Everyday Life: Fashion

views updated

Everyday Life: Fashion


The Clothing Industry. Before the 1870s most Americans women made clothes. Only the wealthy could afford to have their garments custom-made, and to them clothing was the mark of their success. Manufacturers began to make some inexpensive, ready-made clothing in the early nineteenth century, but it was of poor quality and was worn mainly as work clothes by sailors and southern slaves. New technology in the textile industry especially the invention of practical, workable sewing machines around 1850an influx of cheap immigrant labor produced cloth goods that were cheap, durable

and fashionable. The demand for uniforms during the Civil War for manufacturers to develop an efficient model for the ready-to-wear clothing. Northern garment makers geared up to fill orders for hundreds of thousands of Union army uniforms, creating standard sizing based on government statistics that identified the most commonly occurring human measurements. After the war these same garment makers converted their expanded manufacturing capacity to civilian needs and tastes. Between 1880 and 1890 sales of machine-made, ready-to-wear clothing increased by 75 percent, to well over $1 billion. Yet despite this remarkable growth, more than half American men still wore hand-sewn shirts in 1880

Sweatshops . The high level of immigration from Germany, Russia, Poland, and Italy during the last quarter of the century stimulated the textile industry. Many of these new arrivals had tailoring skills and provided clothing manufacturers with an abundance of cheap labor. sewing machines were so easy to operate that the cheapest laborers in the workforce, immigrant women and sweatshop, where women and children worked long hours at piecework for low wages. In the textile industry the average wage was ten cents an hour in the hours, and the average wage was ten cents an hour in 1890. Workers in the sewing sweatshops often made less and worked more. Garment makers worked in large, crowded, stuffy rooms with few amenities, and thus the cost of ready-to-wear clothes was very cheap. In 1896 a mans suit could be bought for as little as three dollars, though discriminating shoppers at such trendsetting stores as Brooks Brothers in New York City might pay as much as twenty dollars. A womens blouse in the early 1890s cost between fifty cents and two dollars, depending on the quality of the fabric, and an all-wool evening suit cost six dollars. Wealthy shoppers still tended to patronize small local dress and tailoring shops where clothes were custom- made, and thrifty women spent their money on their own sewing machines, which could be purchased for as little as nine dollars from Singer in 1896.

The Strenuous Ideal. In the 1890s and 1890s fashionable men adopted a new image. Instead of favoring leanness and a stylized genteel weakness as signs of mental prowess and a safe distance from menial labor, men began to value muscles and physical strength as the outward signs of manliness. The images of the cowboy, the boxer, and the football player linked masculinity and muscularity for men of all classes. At the end of the century Theodore Roosevelt, an active outdoorsman and the hero of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, symbolized the strenuous ideal of vitality, strength, and courage. Men flocked to gymnasiums to engage in vigorous exercising, men wore loose-fitting trousers and, because of the privacy of all-male clubs, did without shirts altogether. By the end of the century garments designed for specific specific sports such as baseball, football, or gymnastics allowed men a fuller range of motion than did street clothes.

The Sack Suit. The strenuous ideal influenced how men dressed in public and at work as well. The elegant gentleman with his monocle, gloves, and gold-headed cane disappeared, ridiculed as foppish, effeminate, un- American, and incapable of hard work. Men who spent their days in offices felt compelled to prove that mental work had not made them sissies. By the 1880s the formal suit all respectable men wore in public had been largely replaced by a new, distinctively American, casual-looking sack suit. This new business suit dropped the pleated skirt of the frock coat; it was streamlined and had masculine detailing. Men wore softer shirts and lower collars under their unadorned suit jackets, which had narrow lapels, and a smooth bottom hem that fell just below the hips. These jackets gave men the appearance of having solid, muscular bodies. The pants were similarly narrow. Worn with a vest, a bow tie, and a bowler hat, the sack suit soon became the standard costume for middle-class, white-collar men, while wealthy men still wore frock coats on some occasions. East or West, men who worked in banks, post offices, and governmental offices, as well as farmers and ranchers doing business in town, all donned the sack suit. During this same period many men shaved off their beards, preferring a clean-shaven look that they hoped would give them a youthful, go-getter appearance. Mustaches remained popular, and some men, particularly older men in rural areas, still wore beards.

High Style for Women. Ready-made clothing for women became popular and readily available later than mens ready-made suits and shirts. Wealthy women spent hours with their dressmakers discussing engravings of the latest French designs as they were depicted in popular magazines such as Godeys Ladys Book, selecting fabrics, and having fittings for custom-made clothing. A woman with a generous clothing allowance bought her clothing from American designers who followed European fashion trends. The most influential American designers including Mme Harris and Sons, James Gray and Company, Mrs. Cripp, Clark & McLoghan, and Mme Demorestworked in small shops on major thoroughfares in Philadelphia, Chicago, or New York, three cities that were equally central to setting American fashion trends. As the period wore on, these designers competed with designers who worked in large department stores. Department-store dressmakers, who tended to be more democratic in their pricing, also contributed innovative design changes.

The Sewing Machine. By the 1870s sewing machines were widely available for home sewers, as were precut printed patterns based on the latest fashions, making it possible for middle-class women to dress more like society women. The precut paper pattern was invented by Ellen Curtis Demorest, who was also one of the designers favored by wealthy women, She marked her patterns by publishing Mme Demorests Mirror of Fashion (founded in 1865), a magazine that featured illustrations of the clothing women could make using Mme Demorests patterns. A Demorest pattern for a a Chelsea jacket for child, ornamented with the favorite Capuchin hood, turned down collar, and reverse on the double-breasted fronts; sizes for 12-16 years cost twenty cents in 1881. Demorest was eventually beaten out by the Butterick company, which started advertising its patterns by publishing two magazines, The Ladies Quarterly Report of Broadway Fashions (founded in 1867) and the monthly Metropolitan (founded in 1868), which merged in 1874 as The Delineator. In 1896 The Delineator offered a pattern for a ladys basque waist with a waist decoration; in thirteen sizes for ladies from 28 to 46 bust measure for thirty cents.

Foundations. Women who could afford to do so dressed in elegant full-length dresses that required elaborate underwear. A woman first donned a tight corset, a torturous device worn around the midsection that could mold lost bellies into hourglass figures. Corsets were girdles with vertical strips of curved bone or steel embedded in the fabric. They normally laced up the back, and they could exert as much as eighty pounds of compacting pressure, forcing a womans waistline bulk into her chest cavity, thus enlarging her bustline while pinching her middle. Some models extended well below the waist to contain flabbly backsides. A linen corset cover protected delicate dresses from being damaged by the corsets functional strings and eyelets. Petticoats, which gave shape to dress skirts, were often very frilly and cumbersome, consisting of yards of fabric. During the 1870s the stylish woman wore a bustle at the small of the back. Made of horsehair or a special spring, the bustle enabled fashion designers to drape layers of fine fabrics of various textures across the full skirt. In a gesture toward simplicity women in the 1880s and 1890s wore only one petticoat instead of the five to seven worn earlier.

High style in the Late 1870s. Womens dresses most typically had pointed necklines with lavishly trimmed collars. It was though generally unhealthy and unvirtuous for woman to expose their chests. Blouses were also layered, with full wrist-length sleeves. Hairstyles varied, but many women wore their hair up, in some sort of bun. Curls of the neck. Favorite accessories were fans and lace-trimmed parasols.

The Narrow Dress. In the early 1880s the narrow look came into vogue for woman. From neck to knee the dress was straight. Below the knees the skirt flared out and formed a shallow train. Many woman actually tied their knees together, making anything but small steps impossible. These narrow dresses still required a bustle, but it was moved to a lower position. Later, as these skirts shortened to the ankle so that feet became visible, women wore elegant shoes with high heels. The narrow dress demanded a correspondingly small hat.

The Hourglass Shape. By the late 1880s and early 1890s women were emphasizing the hourglass shape, with its narrow waist, by wearing flared skirts with bigger-than-ever bustles moved back to the small of the back. An 1890 article in Ladies Home Journal estimated that a fashionable evening dress of the time might be fourteen to fifteen feed across the bottom, and all of that gathering of material draped to the floor. Men who were less than gentlemen called such dresses street-sweeper fashions because woman wearing them could not help brushing up dirt as they walked. They also had effect of limiting close contact. Blouses had sleeves puffed high at the shoulder. These leg-of-mutton sleeves grew steadily in size for the first half of the 1890s. The blouse of the 1890s was more ornamental than in the 1880s, with bands of ribbon tied in bows, ruffles of lace, and other decorative effects following the line of the sleeve across the bodice. but the end century the bustle had disappeared, but woman were still attempting to achieve the hourglass shape by wearing corsets, full sleeves, and flared, toe-length skirts.

Clothes for Housework in the late nineteenth century, womens primary labor continued to be housework and child rearing. Poor women often raised their families in unsanitary, crowed conditions, and many family boarders or piecework sewing to supplement the family income. Wealthy women, or ladies of lesiure, employed working-class women to cook, clean, and care for children. While upper-class women dressed in elaborate Clothes and jewels, following trends set in London and Paris and becoming living symbols of their husbands wealth and social status, the middle-class woman handled her household chores in a housedress of sturdy, washable fabric that withstood dirt and sweat day after day. Many middle-class women hired a female helper for heavy housework. Only for dinner, social calls, or church did the middle-class women change into what was called a day dress made of finer materials.


During the 1890s a new feminine role model appeared in the pages of the popular humor magazine Life. The Gibson Girl, as she was soon called, was stylishly dressed, assertive, and independent, but not wicked. Her creator, artist Charles Dana Gibson, perfectly captured the promise of the New Woman who pushed the boundaries of acceptable female behavior and the American definition of feminine charm. In Gibsons drawings the Gibson Girl wore her hair piled softly on her head, a shirtwaist blouse, and a full skirt with a wide, stiff belt that a accented a tiny, corseted waistline. She finished her look with dark boots and a straw boater hat. The was witty without being submissive, exciting without being bad. The real-life Gibson Girl was most likely to be a telephone operator or clerical worker in a large city, taking advanced of the new work opportunities for women, and she dated without a chaperon.

Source: Barbara Clark Smith and Kathy Peiss, Men and Women: A Hitory of Costume, Gender, and Power (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1989).

The New Woman. in the years following the Civil War, more and more women of all classes lived lives outside the domestic sphere, as opportunities in education, work, and politics increased. Woman joined clubs, charity organizations, temperance societies. No longer restricted to work as domestic servants, mill workers, or farm wives, some woman became typists, secretaries, sales-clerks, or waitresses. Such changes in womens lifestyles directly affected fashion. Their need for work clothes motivated the womens ready-to-wear industry to offer more items at reasonable prices, and practicality became an important quality. The first popular ready-made womens garment was the shirtwaist, modeled after a

mans shirt. Widely available by the 1890s, it buttoned down the front, or appeared to, and had a small collar, full sleeves, and narrow cuffs. Women in many occupationssecretaires, teachers, settlement-house workers, housewives, or factory workerswore the shirtwaist, which came in inexpensive version for working-class women and more eladorate styles decorated with lace, pleats, and large sleeves for those who had public contact. By the late 1890s the full-sleeved, tailored shirtwaist was worn by women of all classes with full skirts that emphasized their tiny corseted waists. This look, complete with upswept hair, was popularized by magazine illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. Young women all over the United States tried to look like the Gibson Girl, and many succeeded thanks to the availability of ready-made skirts and blouses in stores and mail-order catalogues. By the end of the century, a well-dressed women could buy her entire wardrobe in a department store or from a mail-order catalogue.

The Strenuous Ideal for Women. During the late nineteenth century a new generation of health experts rejected the traditional view that exercise was dangerous for the so-called weaker sex. Instead they asserted that exercise increased womens physical and mental health, gearing womens physical activities toward health, beauty, and grace rather than strength and competition. Women colleges encourage their students to participate in fitness programs and sports teams. While exercising, women wore bloomers, shorts skirts, or other loose-fitting dresses with dark tights. When riding bicycles, women wore shortened skirts over knickerbockers, or divided skirts (some of which were pleated to look like a full skirt when the women stood still). A few daring souls wore Syrian trousers, loose slacks that reached to the ankle. In many parts of the country, women who bicycled in pants caused a scandal Female bicyclists rode astride, breaking a rule that proper women horseback riders, who rode sidesaddle, had followed for generations. On the beach and at the lake or rivers, women wore full dresses with short sleeves and black tights; their legs had to be covered. These garments got so heavy in the water that swimming any distance proved impossible for all but the fittest. By the turn of the century, a trend toward practical swimwear helped change the standards for what constituted feminine modesty.


Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1973);

Lee Hall, Common Threads: A parade of American Clothing (Boston, Toronto & London: Little, Brown, 1992);

Ludmila Kybalova, Olga Herbenova, and Milena Lamarova, The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Fashion (New York: Crown, 1968);

Barbara Clark Smith and Karthy Peiss, Men and Women: A History of Costume, Gender, and Power (Washigton, D.C.: Simthsonian Institution, 1989);

Estelle Ansley Worrell, American Costume, 1840-1920 (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1979).

About this article

Everyday Life: Fashion

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article