged persons,
From those who have on the wheel been broken,
From noble felons decapitated
For using their swords in duels outlawed
From syphilitics who induced such a sweat
That they gave up the ghost while the barber bled them.

The fripperers’reputation had not changed much by 1782, when Frenchman Sebastien Mercier observed in Tableau de Paris:

In the Place du Louvre—one sees old clothes, a hideous display that hangs on strings and turns in the wind. This frippery seems both dirty and indecent. There, shop clerks, masons, and porters scavenge for obviously worn breeches. New ones are contraband. Of every kind, every color, every degree of wear, they hang exposed to the chaste glances of the sun and of pretty women. .. . One must expect fripperers to practice deceit and take advantage of the credulous passer-by who enters the shop and is fooled by a semidarkness intended to hide the defects of the garment he bargains for.

Source: Philippe Perrot, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, translated by Richard Bienvenu (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 42-43; note 210.

Middle-Class Men’s Clothing. In the late eighteenth century an ideology of masculine modesty emerged, and elite men renounced the finery that had characterized aristocratic dress for most of the early modern period. This “great masculine renunciation” had its roots in the English aristocracy’s assertion of sturdy, grave, and decidedly manly simplicity as the mark of political legitimacy following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Contrasting their clothing with the excesses of dress across the English Channel in France, English gentlemen disparaged any evidence of luxury, effeminacy, and foppishness. Middle-class reformers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries seized this language of manly public virtue and also renounced finery, bright colors, or ostentatious display in their dress. By the 1830s an ideal of “inconspicuous consumption” characterized men’s fashions, visually proclaiming their commitment to the values of thrift, industry, and individual success. On the Continent, the French Revolution and the spread of revolutionary ideas contributed to a similar simplification of masculine attire. Arnould Frémy applauded this development, contrasting the “showy rags, the embroideries, the jewels, and lace, the ceremonial swords, the taffeta suits, and all the smart and ruinous accessories of the aristocratic costume” with the “basically egalitarian .. . simple, plain, and unpretentious” fashions of men in a republic. The simplicity and uniformity of middle-class men’s wear nonetheless indicated social status just as clearly as aristocratic powdered wigs had in the past, and so distinguished the middle-class wearer from the lesser sort.

Three Changes of Clothing. Just as a middle- or upper-class woman required outfits to fit the time of day and the season, so too did their male counterparts, who typically changed their clothing three times a day. At home during the day, an elaborate and colorful dressing gown was worn, sometimes even when guests were present. In the evening men wore formal dress, a black suit with a tail coat, a white or black satin vest, a white cravat, and white gloves. Formal dress might also be worn to call on a social superior. Dressing for work or business, however, demanded sobriety—a black waistcoat, a starched shirt, pinstriped or fine checked trousers, and a vest. By 1850 the pants and vest were cut of the same cloth as the jacket. This three-piece suit, the daily uniform of the middle-class male, allowed little room for style change. Where once knee breeches had accentuated manly calves, pants were now ankle length, and the cut of the legs varied only slightly over the course of the nineteenth century. The suit jacket cut served as an important social sign, the length of the coattails indicating age, importance, and position. An overcoat, again black, completed the basic ensemble. Jewelry, which had once so effectively displayed the wealth and status of the aristocracy, was reduced to a timepiece, a pince-nez, or perhaps a snuffbox, each inconspicuously displayed or kept in a pocket. A silk, satin, or velvet cravat, knotted around the bourgeois gentleman’s neck, might offer a dash of color and served as a useful means of distinguishing those with impeccable taste. With each season, the width, the particular knot of the tie, and the time and art associated with properly tying it all served to distinguish the wearer. Glove wearing also followed a prescribed regimen: dark-colored gloves in the morning, lighter shades for afternoon visits, and white gloves in the evening. The final piece of a man’s wardrobe, the top hat, served little functional purpose, as it neither protected its wearer from the elements nor provided any appreciable warmth. It did, however, emphasize the upright, sober bearing of its middle-class wearer. Other hats, such as the bowler or the straw boater, could be worn in informal settings. Masculine vanity in the nineteenth century was perhaps most evident in beards, moustaches, or mutton-chop sideburns, and barbers offered more than twenty styles from which to choose. Overt masculinity was expressed through well-groomed facial hair. The clean-shaven look—which one author characterized as “unnatural, irrational, unmanly, [and] ungodly”—suggested effeminacy.

Undergarments. Nineteenth-century Europeans developed an obsession for undergarments. The private became a subject of a good deal of public comment. “Lingerie,” as Mrs. Eric Pritchard wrote in the magazine The Lady’s Realm (April 1903), “is an enthralling subject.” Undergarments have not always been so closely associated with the erotic imagination. Medieval undergarments more often suggested chastity and sexual restraint. Nevertheless, with the exception of a shift, a long shirt, worn beneath one’s outer garments, most people before 1820 did not wear underdrawers. Though they were first considered immoral for women because pants of any sort were thought of as men’s garments, women of the working and middle classes began to wear them beneath their day shifts. Physicians began to recommend them as protection from the cold and infection. With the introduction of elastics after 1876 and the decreasing expense of cotton fabrics, lighter, more easily washed, and more affordable undergarments became available to a mass market. As wearing underdrawers became commonplace, elite women, once again following the lead of the demimondaine (including can-can dancers), adopted silk or satin drawers trimmed with lace, as well as lace petticoats and colored lingerie. René Mazeroy described their appeal in his novel L’Adorée (1887): “So light, so brief, with cascades of Valenciennes lace and frills of ribbons, these pantaloons which do not descend beyond the lace garters . . . drive a lover crazy better than the immodest state of nudity.” Such elegant underclothes combined comfort with elements of seduction and eroticism, and ultimately—despite being hidden behind skirts—the potential for display so important to bourgeois consumerism. In contrast to women’s undergarments, nineteenth-century male underwear was not suggestive. Men’s underpants, which were introduced at the same time as trousers, covered the legs and lower body in a shell of cotton, linen, or flannel cloth. Like the simple, ubiquitous black suit, men’s underwear testified to bourgeois society’s attribution of sensuality and eroticism to the female, while the male represented the values of self-control, discipline, and hard work.

The Corset. Victorian obsessions with the moral and hygienic implications of undergarments led to an ongoing controversy about the character-building and body-forming qualities of the corset. As an anonymous writer commented in a February 1871 letter to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, “The corset is an ever-present monitor, indirectly bidding its wearer to exercise self-restraint. The

restraint of the corset may be said to be insensibly imitated by the mental faculties over the moral character. .. . If you want a girl to grow up gentle and womanly in her ways and her feelings, lace her up tight.” Yet, another anonymous letter writer rejoiced in their ability to create “fascinating undulations of outline that art in this respect affords to nature” (Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, June 1867). As Eugene Chapus wrote in his Manuel de I’bomme et de la femme comme-il-faut (Manual for the Proper Man and Woman, 1862), “A woman in a corset is a lie, a falsehood, a fiction, but for us this fiction is better than the reality.” Doctors were quick to notice the health hazards created by tight corsets. As the French physician A. Debay wrote in his Hygiene vestimentaire (Clothing Hygiene, 1857):

Of 100 young girls wearing a corset:
25 succumbed to diseases of the chest;
5 died after their first delivery;
15 remained infirm after delivery;
15 became deformed;
30 alone resisted, but sooner or later were afflicted with serious indispositions.

In his Considerations on Five Plagues: The Abuse of the Corset, the Use of Tobacco, the Passion for Gambling, the Abuse of Strong Drink, and Speculation (1857), Charles Dubois reported on a young wife who died from “intestinal inflammation” because, doctors concluded, “her corset was from eight to ten centimeters too tight.”

Working-Class Attire. The French Revolution expressly politicized workers’ dress, with the uniform of the radical sansculottes, (a red cap, wide-legged pants, wooden shoes, and a jacket). This attire briefly served as the symbol of proper revolutionary fervor. After the Revolution, differences in clothing materials and style continued to distinguish working men from the middle class. Shirts with soft collars contrasted with the starched collar of the bourgeois man, while working men wore caps instead of top hats, and coveralls or smocks rather than three-piece suits. Durable corduroy was a favored working-class fabric, as was sturdy fustian, a twill fabric woven from cotton or a blend of cotton and linen. Friedrich Engels noted a change around the middle of the nineteenth century, as woolens and linens were replaced by much-inferior cheap cotton shirts and print dresses. These fabrics, Engels argued in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), “afford much less protection against cold and wet, remain damp much longer . . . and have none of the compact density of fulled woolen clothes.”


Nana Emile Zola’s 1880 novel about an actress-courtesan, describes the influence of the demimondaine on the dress of middle- and upper-class women:

Her success was sudden and decisive, a swift rise to fame in the garish light of lunatic extravagance and the wasteful follies of beauty. She at once became queen among the most expensive of her kind. . . . When she drove along the boulevards in her carriage, people would turn around and tell one another who she was with all the emotion of a nation saluting its sovereign, while she lolled back in her flimsy dresses, smiling gaily under the rain of little golden curls which fell around the blue of her made-up eyes and the red of her painted lips. And the remarkable thing was that that buxom young woman, who was so awkward on the stage, so comical when she tried to play the respectable woman, was able to play the enchantress in town without the slightest effort. There she had the lithe grace of a s-pent, a studied yet seemingly involuntary carelessness of dress which was exquisitely elegant, the nervous distinction of a pedigreed cat, an aristocratic refinement. . . . She set the fashion, and great ladies imitated her.

Source: Frederick Brown, Emile Zola: A Life (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995), p. 425.

Rural Dress. While in industrial cities fashion distinguished members of the bourgeoisie from the working classes, in rural communities clothing frequently differed according to age, ethnicity, or regional origin. Yet, even in the countryside, mailorder sales and peddlers of second-hand clothing belatedly introduced villagers to new fashions, so rural dress was frequently out-of-date city clothing. During the Romantic era of the early nineteenth century, however, the middle and upper classes throughout Europe discovered—or more often invented—the “traditional folk dress” of rural society, wearing it as an expression of regional or national identity and as a critique of modernization. For example, the “traditional” clan-tartan kilt of Highland Scotland was not the day-to-day wear of Scots in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, and the identification of a clan with a specific tartan did not occur until the Romantic literary movement began its rehabilitation of folk culture and rural traditions. In a similar transformation, Greek-Albanian peasant dress became identified as the “traditional” national dress of the entire newly independent nation of Greece. During the Greek war for independence, this dress was adopted by Greek nationalists in the cities, and in 1833 Otto, the Bavarian prince who became king of Greece, made it official court dress. Even though Greek men and women were wearing modern dress by the end of the nineteenth century, the peasant man’s foustanella, with its short full skirt, is as linked in the modern mind to Greece as the kilt is to Scotland. Likewise, lederhosen became an important symbol of the regional cultures of Alpine Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Yet, their common usage dated only to the early eighteenth century, and during the nineteenth century they were worn mostly during festivals and folkloric celebrations. Elsewhere in Europe, the idealization of rural life in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution combined with efforts to forge national identities from heterogeneous populations to foster the establishment of distinctive national and regional costumes. In fact, the availability of inexpensive, mass-produced cloth and the introduction of sewing machines to rural villages actually promoted the development of distinctive regional dress that bourgeois tourists then imagined to be the timeless folk dress of rustic villagers.


Dorothy Davis, Fairs, Shops, and Supermarkets: A History of English Shopping (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966).

Victoria De Grazia and Ellen Furlough, eds., The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

Joanne B. Richer, ed. Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time (Oxford: Berg, 1995).

Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).

Michael B. Miller, The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

Philippe Perrot, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, translated by Richard Bienvenu (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Aileen Ribeiro, Dress and Morality (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986).

Daniel Roche, The Culture of Clothing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Valerie Steele, Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

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Clothing and Appearance

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