Clothing and Fashion

views updated Jun 08 2018


Beverly Lemire


The European Renaissance flowered among a small but dynamic social elite who signaled their status through the cut and color of their clothes, as well as through the sumptuous fabrics from which their garments were made. Conscious of their rank, they gloried in their ambitions and their accomplishments. The symbolic use of dress to designate social or political status was ancient by the dawn of the Renaissance. However, in the fifteenth century the wealth at the disposal of the doges of Venice or the Medici of Florence eclipsed that of the preceding medieval period. Elite fashion and dress reflected that new affluence. Riches poured into Italy's trading cities. Local production of the highest quality silks and velvets supplied stunning displays of grandeur and privilege.

From the ancient world through the medieval period, dress signaled social status. Rank was accorded the monopoly of certain colors. As well, items of formalized attire were associated with specific social and political positions. Although apparel varied from region to region, the function of certain garments as social markers remained consistent. For example, in Venice men who held the rank of patrician or citizen upon attaining adulthood assumed a characteristic loose-fitting gown that they wore over their everyday clothes. This gown, called a toga, plus the long stole worn over the shoulders and a distinctive cap known as a beretta constituted the formal costume that set the gentleman and citizen apart from the artisan. These loose gowns remained signals of status. But from the fourteenth century on, clothing styles began to change rapidly, and following fashion became a mark of status. Dress followed new imperatives, becoming more revealing both for men and women. Patrician Italian youths sported waist-length jackets, revealing legs sheathed in close-fitting hose. Women of this rank wore gowns cut low across the breast, with a tighter fit around the body. The fashion cycle was set in motion, to the dismay of moralists. After 1400 it spread with growing speed from one corner of Europe to the other.

But even as fashion picked up momentum, some materials remained emblems of authority. Throughout Europe cloth of gold was the signal fabric of leadership. Woven in intricate brocaded patterns from gold and silk threads, it represented the apogee of material display. Indeed, in 1520 it formed the backdrop for one of the best known diplomatic rituals involving the Renaissance kings of France and England, Francis I and Henry VIII. The pageantry of costume and setting associated with the meeting was so magnificent that it became known thereafter as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In a pavilion constructed of cloth of gold ranged people dressed in velvets, brocades, silks, and wools, with colors ranked from white, scarlet, and purples through blues, black, and browns. These colors, in combination with the textiles, communicated the standing of the wearer.

During the Renaissance, no region produced more lavish elaborations of dress than did Italy. Moreover, the modes of Renaissance Italy inspired nobles and royals of northern Europe, who looked to Italy for new kinds of social occasions suited to dramatic displays. One such event, the masquerade or masque, offered the frisson of sexual adventure in a formalized setting designed to exhibit the most elaborate costumes of court. In 1512 the first masque was held at the court of Henry VIII, to the great excitement of the lords and ladies, who were quick to see the opportunities presented by masked revels with anonymous suitors.

As trade and diplomacy carried trends from one court to another, the Renaissance brought a more intense preoccupation with fashion among the social elites and a gradual acceleration in the transformation of styles. High fashion flourished at the seats of political power. In this period fashion was the almost exclusive preserve of the mighty. Indeed, in court society ambitions and competing rivalries found expression through competitive expenditure on clothing. All over Europe luxurious apparel was the medium through which the great and would-be-great of both sexes, from aspiring royal mistresses to enterprising noblemen, jousted for preeminence. Their enormous collective expenditures were legitimized by their rank. Fashion and political power were inextricably linked.

Distinction in dress also preoccupied governments. The authorities asserted that an orderly society could not function without clear distinctions in ornamentation and dress within each social order. Sumptuary legislation ascribed specific colors, fabrics, and fashions to various social orders. In fifteenth-century England none but a lord was permitted to wear "any gown, jacket or coat, unless it be of such length that the same may cover his privy members and buttocks" (3 Edward IV, c.4, 1463). Lawmakers prized the rights that came with noble birth. Sumptuary laws were passed most vigorously from the fourteenth century onward, codifying the appropriate dress for each degree, with penalties assigned to transgressors. The fixed orders of society were to be visible. Thus, in seventeenth century France one's position on the king's council was confirmed through the cut and color of the ceremonial gown: the chancellor wore a long gown of crimson velvet; the councillors wore long violet gowns; the comptrollers wore short violet gowns; and the secretaries wore short black gowns. The intent was to differentiate social groups and give a stable, recognizable appearance to each segment of society. Ambiguity was to be avoided; presumption was to be squashed. In defense of this order the French government issued eighteen sumptuary decrees between 1485 and 1660; in England, seven acts and ten proclamations were issued between 1450 and 1600. This legislation was a response to insubordination, for a transformation in dress was under way, with or without official sanction.

Silk was one of the most hotly contested commodities. The nobility claimed a monopoly over the wearing of silk in most of Europe. However, silk did not remain the preserve of the aristocracy. Its attractions proved irresistible to ambitious bourgeois wherever silk novelties appeared. Stylish knitted silk stockings were brought as gifts from the Spanish to the English court early in the sixteenth century. By the 1560s informers were stationed at London's gates to hunt for commoners wearing these novel garments. Sumptuary legislation lapsed in England in 1604 and in France in the early eighteenth century. But with or without legislated prohibitions, European society was torn by competing desires. Growing numbers of men and women wanted new types of clothes made with new fabrics and designs. At the same time, representatives of the ancien régime struggled to limit fashions to the elite.


From the late Middle Ages, trade in the Mediterranean and Levant catapulted Italy to the forefront of Renaissance Europe, pouring undreamed-of wealth into state and private coffers. The riches that sustained noble families also brought new pressures to bear on the old order. Newly wealthy commoners and flourishing traders represented a threat to medieval regimes founded on hereditary feudal relations and inherited privileges. Growing cities attracted people from many backgrounds with less to gain from deference and loyalty to traditional authorities and more to gain through innovation, risk, and self-promotion. As the commercial momentum swept western and northern Europe, overseas trade with Asia, Africa, and the Americas created a growing cast of traders, merchants, and professionals who did not accept prescribed limits on their choice of clothing. Indeed, they rejected the very premise of sumptuary laws.

As expanding trade created a larger middling social order, so too did the development of European manufacturing. In addition, imported Asian textiles and new European-made fabrics increased the variety of materials available to a widening cross section of women and men.

Medieval Italy was the first European region to produce cotton and fustian textiles in quantity. Manufacturers realized that cottons were well suited to supply both domestic and export markets with low-priced goods. Spain soon followed suit. Throughout Europe popular tastes were changing. From the sixteenth century onward, the traditional heavy, durable woolen fabrics gradually lost their appeal. Middling and artisan customers wanted lighter textiles, known as the new draperies. Woolen-making regions in the Low Countries, France, and England were transformed under the pressure of these new consumer tastes. The new draperies offered mixed fabrics in wool, silk, linen, or cotton, as well as lightweight worsted wools. Modeled initially on light Italian wools, imitations proliferated. Italian cottons, fustians, and wools were copied by manufacturers in southern Germany, France, and the Low Countries; Flemish fabrics were adapted in England and imitated in Spain and Venice. For a growing number of Europeans, everyday clothing began to change. Whereas before a suit of clothing was expected to last a lifetime and even be handed down to heirs, now the selection of a coat, jacket, waistcoat, or cape became more a matter of personal choice than an investment for future generations. Less costly, more ephemeral commodities could reflect individual visions of appropriate dress. Lighter fabrics cost less and could be replaced more often. They were part of a revolution in dress, a revolution in self-presentation. The new fabrics enabled a greater preoccupation with personal display among the lower classes. Inevitably, the choices made by artisans and urban servants more closely mirrored prevailing upper-class modes. Their clothes did not replicate elite tastes. However, common clothing was being transformed and nowhere more dramatically than in northwestern Europe. From the 1500s plebeian dress began evolving from unchangingly drab coverings to a more varied range of apparel.

Dramatic alterations in dress continued during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A proliferation of European textiles encouraged the wearing of body linens as an intermediary layer between the skin and outer garments. Shifts and shirts for men and women became commonplace; stockings were almost as ubiquitous. By 1700 linen shirts were a staple of the wardrobes of poor Parisian workingmen; workingwomen owned even greater numbers. Cleanliness, as well as display, was more readily attainable with the growing ownership of linen shirts and shifts. Shirts with lace at the cuffs and neck were well within the means of the bourgeoisie. Shirts, shifts, aprons, handkerchiefs, and stockings came in many qualities and at many prices. Accessories modified pedestrian garments. Textile wholesalers and retailers, peddlers and shopkeepers, offered an ever-widening range of choice to their patrons. In all social ranks garments and accessories made from these fabrics were more numerous than ever before, permitting a greater involvement with temporal modes.

Asian textiles also contributed to the refashioning of European dress. Brought in the 1500s to the Iberian peninsula, the floral-patterned fabrics caught the fancy of the Spanish royal family and moved gradually into wider markets. By the last quarter of the 1600s, trading companies from every major European country imported shiploads of calicoes and chintzes. For example, in 1684 over one million pieces of Indian cloth were landed at English docks. The brightly colored, washable East Indian textiles were unlike anything previously seen in Europe. Their richly colored botanical prints were a fraction of the cost of European silk brocades; printed chintzes inaugurated an era of even greater plebeian ornamentation. In the rural districts of the Netherlands, calicoes and chintzes were incorporated into everyday folk dress. Although the rate of diffusion varied among European nations, consumers could be found in every social rank, with England and the Netherlands providing the earliest and broadest markets. Even the laboring population of Paris owned quantities of the brightly patterned goods by the end of the eighteenth century.

East Indian textiles, with their vibrant floral designs, attracted legions of buyers—but also critics, who feared the contagion of social disorder for, as one English pamphleteer noted in 1719, "all the mean People, the Maid Servants, and indifferently poor Persons . . . are now cloathed in Callicoe, or printed Linen; moved to it as well for the Cheapness, as the Lightness of the Cloth, and the Gaity of the Colours . . . let any one but cast their Eyes among the meaner Sort playing in the Street, or of the better Sort at Boarding School" (The Just Complaints of the poor Weavers truly represented, 1719). The calico craze sparked the first public panic over plebeian luxury. In London wool weavers destroyed shops selling calicoes and attacked women on the street dressed in floral printed gowns. Most European governments banned printed cottons in an attempt to shore up the old order and the old distinctions in dress. But legal restrictions could not hold back consumer demand.


Fustians (a blend of cotton and linen or just cotton) were made in ever greater quantities from the sixteenth century onward. They were produced in a great variety of styles, weights, and textures and included corduroys, moleskin, heavy twills, and velveteen. Some regions gave their name to fabrics that went on to be made in many other parts of Europe. Jean, for example, was known as coming initially from the city of Genoa; denim came from the French city of Nîmes, hence de Nîmes. Fustians were extremely popular fabrics, initially used by working people who needed sturdy clothing. The benefit of making garments from these fabrics was that they cost less than clothing made from heavy woolens and were easily washable. By the eighteenth century fustians were being substituted for a whole range of goods, including leather. For example, soft slippers could be made out of jean. And by this period, genteel and common consumers chose fustians for their daily apparel.

For one thing, men and women in eighteenth-century France, England, and Prussia found it thrilling to wear prohibited goods. The demand for contraband fabrics persisted through the eighteenth century. Increasingly those looking for light, bright


As the ownership of linens rose, so too did the number of women working as laundresses. In major cities thousands of women hired themselves out to wash, dry, and iron clothes and household linens. Usually these were poor women with few employment opportunities. For married women and widows with families this trade meant they could earn a living without having to live in as a domestic servant; they fit this work around their own family duties. As with most occupations, there were variations in the skills of laundresses, especially with regard to ironing. Complex lace ruffs, pristine cravats, and complex draperies on women's gowns required competent ironing with hot irons that came in a variety of shapes. The wealthy would employ their own laundresses, with a laundry room on the premises. But the majority of city dwellers depended on neighborhood laundresses. Improvements in urban housing in the nineteenth century meant that more middling and working women washed their family's laundry at home. Middle-class households typically hired extra help by the day to tackle soiled clothing and household linen. Washing and ironing was always heavy, tedious, and occasionally dangerous work, involving heavy cauldrons of boiling water, mountains of wet garments, and hot irons.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, laundry work employed great numbers of female and immigrant labor, even as city laundries assumed a more capital-intensive pattern. Only with the widespread sale of washing machines after the Second World War did laundresses slowly disappear from the urban scene.

fabrics could find European-made equivalents. The ban placed on East India textiles throughout much of Europe stimulated the growth of indigenous linen and cotton industries, most particularly in Britain. By the second half of the century, Lancashire manufacturers could offer a wide range of substitutes for prohibited Asian textiles. As a result, customers, from court clerks to maidservants, wheelwrights to gentlewomen, owned a wider array of garments than ever before. Garments made from these new fabrics showed a sense of style, not that of the formality of the court, but a relative fashionability. Indeed, one regional study suggests that workingmen were willing and able to pay a premium for quality items of clothing that would reinforce their standing in the wider world. Even rural groups—particularly rural industrial workers—began to buy or make urban-style clothing rather than traditional garb. These patterns of expenditure concerned moralists, particularly when it came to young working females. Eighteenth-century commentators decried the priority given to the purchase of pretty gowns, hats, aprons, and shawls. And yet more young working women could be seen wearing stylish garb. In the nineteenth century, legislators and clergymen, dismayed at the independence and self-indulgence of workingwomen, suggested that an excessive material vanity could lead directly to prostitution. Restraint, self-denial, and moral control were recommended for all laboring people, but especially females. But the dynamics of production and the expansion of consumer culture made fashion a matter of general interest, with or without the acquiescence of court or clergy. Clothing changes reflected the decline of uniforms, such as guild attire for artisans. They came to serve new needs of self-expression.

From the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, popular fashions challenged the social hierarchy. Thus, young men and women from the middling and laboring classes denied the elites a monopoly of the social stage. The defenders of the waning status quo responded with a combination of derision and lectures on morality. Newspapers and magazines sneered at the "second-hand beaux," the red-armed belles and jumped-up apprentices who wore genteel costumes, confusing the social order in a masquerade. What would be the results, demanded the editorialists, if one could not distinguish a lady from her maid, or a master from his servant? Even more distressing was the sight of noble youths aping the appearance of coachmen, sporting fustian coats with handkerchiefs around their necks. From the eighteenth century onward, social boundaries were blurring; visible distinctions in dress were no longer absolute guides to social standing. The widening of the consumer base and the more elaborate displays arising from the lower social ranks heralded the transformation of European society.

Personal contacts with high society were not the only source of information on the latest styles of dress. Engraved prints of exquisitely gowned figures had been produced for a limited market intermittently throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The more formalized reporting on fashion began in France with the appearance of the first fashion journal, Le Mercure Galant, in the 1670s. New trends were memorialized in illustrations, from which sharp-eyed readers could extract information on cut and finishings. News circulated with growing speed over the eighteenth century. In formally designated fashion journals, as well as through miscellaneous prints, literate customers found new sources of information, bringing them glimpses of the world of high fashion. The Lady's Magazine was the first English publication to produce regular fashion plates for its readers, from 1759 onward. Between 1786 and 1826, Journal der Luxus und der Moden, published in Weimar, brought German readers the latest fashion intelligence. Fashion journals multiplied throughout Europe, with ambitious publishers feeding the insatiable public interest in the latest vogue: Cabinet des Modes (1785–1792), Gallery of Fashion (1794–1804), The Magazine of the Female Fashions of London and Paris (1798–1806), Journal für Fabrik, Manufaktur und Handlung und Mode (1791–1808), Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashion and Politics (1809–1828). Thereafter, publishers responded to the growing market for information with a range of magazines and catalogs rich in detail.

Beginning in the late seventeenth century, France claimed a unique place in Europe as the center of high fashion. The resplendence of the Sun King, Louis XIV, had elevated French creations to a peerless position. The preeminence of fashion was never in question in the Sun King's court. Indeed, Louis XIV's minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert asserted that he intended to make high fashion to France what the gold mines of Peru had been to Spain. French silks were synonymous with luxury; news of recent Parisian trends was eagerly awaited from Moscow to Dublin. During the intermittent wars of the early eighteenth century, French fashion dolls were permitted to pass between enemy nations. Blockades during the Napoleonic Wars interrupted, but did not reverse, French standing as the fashion Mecca, a status that was again unrivaled by the 1830s. Haute couture became synonymous with Parisian fashion house. Charles Frederick Worth (1828–1895), English born but French inspired, built the first gresat house of design and couture in the 1850s. La Maison Worth set the pattern for couturiers' houses, a pattern that would continue into the twentieth century. After 1850 one of the many profitable French exports was an immensely popular magazine, published in more than ten languages. All editions featured outstanding fashion plates produced in Paris. Called Die Madenwelt or Le Follett, it set the standard for fashion news throughout Europe. War once again interrupted communications during the siege of Paris in 1870. Silence from Paris induced panic in English editors, who were obliged to substitute Belgian and English fashion plates. Readers of Le Follett were congratulated for their patient stoicism when fashion news flowed again with the end of the conflict. French influence remained unrivaled for the rest of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries.

The proliferation of fashion news was matched by changes in retailing over the same period. Up to 1800 most of the distribution of clothing fabrics and apparel relied on the traditional hierarchy of trades: mercers, linen drapers, and wool drapers. Each trade had a long ancestry, and practitioners were organized in guilds in most European cities. However, other patterns of retailing challenged their monopoly. Peddlers began appearing in increasing numbers from the sixteenth century onward, carrying necessities and humble luxuries to every quarter, encouraging trade, and generating wealth. General retail shops also multiplied, as did specialist shops that sold a range of clothing goods. As retailing became more complex, the traditional trade divisions began to break down. By the 1850s modern retail systems were in place, permitting consumers to buy a wider range of goods even outside the capital cities. Though elite fashions persisted, the meaning was altered. A well-developed trade in secondhand garments was also in place by the seventeenth century throughout Europe, changing the culture of fashion for elites and nonelites. Sumptuary laws were dead letters in the face of the vigorous market for silk gowns, wool jackets, and embroidered aprons, worn but still relatively stylish. Before the mass production of fashions, there was a mass trade in second-hand cloths that redefined fashion in the street. Popular fashions found a legitimate expression among the middle class and a growing portion of the working class of Europe.


The dress of ordinary Europeans was transformed by broad social and economic changes that took place over centuries. However, within this evolutionary process, dramatic episodes of political and religious upheaval inspired distinctive changes. Religious and secular revolts heightened the symbolic meaning of many material goods. From the beginnings of the Reformation, radical Protestants redefined their relations with other Christians and solidified group cohesion through symbolic forms of dress. For the Mennonites and Amish of northern and central Europe, the Quakers of Britain, and the Doukhobors of Russia, clothing reflected their relationship with God, their links with their coreligionists, and their distinctiveness from the wider society.

The perceived corruption of the Catholic and established Protestant churches produced a critique of luxury and personal adornment among many radical Protestant sects. Mennonites expressed their distaste for sixteenth-century Netherlands society through displays of public nakedness and used the destruction of clothing as a means of purification. Protestants in general were concerned to present a modest appearance, with no visible signs of opulence. Dress was often employed as a conscious mechanism to separate a religious community from the broader society, to exclude outsiders and enforce solidarity. In the 1690s the Mennonites of Switzerland, Alsace, and southern Germany divided on religious issues. Elements of dress became flashpoints for theological disputes. All subscribed to the ideal of simple, dark, utilitarian dress—worldly fashions were anathema to them. However, the leader of the new Amish sect broke with the rest of the Mennonite community and the Amish could not support the use of buttons. In their words, the Amish became the "hook and eye" people and the Mennonites were the "button people." In the succeeding centuries, including the twentieth, the size of men's hat brims, the cut of a jacket, and the kind of women's headgear were emblematic of one's position within the Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities, their dark archaic clothing setting them off from their neighbors.

As norms of dress altered in tandem with shifting social, economic, and political movements, men's clothing exhibited perhaps the most striking adaptations. During the eighteenth century, middle-class men and even noblemen abandoned the rich decoration and lush colors that had characterized attire in the previous centuries. Gradually, they metamorphosed from the splendor of the butterfly to the utility of the moth. Clothes became darker and more restrained in cut. The standard components of male dress became trousers, waistcoat, and jacket, with the shirt visible beneath, the neck covered with a cravat or tie. This pattern of dress was an adaptation of workingmen's trousers and jacket, an example of the trickle-up effect in fashion.

This renunciation of excess is associated most strongly with the Netherlands and England. By 1600 dark, simple garb was a hallmark of the merchant class and nobility in the Netherlands. Sober garb suited the masculine culture of public probity; inspired by Protestant morality and commerce, this self-consciously sober look distinguished the Dutch from their more elaborate French and Spanish neighbors. The sober elegance of the Dutch elite traveled to England in the entourage of William of Orange and Queen Mary, following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This style of dress was already entrenched among the nonconformist sects in England. By 1700 nationalist sentiment among the men of affairs, the Protestant stewards of English government and business, found expression in fashions distinct from those of autocratic France. Englishmen's coats became plainer, less ostentatious. Opulent apparel was deemed a corrupt, effeminate indulgence. Unadorned coats of dark wool cloth became the mark of a gentleman, of authentic public leadership. And in continental Europe England's liberalism and constitutional monarchy became synonymous with dark coats of unadorned fabric. Anglomania flourished in eighteenth-century France, inspired by a political critique of the ancien régime; these political sentiments were expressed in some circles by dressing in English modes. Enlightenment sentiments prescribed a modest attire.


Practical and fashionable, headgear was overlaid by a complex web of social meanings. For most of the period under study, soft caps and hats covered women's hair or decorated their heads. These coverings typically denoted life-cycle stages: the passage from childhood to adulthood, newly married to widowed. Among rural women distinctive caps or hats reflected regional folk styles. For many centuries religious dicta ensured that women's hair was covered in public. Only with the fashion for wigs in the eighteenth century did the public display of hair alter somewhat for those who followed this style. However, the utility and fashion potential of head coverings ensured their survival. The revolutions of the late eighteenth century marked the return to natural hair. But hats and head coverings remained an essential accessory for men and women, especially when in public. Throughout the nineteenth century the constraints imposed on women eased marginally. But women continued to wear hats for all formal public occasions well into the second half of the twentieth century, keeping their heads covered for ceremonies when men typically bared theirs.

For men as well as women, hats distinguished social rank and occupational standing. Hats also signaled defiance, camaraderie, or respect. Christian services required that men bare their heads as a sign of respect. In the seventeenth century Quakers were the best known of religious egalitarians who refused to remove their hats, claiming a right to dispense with gestures of social deference. In their view equality before God made such gestures unnecessary. For this defiance before magistrates and nobles, Quakers suffered imprisonment and sometimes torture. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social status would be determined by the use of a hat, as opposed to a shawl, for workingwomen. Among men, the raising of one's hat was a masculine mark of courtesy offered to a social superior or an equal, male or female. But the niceties between relative equals were more problematic in cities where the social position of the person so honored was not guaranteed. Nonetheless, the doffing of a hat as a mark of respect was a courtesy expected by the elites from their social inferiors. Its daily or hourly repetition reinforced the social hierarchy. The erosion of these traditional displays happened slowly. Through much of the twentieth century, hats and hat honor resonated with social meaning, as did the particular types of hats worn by different social groups. However, with the gradual democratization of the West, hat use faded; outside an institutional context, it altered decisively in the second half of the twentieth century. Formal hats, and the customs associated with them, all but vanished from common usage.

The two late-eighteenth-century revolutions further eroded the old norms of elite fashions. As a representative of the new American republic, Benjamin Franklin wore undressed hair and plain attire to the French court, charming the assembled company. More dramatic still were the shock waves of the French Revolution. Throughout these complex events, clothing was often a political marker. Thus, the members of the Third Estate were authorized to wear only the plainest dark apparel. This unpretentious garb became part of the explosive critique of royal opulence and corruption. Dress frequently symbolized political positions through the tumult of early reforms, through revolution, the Reign of Terror, the reaction, and military dictatorship. Trousers, as worn by the laboring sans-culottes (those who did not wear culottes, the knee breeches worn by aristocrats and the well-to-do), certified adherence to Jacobinism, Maximilien Robespierre being a prominent exception to that rule. Plain caps worn by laboring men were reborn as liberty caps, powerful symbols of revolutionary authority for Jacobin men. Even amid the turmoil of revolution, however, they would not share this authority with female revolutionaries, who were forbidden to wear this cap. From shoes to buckles, hats to handkerchiefs, each refinement carried political overtones; during the Reign of Terror every citizen was required by law to wear a red, white, and blue cockade as a symbol of patriotism. When the political fury of the Jacobins was quashed, there were reactions in more than just the formal political sense. An explosion of highly stylized fashions worn by young men and women shocked visitors and older residents of Paris. Les Incroyables some were called, others les Merveilleux; the dress of these golden youth was characterized by outrageous extremes. Such excesses were short lived; thereafter, simplicity became the prevailing trend. Inside France and out, war accelerated the simplification of dress. For example, powdered wigs lost favor throughout Europe, more as a consequence of high wheat prices than as a reflection of generalized republicanism—finely milled flour being used as the powder for wigs. With the coming of peace, an aesthetic of restraint spread throughout the west.

Middle-class men adopted a more austere manner of dress well before the nineteenth century. After 1815 they continued their rhetorical claim to equality under the law and political responsibility by wearing identical black suits. Their bourgeois rectitude reinforced claims to political participation. In 1832 the debate in Britain was resolved with the extension of the franchise to middle-class men. Continental Europe enfranchised middle-class men less readily. However, throughout the nineteenth century, respectable apparel for men in business and government was the uniformly tailored, dark three-piece suit. Social rank could be determined through cut and quality and accessories. The suit remained a mark of authority and respectability for all classes. By the later nineteenth century, various types of suits were worn even by working-class men and radical trade union organizers, so general was the acceptance of this pattern of clothing. Mass production made suits easily available at an affordable price. And, though necessity demanded that poor men pawn their suits each Monday morning, they would be redeemed for Saturday night. Until the third quarter of the twentieth century, men from virtually every social rank displayed an extraordinary homogeneity in dress, all wedded to the respectable imperative of the suit.

If bourgeois masculinity was defined in attire by restraint, bourgeois femininity was defined by a prescribed indulgence. In the eighteenth century, women replaced the aristocracy as the group expected to define standards of beauty and fashion. In turn, fashion began to change frequently. The republican simplicity and physical liberation of the neoclassical styles of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods were short lived. The uncorseted female form did not survive for long. Social penalties were more severe for women who infringed the gender norms of dress than for men. In response, the advent of the "Woman Question" in the nineteenth century coincided with various movements for dress reform. In the mid-nineteenth century, the American reformer Amelia Bloomer proposed the wearing of long Turkish-type trousers under a skirt to free women for greater physical activity. Bloomers attracted legions of critics and were denounced in pulpits and editorials as dangerously unfeminine. However, the dress reform movement revived later in the century in most parts of Europe. Campaigns were inspired in equal parts by the feminist campaign for legal and social equality and a wish to promote healthier, more natural lifestyles. "Aesthetic" dress, developed by the British Pre-Raphaelite community, was marketed successfully from the 1860s onward. The dress for women consisted of loose-fitting gowns worn without corsets; men wore collarless shirts, soft felt hats, and flowing ties. By the turn of the century, Aesthetic dress had become an accepted alternative to styles that relied for their structure on confining corsets and petticoats.

The greatest transformation in women's clothing came with the new century. The First World War intensified the debates about women's place in society. Postwar changes in hair and clothing signaled the rebellion of a new generation of women, raised amid public campaigns for women's legal and political equality. Bobbed hair, short shiftlike dresses, and even trousers were their emblems in the 1920s. To French authorities these fashions were antimaternal and a threat to the state. Parents were urged to restrain their daughters; husbands were cautioned to control their wives, and many tried. However, these fashions were embraced by young women, for whom bobbed hair and shorter dresses represented the throwing off of shackles.

This critique of the gender status quo was matched later in the twentieth century by a rebellion of the young against the Paris-dictated "fashion" of their elders. In the mid-1950s young designers like Mary Quant produced affordable but dramatic clothes linking popular fashion with social rebellion. High fashion lost its defining authority. No longer restricted to the factory and farmyard, jeans became mainstream dress over the next quarter century. New haircuts and clothes were linked to social and feminist critiques of the status quo, with particular emphasis on distinctive styles for youth. But here too, commercialization and mass production defused the initial political inspiration. Jeans stores and unisex boutiques opened in almost every community in Europe. Well-developed industrial and distribution industries responded to changes in taste, meeting the decisive shifts in fashion.


Just as clothing evolved for lord and laborer, so too did the process of production. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, people of almost all social classes relied on the tailors, hatters, and shoemakers resident in their communities to make clothes to order. Guilds controlled training and entry into the trades; the hierarchy within the trades offered opportunity for advancement for talented journeymen and a few journeywomen. At the same time, many thousands of artisans were employed making utilitarian articles under the direction of great and small masters. These trades made up a vital part of the corporate foundation of Renaissance society. And the purchase of clothing by Europeans represented one of the most important areas of expenditure in that period. In England the total annual consumption of clothing accounted for about one quarter of all national expenditure at the end of the seventeenth century.

However, the seventeenth century also saw the beginning of decisive changes in the production and distribution of clothing. In France needlewomen received approval for the distinctly female occupation of mantuamaker or dressmaker, ending the monopoly of the tailors' guild. This division of labor was replicated in other parts of Europe. Furthermore, there were other pivotal pressures transforming the production of apparel. The seventeenth-century growth of national armies and navies required the creation of bureaucracies to support and provision these fighting forces. Large stocks of apparel were essential. Although we know more about England in this period, the economic momentum thus engendered was almost certainly a pan-European phenomenon. To ensure that soldiers and sailors were supplied with coats, breeches, shirts, stockings, and handkerchiefs, investors contracted out the process of production. Cost was a key factor; so too was the speed of production. Inevitably, the growing infusion of merchant capital undercut traditional guild structures.

No new technology was available to speed up manufacturing during the eighteenth century. Therefore, contractors reorganized labor, using women workers outside the guild systems. England's guilds were among the weakest in Europe, and in this context military ambition and fiscal innovation resulted in a new pattern of clothes production. Contractors competed for government contracts, employing hundreds and then thousands of needlewomen in an elaborate system of sweated labor. From 1700 onward this became one of the largest sectors of employment for urban women; but it was a largely hidden trade, a trade of attic and garret workshops. Journeymen tailors, in turn, found themselves becoming wage laborers when they had to compete with cheaper nonguild workers. Gender antagonism flared between tailors and seamstresses, with periodic public campaigns to bar women from all needle trades from 1700 through the 1800s. This process was replicated throughout Europe as capital and labor were reorganized in the clothing trades.

The development of ready-to-wear clothing transformed the types and cost of garments available. And there was a large and growing assortment of second-hand clothing traded from one corner of Europe to the other. People became accustomed to the convenience of ready-made clothes as a result of the used clothes market. The second-hand trade brought dated garments, worn but useful, to consumers in the middle and laboring classes. It flourished in most parts of Europe, recognized as an essential facet of the clothing trade. Garments outmoded in one country for one social group could be sold profitably in other markets. The used clothing trade persisted as a significant element in the garment industry until such time as mass production offered a sufficiently wide choice for all consumers. Thereafter it served niche markets only.

Ready-made clothing became commonplace during the eighteenth century, and by the nineteenth century specialist manufacturers expanded. With the advent of the sewing machine, after 1850 production networks integrated factory, workshop, and sweated home labor. The latter type of work was the particular resort of poor women and immigrants. The domestic use of sewing machines opened another method for the home production of garments from the late nineteenth century onward, with the aid of the latest patterns available through magazines and retailers. However, the enterprising women who set themselves up as dressmakers served a niche market only and offered no real challenge to manufacturers. Indeed, as mass production grew, high-quality, made-to-measure clothing became less common, more the preserve of the affluent.

Menswear and women's accessories were the first mass-produced garments. By the late nineteenth century, virtually every article of clothing was made in the tens of thousands, through interrelated systems of factories and sweatshops. In the 1900s production became even larger and more diversified. The first historical examination of sweated labor, in the 1970s, was based on the assumption that government regulation had at last eliminated sweatshops. However, in the last two decades of the twentieth century, poorly paid piecework, in homes and workshops, was revived in response to the foundering of European textile and clothing companies faced with cheap Asian imports. As in previous eras, employers discovered no substitute for the flexible, low-paid work of women. From the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, the gender division of labor remained a consistent component of the clothing trade as the market for ready-made grew.

Fashion was a more amorphous concept at the end than at the beginning of the twentieth century, yet some aspects of the clothing trade remained unchanged. Low-paid female labor was as much the organizational solution to economic challenges in the twentieth as it was in the seventeenth century. In addition, the constituents of clothing underwent changes as dramatic as those that began in the 1600s. Hightech apparel like anoraks and running shoes, plus the diffusion of artificial fibers, marked further alterations in common clothing that began first with the popularization of cottons. Simplification of dress continued with the erosion of age-specific garments and the emergence of unisex styles. As in earlier periods, economic structures, political priorities, and social signals were reflected in patterns of dress and the structure of clothing trades.

See alsoShops and Stores (volume 2);The Body and Its Representations (volume 4);Consumerism (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


Evolving Fashions

Boucher, François. 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and PersonalAdornment. 2d ed. New York, 1987.

Breward, Christopher. The Culture of Fashion: A New History of Fashionable Dress. Manchester, U.K., 1995.

Buck, Anne. Dress in Eighteenth-Century England. London and New York, 1979.

Chenoune, Farid. A History of Men's Fashion. Translated by Deke Dusinberre. Paris, 1993.

Ginsburg, Madeleine. An Introduction to Fashion Illustration. London, 1980.

Newton, Stella Mary. The Dress of the Venetians, 1495–1525. Aldershot, U.K., 1988.

Perrot, Philippe. Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the NineteenthCentury. Translated by Richard Bienvenu. Princeton, N.J., 1994.

Ribeiro, Aileen. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750 to 1820. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1995.

Ribeiro, Aileen. Fashion in the French Revolution. New York, 1988.

Robinson, Fred Miller. The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1993.

Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. New York, 1988.

Making, Buying, and Wearing Clothing

Breward, Christopher. The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion, and City Life,1860–1914. Manchester, U.K., 1999.

Bythell, Duncan. The Sweated Trades: Outwork in Nineteenth-Century Britain. London, 1978.

Coffin, Judith G. The Politics of Women's Work: The Paris Garment Trades, 1750–1915. Princeton, N.J., 1996.

Harte, N. B. "The Economics of Clothing in the Late Seventeenth Century." In Fabrics and Fashions: Studies in the Social and Economic History of Dress. Edited by N. B. Harte. Special Issue of Textile History 22, no. 2 (1991): 277–296.

Honeyman, Katrina, and Jordan Goodman. "Women's Work, Gender Conflict, and Labour Markets in Europe, 1500–1900." Economic History Review 44, no. 4 (1991): 608–628.

Lemire, Beverly. Dress, Culture and Commerce: The English Clothing Trade Before theFactory, 1660–1800. New York, 1997.

Lemire, Beverly. Fashion's Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain,1660–1800. Oxford, 1992.

Levitt, Sarah. Victorians Unbuttoned: Registered Designs for Clothing, Their Makers and Wearers, 1839–1900. London, 1986.

Roche, Daniel. The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the "Ancien Régime." Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1994.

Sanderson, Elizabeth. Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh. New York, 1996.

Spufford, Margaret. The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and TheirWares in the Seventeenth Century. London, 1984.

Vincent, John Martin. Costume and Conduct in the Laws of Basel, Bern, and Zurich,1370–1800. Baltimore, 1935.

Clothing and Fashion

views updated May 14 2018


CLOTHING AND FASHION. Though often used interchangeably, there are distinct and important differences between clothing, fashion, and style. The term clothing first appeared in the thirteenth century and refers to garments in general. Fashion and style are fourteenth-century words. Style describes the form of something, while fashion refers to prevailing styles during a particular time. All clothing can be described in terms of the style of specific features, such as a mandarin collar or a gathered sleeve, and if the style is currently popular, it is considered fashionable. Garment styles periodically recur, though usually in slightly different forms. Coco Chanel, the famous French designer, once said that anyone who claimed originality had no knowledge of history.

The Colonies

Colonization of America began in the late 1500s with the Spanish in Florida, followed by the French in Acadia and the English in Jamestown, Virginia, and Massachusetts. The Dutch, Swedes, and Germans would have settlements by 1683. All of these groups brought their native garb with them. As in Europe, clothing for the wealthy was elaborate and made of fine fabrics. Men set the fashions, and women and children followed them. Humbler folk wore less complicated clothing of a more serviceable nature. The colonies were not meant to be self-supporting and were seen as a good source of exports from the mother countries. Attitudes toward attire would develop largely based on whether an area was settled by adventurers or those seeking religious freedom. Clothing was important and often passed on from one generation to the next upon death. Few garments survived in their original form, having been recut to fit a different figure or to reflect a newer fashion.

As they became established, wealthy southern planters tended to keep up with court fashions by importing clothes made in England. Their wives and daughters wore silk, velvet, brocade, and satin gowns when in town. Clothing on the plantations was more utilitarian, with men wearing working clothes of breeches and jerkins made of canvas or a rough fabric called frieze, coarse wool hose, and leather shoes, and women wearing simple gowns over homespun petticoats and usually an apron. Masters clothed their laborers and servants. Some planters maintained a store onsite with various goods, while others relied on itinerant peddlers for fashion news, supplies, and gossip.

Sumptuary laws were enacted mid-seventeenth century in Massachusetts by conservative Pilgrims who felt that too much money was being spent on clothing. They tried to regulate the length and width of sleeves, as well as prohibiting the use of silk (except for hoods or scarves), silver, gold, lace, and ribbons of gold or silver. Goods in defiance were confiscated and exported. Officials thought a person's clothing should accurately reflect their social prestige and rank, and they put many violators of the sumptuary laws on trial. It was possible, however, to have charges dropped if one could prove sufficient financial status.

By the late seventeenth century, William and Mary were on the English throne. Relations with the colonies were good and nearly every ship brought luxuries. Fashion was less than a year behind England. Dolls dressed in the latest styles arrived in London from Paris once a month, and were regularly sent on to America where dressmakers would create interpretations for colonial women. Children were dressed in styles very similar to their parents.

Not all people followed trends, however. Though financially sound, the Quakers recommended their members abstain from rich colors and use soft gray, dull drab, sage greens, and somber browns. They made their clothes the same shapes as court clothes, minus the showy trims, and used beautiful and costly cloth.

The first half of the eighteenth century was prosperous and comfortable. Fashion was conspicuous among the rich, with merchant ships from China and the Indies supplying silk, tissues, and embroidered gauzes. Small patches were worn not only as beauty marks, but also as a sign of political sway: a patch on the left side of the face supported the Whigs, while the right side indicated a Tory. Fans were an important accessory as well, enabling an elaborate method of nonverbal communication.

The Revolution

As political difficulties with England escalated, the fashionable looked toward France for style. As early as 1768, New England ladies agreed to use local manufacturers and to boycott English items. They abandoned heavy black mourning clothes, a frequent import, and abstained from eating lamb so more sheep would grow to maturity and produce more American wool, there by undermining one of England's primary exports. Tradesmen adopted sturdy leather clothing for work. Men and women discarded all imported goods and wore domestic homespun. After Bunker Hill, only Tories continued to import English fashion. During the war, officers had greatcoats made out of Dutch blankets, and the Minutemen wore whatever they had, usually homespun or leather hunting shirts, leather breeches, and buckskin shoes. A few regiments had uniforms, but there was no regularity. Official papers list a resolution that 13,000 coats would be provided for noncommissioned officers and soldiers of the Massachusetts forces. After Independence, George Washington was inaugurated in a domestic homespun suit.

The United States of America

Though now free of English rule, the new country still looked to Europe for style. The stiff brocades and rustling silks of late eighteenth-century France gave way to simpler styles as the Terror consumed Paris. It would be decidedly unhealthy to appear too aristocratic there, and this fashion change migrated across the Atlantic. People stopped the 100-year-old practice of powdering their hair, and adopted closer fitting garments. For men, the tails were cut away from coat fronts and became longer in back. Vests, called waistcoats, were low in front and worn over ruffled shirts. Women wore dresses of thin, fine Indian cottons with narrow skirts, waistlines very high under the bust, long tight sleeves, and bare shoulders with a muslin or gauze piece tucked in the front when at home. A long scarf thrown around the shoulders and cascading to the ground in front was worn outside. The Empire style had the advantage of actually being comfortable for women and children, though rather lightweight for colder regions. Fur muffs provided some warmth.

As early as 1785, fashion magazines were sent regularly from London and Paris. These included colored plates of the latest styles, serial stories, poetry and literary reviews. By 1800, they had replaced the fashion dolls. Following the English and French format, Philadelphian Louis Godey began publication of his Lady's Book in 1830.

The Beginnings of Industry

Within a few years, technology would increase cloth production far beyond prior abilities.

The 1794 patent of the cotton gin increased cotton processing from one pound per day to fifty pounds per day per person. Slavery, which had begun to die out, was revived as a source of labor for the now profitable crop. Samuel Slater arrived in America with the ability to both build and operate English spinning machinery. He opened the first successful water-powered mill in Rhode Island in 1793, establishing a blueprint for mills that would be copied throughout New England. In 1813, Francis Cabot Lowell collaborated with inventor Paul Moody to create an efficient power loom that could keep pace with the abundant supply of cotton and wool yarn. Fashion was relatively simple under Thomas Jefferson's terms of office, 1801–1809, partly due to French styles, but partly because of Jefferson's own views. Dolly Madison was welcomed as a breath of fresh air in 1809 when clothing became more festive. Though still following France more closely than England, the new States could not help but be influenced by the lavish extravagance of the Regency period (1810–1819). With more fabric readily available, dresses became fuller, the waistline descended to a more natural position, and decoration replaced simplicity. A domestic lace machine based on an English model was developed in 1823, and purportedly produced good quality lace.

Sleeves became so large between 1825 and 1835 that they required as much cloth as a skirt. Skirts were ankle length, full and gathered into a band at the natural waist. With the fullness of the skirt and the size of the sleeves, waistlines appeared impossibly small. As the Industrial Revolution produced more cloth, fashionable garments required increasing amounts. Famous and influential people impacted fashion. Queen Victoria's 1840 wedding gown started a trend for lace, and Madame Pompadour, an investor in the East India Company, started the craze for Indian Paisley shawls.

Mid-Nineteenth Century

As increasing numbers of immigrants arrived in America, the population headed west in search of land and opportunity. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 sparked a rush of miners and prospectors seeking fortune. Though unable to sell his heavy canvas for tents in the mild climate, Levi Straus made them into rugged work pants and started a style that continues through present day. Meanwhile, the 1853 marriage of the French Princess Eugenie inspired fashion to even greater extravagance. Now the French Empress, she was a great lover of clothing with a large and elegant wardrobe. Skirts became so full that layers of petticoats were necessary to support them. In 1854, Charles Worth, the famous French couturier, invented the hoop skirt, a petticoat with wire bands slipped through casings at descending intervals that allowed great expanse with very little weight. The device took only two years to appear in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the sheer scale of the skirts made it difficult for women to enter and exit carriages and to pass by others wearing equally large skirts. There are numerous incidents reported of women who unknowingly brushed too close to fireplaces and caught fire, resulting in injury and even death.

Hair was worn parted in the middle with long curls coming down the sides over the ears. The mid-century woman thus looked almost like a hand bell, with a narrow top and a very full bottom. She appeared stationary and unapproachable, surrounded by her clothing. In contrast,

men of the period were adopting increasingly understated attire. As fortunes were made, the newly wealthy allowed their wives and children to reflect their success, while the men themselves wore what would eventually become the business suit.

Children's clothing followed that of their parents. Those lower on the financial rung actually enjoyed more comfortable attire. Offspring from more prominent families were dressed according to their station. All children wore dresses until age three or four, when boys were given short pants. Little girls wore hoops like their mothers. At about age ten, a boy received long trousers as a rite of passage from childhood. There was no similar recognition for girls as they passed into young womanhood.

Civil War

Conflict over slavery and states' rights set the North and South at odds. The ensuing Civil War interrupted life for the entire country, and ultimately devastated the South. At the beginning of the conflict, Southern ladies continued to dress stylishly to keep up their courage, but fashion was discarded as the war progressed. Military uniforms for both sides were produced quickly using the sewing machine, which had been invented by Elias Howe and Isaac Singer in the 1840s. After the war, it was largely used to produce prison uniforms and garments for stevedores until the turn of the twentieth century.


In 1869, the rail lines coming from the East and the West finally converged in Utah, and the grueling journey that once took months over dusty plains and high mountains was reduced to about six days. Communication and the transportation of goods became a relatively simple matter. The pace of life picked up and fashion reflected the new speed. Hoop skirts were eventually abandoned, and by 1870, skirts were swept back and fastened into a bustle. Hair also was pulled to the back, giving a woman the appearance of moving briskly forward, even when standing still. As manufacturing increased, a dazzling array of goods could be had. Previously, money was tied to land and inherited, but now industry made fortunes. The new rich seemed compelled to exhibit their social status by dressing as conspicuously as possible in very elaborate, highly decorated garments with tiny waists accomplished by tight corsets. In an effort to reduce the deleterious effects of undergarments, worn even when pregnant, a dress reform movement appeared in the 1880s. A health corset was designed, featuring a straight piece down the front, rather than pushing into the stomach. The movement also decried the practice of dressing children as miniature adults. It proposed that the young be allowed to wear soft fabrics and loose garments.

By 1890, 30 percent of Americans lived in towns with populations greater than 8,000. New York boasted more than 1.5 million residents, and Chicago and Philadelphia each had over 1 million. The country was slowly changing from a group of rural settlements to a series of thriving urban cities. Portrayed by the artist Charles Dana Gibson, and dubbed the Gibson Girl, a new idea of womanhood was emerging. Often employed as a shop assistant, typist, or governess, she was strong, self-confident, and independent. Her participation in sports, especially bicycling, gave her a newfound freedom from chaperones. Her dress of choice was a tailor-made suit that consisted of a long skirt, a matching fitted jacket, and a shirtwaist blouse. Many of the blouses were made at home, but by 1909, 600 sewing shops employing 30,000 workers were manufacturing blouses in America. Standard sizing became a necessity, as these garments were sold in stores and through catalogues. The success and convenience of purchasing simple garments that did not require elaborate fitting encouraged more people to buy "off the rack" or "ready to wear." Sweatshops continued to spring up to meet the demand, often taking advantage of new immigrants who came from Europe with sewing skills. Many settled in New York, making it the center of American garment manufacture. The twentieth century would see clothing change from a custom-made, one-of-a-kind business, to an automated, mass manufactured industry.

Labor Unions

In 1900, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union(ILGWU) was formed to protest low pay, fifteen-hour days, lack of benefits, and unsafe working conditions. In 1909, 20,000 shirtwaist workers staged the first strike in the industry. Mostly women and children, many of the workers were beaten or fired; however, they did win a small pay raise and a reduction of the work week to fifty two hours. A second strike occurred in 1910, when 50,000 mostly male cloakmakers walked out. They won uniform wages across that industry, a shorter week, and paid holidays. The ILGWU membership swelled. Tragedy struck in 1911 when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Doors were locked, exits blocked and 146 mostly female garment workers perished in the blaze. The government was finally prompted to take action and establish regulatory control over the industry.

World War I to World War II

The onset of World War I took many American men overseas, and women had no choice but to step in and run family businesses and keep the country going. Clothing became practical and functional. When the war was over and the men returned, young women in particular were loath to give up their freedoms. Many adopted a boyish look by cutting their hair, flattening their bosoms, and dropping their waistlines to the hip. Called the flapper, this woman wanted control of her own life and equal rights. By downplaying her feminine curves, she challenged notions of weakness and dependence. The horror of the war sent an entire generation in search of a means to forget, but unfortunately the stock market crash of 1929 ended the party. Many people were financially ruined in the crash, and clothing became serious, conservative, and grown-up. Any display of extravagance was considered to be in poor taste, so clothing was under-stated except on private estates, where Paris still largely dictated fashion. For the average person, life was somewhat grim; escape, however, could be found cheaply at the movies. Hollywood starlets became icons of fashionable dress, and were much admired and copied.

As the Depression began to lift, fashionable clothing became attainable again. Manufacturers and department-store buyers sailed to France so often that the transatlantic ship the Norman die was nicknamed "the Seventh Avenue shuttle." French designs were either purchased or copied from memory. Once home, the styles were produced in several qualities of fabrics with varying degrees of sophistication. Thus, manufacture made fashion available to most strata of society.

During World War II, women once again stepped into the workplace. They adopted trousers and accepted the shortages of nearly everything, as all materials were applied to the war effort. Restrictions were placed on the amount and type of fabric that could be used for apparel. Once Paris fell to the Germans, America was stylistically on her own. Known as the "Mother of American Fashion," Claire McCardell was instrumental in creating the uniquely American style. Using humble fabrics and keeping the average income in mind, McCardell designed a variety of clever, comfortable, affordable clothing. While several prestigious designers came to America during the war years, McCardell was the one who best understood the emerging American lifestyle.

The Rising Middle Class

Post-war affluence allowed a large middle class to emerge. As men climbed the corporate ladder, appropriate attire was required. The gray business suit became a standard, while a variety of magazines helped the wives make proper choices in everything from clothing to breakfast cereal. Between 1946 and 1964, 72 million children were born. Known as the baby boomers, they scorned conformity and chafed against the confines of their parents' narrow lifestyle. Their resulting rebellion was noticeable in their rejection of fashion. Long hair, vintage clothing, and worn jeans became the uniform of youth in the 1960s.

American Independence

Once broken free of the dictates of Paris and the restrictions of a rigid society, American fashion became a vast commercial enterprise. Though still considered the center of fashion, Parisian influence declined as the trend toward youthful clothing swept the globe. Americans realized that they were fully capable of producing garments that appealed to their own sensibilities and lifestyles. In the last three decades of the twentieth century, American designers continued to look around the world for inspiration. But the world began to look to the United States as well, where garments of all styles and qualities were available to nearly every budget. With an enormous industry and vast manufacturing capabilities, Americans have developed a casual style of dress that is recognizable world over.


Earle, Alice Morse. Two Centuries of Costume in America, 1620– 1820. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1971.

McClellan, Elisabeth. Historic Dress in America 1607–1870. New York: Arno Press, 1977.

Milbank, Caroline R. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Abrams, 1989.

Murray, Maggie Pexton. Changing Styles in Fashion: Who, What, Why. New York: Fairchild, 1989.

Watson, Linda. Vogue: Twentieth-Century Fashion: From Haute Couture to Street Style. London: Carleton Books, 2000.


See alsoBloomers ; Flapper .

Clothing Pattern

views updated May 11 2018

Clothing Pattern


Clothing patterns are used to sew stylish garments that fit well. Individual pattern pieces are used to cut fabric pieces, which are then assembled and sewn to create a wearable garment. Today, clothing patterns are usually mass-produced of thin tissue packaged in envelopes, and are sold according to standard body sizes (size 4, 6, 8, 10, etc.) Garment illustrations and pertinent information such as purchase of closure and notions are printed on the outside of the envelopes. General instructions are included in the package, and individual pattern pieces contain specific information pertaining to seam allowance and alignment of the fabric according to the grain or warp of the material. Sewing instructions are keyed to numbered or lettered pattern pieces so they are easy to understand. Patterns are distributed through fabric stores (they are shown in catalogs there) or by mail.

The actual printing of the paper pattern pieces is not time-consuming, nor expensive. Rather, the design of the pattern is the most time-consuming and costly part of production. Essentially, a designer's sketch must be translated into a standard-size pattern that must be stylish and easy to construct. A successful pattern enables a sewer to produce an article of clothing for a fraction of the cost it would take to purchase a garment ready-made in a store.


For centuries, obtaining fashionable clothing that also fit properly was difficult to do. The wealthy hired tailors or professional dressmakers to sew custom-fit fashions. However, those of lesser means muddled through with old clothes, makeshift fashions that were ill-fitting, or lived with re-made hand-me-downs. The ready-to-wear industry was not in full swing and therefore did not produce affordable women's dress until about 1880 (some men's garments were available earlier in the century).

However, by the early nineteenth century, some women's magazines included pattern pieces for garments such as corsets in order to assist women in obtaining fashionable dress. Since the pieces were simply illustrated on a small magazine page and just a few inches in size, they were not easy to use. By the 1850s, Sarah Josepha Hale's famous women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book offered full-size patterns, but they were one size only—the reader would have to size it according to individual measurements.

About the time of the Civil War, tailor Ebenezer Butterick developed the mass-produced tissue-paper pattern sized according to a system of proportional grading. These first patterns were cut and folded by members of the Butterick family. The Buttericks established a company in New York City and began mass-producing ladies' dress patterns by 1866. It is reputed that Butterick alone sold six million clothing pattern by 1871. James McCall, another pattern entre-preneur, produced women's clothing patterns shortly thereafter as well. At last American women could obtain a well-fitting, rather stylish garment by using a mass-produced clothing pattern. Amazingly after 120 years, both McCall and Butterick remain giants in the pattern industry.

Innovations in the pattern industry since the late nineteenth century include superior marketing through women's magazines, opening branch offices throughout this country as well as Europe to keep abreast of styles, improvements in instruction sheets, the development of different product style lines, and the addition of designer lines based on the pattern of a couture creation.

Raw Materials

The paper pattern, envelope, and instructions are made of paper of varying grades. The most important component, the tissue paper pattern, is made from the lightest and thinnest paper commercially available (it is not made at the pattern companies). It is called 7.5 lb (3.4 kg) basis paper, meaning that a ream of it (500 sheets) only weighs 7.5 lb (3.4 kg).


The design of the mass-produced paper pattern includes many steps. Furthermore, the creation of an easy to use, fashionable, of good fit pattern is the result of collaboration of many departments and many talents.

At the outset of the design process of any garment, the pattern company's product development department must evaluate three key elements: the typical customer profile (lifestyle, skills, taste, etc), the current fashion trends, and last season's sales figures. These all factor in to making a profitable pattern—the goal of the company.

Pattern companies vary in the number of new pattern collections launched each year; many launch four new collections a year. The in-house designers are inspired by observing people and their physical movements, learning about their needs, and understanding trends in their customers' lifestyle. Designers attend fashion shows, read magazines, newspapers, and trade journals to keep abreast of fads and fashions.

Many designs are created for a proposed collection. Preliminary sketches are discussed by marketers, dress designers, dressmakers, etc. Sales histories on previous styles and patterns are examined and compared. Some patterns may remain in a line for more than a season based on sales alone. If a design goes through the review and appears to be a viable candidate for a pattern, it is assigned to a line, which earmarks it for a particular customer profile. The final selections are assigned a style number and returned to the design department.

Next, the illustrators create the first sketches of the creation. These sketches are known as croquis, which is the French word for beginning. The croquis contains all critical information for each pattern and will form the basis of the worksheet to construct the item.

In order to make the actual pattern, members of all technical departments (design merchandising, product standards, pattern-making, dressmaking) hold a construction meeting to decide details of a style and determine construction. Decisions are made on the number of pattern pieces, the style number based on degree of difficulty, suitable fabrics, sizes the patterns will be graded to, and how it will be constructed.

A folder is begun for each design so that crucial information is contained within and passed to appropriate departments. The folder with the notes from the construction meeting is given to the patternmaking department.

The Manufacturing

Preliminary pattern

  • 1 Culling information from the construction meetings, the patternmaker creates the first pattern. The paper pattern is drafted onto muslin (a plain fabric) and drapes up a sample garment. The drape is pinned in place and basted (hand stitched) to keep it in place. The drape is thoroughly reviewed by both the patternmaker and designer. Adjustments are made where needed.
  • 2 When the drape is approved, the pattern draft is turned over to computer-aided design (CAD/CAM). The technician digitizes the basic pattern pieces. Then all the separate pattern pieces are blocked, which means they are created with all the information and additions (seam allowances, fold lines, dart lines, etc.) needed to make them usable pattern pieces. It is important to note that each is initially made up in a standard size 10. After blocking, the pieces are plotted using a laser plotter.
  • 3 The completed size 10 pattern is sent to the dressmaking department, where it is tested using several different fabrics. Techniques of the home sewer and domestic-use sewing machine are simulated to insure that the design will work using various fabrics and that it is not too complicated to construct.
  • 4 After passing the home-sewing test, the pattern is then graded to the various sizes using a computer program. Thus, the complicated task of grading patterns that used to be manually performed by the patternmakers is now computerized.
  • 5 The measuring department determines fabric yardage and notions needed. Computer software helps the technicians create the optimum fabric layout to suggest so fabric can be used efficiently. Once all information for step-by-step instructions is known, they are written up for the consumer in easy-to-understand language.

Printing the pattern

  • 6 A computer template (or plot) is used to plot out the pattern. Pattern pieces are laid out in such a way that little tissue will be wasted in the printing process. The computerized plot and the instruction sheets are physically sent to the printer. The pattern envelope, however, is sent to the pattern printer electronically.
  • 7 The plot is unrolled on a pre-sensitized / aluminum plate that varies in size according to the size of the tissue sheet to be printed. Plates are as small as 30 in x 90 in (76.2 cm x 229 cm) or as large as 50 in x 90 in (127 cm x 229 cm). A vacuum frame adheres the plot to the aluminum plate, lights expose the plate, and the plate is etched where the lines on the plot are printed. Thus, the plate is essentially burned with the image of the pattern pieces.
  • 8 The plate is then printed using off-set lithography. The image is inked, transferred to a felt blanket, and is then transferred from the felt blanket to paper. This saves wear on the metal plate.
  • 9 Pattern tissues are printed in units of 1,300 sheets. These units are kept together using clamps and are transported together. Some units may be cut down into smaller tissue pieces with a sharp saw. All tissue pieces must be folded to fit into the envelopes and may be either folded by hand or by machine. Instruction sheets are also printed using off-set lithography.
  • 10 Envelopes, however, are sent electronically from the design offices. A film of the envelope design is created off the computer information and is used to expose the aluminum plate. The four-color envelope is then printed with off-set lithography. Once printed, the envelopes are folded, glued, and readied to receive the folded tissue patterns.

    One single clothing pattern printing facility can print 100,000 complete patterns (meaning all the tissue pieces) in a single day; it produces 23 million patterns in one year.

Quality Control

The pattern companies rely heavily on their consumer service departments to address questions, concerns, and problems with patterns and pattern instructions. Service representatives have a thorough knowledge of sewing and of all company patterns. All customer problems, comments, or concerns are reviewed, and feedback on patterns and instructions are continually re-analyzed in order to improve the functionality of the pattern.

Where to Learn More


Bryk, Nancy Emelyn Villa. American Dress Pattern Catalogs 1873-1909. NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1988.

Kidwell, Claudia Brush. Cutting a Fashionable Fit. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.


Gould, Donna. "The Making of a Pattern." Vogue Patterns (January/February 1996 - September/October 1996).

—Nancy EV Bryk

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Clothing and Fashion

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Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic