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Clothing and Fashion


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 .

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Clothing Pattern

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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