views updated May 29 2018


Distinguished from dress or costume by its demand for novelty, fashion was of course constantly changing throughout the antebellum period. The highly ornamented dresses of the 1820s, for example, with their enormous sleeves and ankle-length hemlines were replaced by the simpler line of floor-length dress fashionable in the 1830s. But it was more than hemlines and sleeve styles that were changing. Indeed, the ante-bellum period represents dramatic shifts in the very meaning of fashion and its relationship to other cultural phenomena.


Although the specifics of what was fashionable changed from year to year and season to season, scholars typically date the beginning of Victorian fashion as the early 1820s, when women abandoned the previous "empire" or "classical" mode of dress that featured a high waistline and straight skirt. That overall vertical silhouette was dramatically altered with the introduction of Victorian fashion. Indeed, as Valerie Steele has described, Victorian fashion presents the female body as "essentially formed by two cones—the long full, structured skirt and the tailored, boned bodice—intersecting at a narrow and constricted waist" (pp. 51–52).

While this overall Victorian silhouette survived until about 1910, scholars have suggested three distinct periods within Victorian fashion. The 1820s were a time of intense ornamentation. Sleeves were large, and elaborate accessories were popular, including plumed hats, ribbons, ruffles, and fancy jewelry. By the mid-1830s a new more subdued or demure style emerged, which some scholars have characterized as sentimental. Sleeves were tighter, decoration much simpler, and bonnets replaced the elaborate hats of the previous decade. Because the emphasis was on inconspicuous dress and overall self-effacement, the sentimental style appeared in some ways to be antifashion, and indeed it became increasingly popular to critique the power and popularity of fashion itself.

That apparent resistance to fashion gradually eroded by 1850, which marks the beginning of the age of the crinoline, or hoop skirt. Women were increasingly encouraged to find an individual style rather than blindly following the particular conventions of the moment, and fashion was increasingly seen as an acceptable form of performance in the 1850s and 1860s, creating a renewed interest in elaborate dress. Rich fabrics, bright colors, wide sleeves, and elaborate ruffles and flounces were all popular in the 1850s and 1860s. This tendency toward more elaborate dress was certainly aided by the introduction of the sewing machine, which became widely available in the late 1850s.

But as the name "age of crinoline" suggests, these two decades are best remembered for the size of the skirts. To reach the desired circumference (approaching fifteen feet in some cases), women turned to as many as seven separate petticoats. In addition to these petticoats women bore the weight of the skirts themselves, which could include more than twenty-five yards of material. The first crinolines, created with a gauzelike fabric stiffened with starch, actually relieved some of the weight of these enormous skirts. Introduced shortly after the crinoline was the hoop, a cage made of steel wires that eliminated the need for multiple petticoats. These elaborate hoop skirts remained popular throughout much of the 1860s.


In general, fashion was strongly associated with middle-class women's dress, but men's fashion underwent significant change during the antebellum period. In particular, scholars note the dramatically decreased use of bright colors and elaborate decoration in men's fashions, particularly in clothing designated for work, which was increasingly distinguished from men's evening wear. By the mid-nineteenth century the plain, dark business suit dominated middle-class men's fashions. Various commentators have suggested that such changes reflect a dramatic shift in fashion's emphasis. While in previous centuries fashion highlighted the contrast between classes, nineteenth-century fashion emphasized a contrast between men and women.

While men's clothing changed at a far less rapid pace than did women's, contemporary commentators were nonetheless aware of changing fashions for men. The columnist Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton, 1811–1872) was particularly critical of many trends. In one 1851 column titled "Thoughts on Dress," for instance, she poked fun at two men at a church service. One was struggling "to get his head in a comfortable position to look over the top of his dickey and see the singers, without cutting his ears off" (p. 217). The other created a "most extraordinary noise—such a creaking"—simply by loosening his very tightly buttoned vest (p. 217). In another essay, "In the Dumps," Fern again criticized the constricted nature of men's clothing: "Why can't they leave off those detestable stiff collars, stocks, and things, that make them all look like choked chickens, and which hide so many handsomely-turned throats" (p. 287).


Just as men's fashions became increasingly differentiated from women's, so too did the methods of transmitting fashion diverge. Because ready-made clothing for men developed much earlier than standardized dress for women, men's fashions were transmitted largely through tailors and trade journals, such as Mirror of Fashion.

Women's fashions, however, were spread directly to individual middle-class women through the fashion magazines that developed during this period. Eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century magazines had occasionally commented on fashion, but it wasn't until editors and publishers were able to include elaborate illustrations that true fashion magazines flourished.

And flourish they did. In 1827, following the example of late-eighteenth-century ladies's magazines in France and England, Philadelphia's Album and Ladies's Weekly Gazette was the first American magazine to include an illustration of contemporary fashion. Soon afterward came Godey's Lady's Book, which was founded in 1830 and became the nation's most popular magazine. Although it had an intellectual and literary focus, its illustrations, especially its fashion plates, which were hand-colored steel engravings, were key to the magazine's success. In some years Louis Godey printed as many as twenty fashion plates in each issue, typically featuring pictures of small groups of women in the latest fashions with their dresses hand-painted in watercolors. Children's fashions were also occasionally included. Although these "embellishments," as they were often called, were expensive, many other magazines followed Godey's success, making fashion plates one of the most popular elements of antebellum magazines. Descriptions of current dress styles, historical essays about fashion, and patterns for fashionable clothing and accessories were also regular features not only in the Lady's Book but also in such periodicals as Ladies's Companion, Peterson's Magazine, and later, Demorest's Monthly Magazine and Harper's Bazar (as it was originally spelled). These magazines, some of which boasted national circulations, were particularly influential in bringing fashion to nonurban areas. Although they frequently adapted the displayed styles to suit their own circumstances, most women throughout the United States had access to fashion.

Although such magazines promoted themselves as the best source of the latest fashions, these same magazines virtually always discouraged excessive attention to fashion. When fashionable dress was used to reflect a woman's morality or her aesthetic sense, in other words, it was praised. When used to deceive others or to mask an inferior sense of morality, however, fashion was condemned. One of the greatest dangers posed by fashion, according to Godey's Lady's Book, was that it diverted attention away from moral and spiritual self-improvement. As one editorial explained, "Oh! It is grievous to see a being standing upon the threshold of an immortal existence, created for glorious purposes, and with faculties to fulfill them, discussing the merits of a ribbon, or the form of a bow, or the width of a frill, as earnestly as if the happiness of her race, or her soul's salvation depended upon her decision" (January 1839, p. 8).


These concerns about fashion were much more pronounced in other periodicals and other media. Indeed, fashion was regularly attacked in sermons, medical journals, popular magazines, even fiction, and it was associated with virtually every imaginable offence—physical injury, mental illness, lack of patriotism, immoral behavior, and reckless spending, to name just a few. Although the antifashion reformers included women's rights activists, not all such reformers took a proto-feminist position, and many of those people arguing against fashion's popularity relied on quite restricted notions of feminine modesty and virtue.

While most opponents of fashion were content to voice their opposition, dress reformers not only changed their own style of dress but also encouraged others to do the same. Robert Owen's socialist community in New Harmony, Indiana, was one early attempt at radical dress reform. Owen believed that uniform clothing for all would support his goal of an egalitarian community, and the women of New Harmony were encouraged, though evidently not required, to wear an outfit similar to the men's, consisting of pantaloons and a coat. Somewhat similar styles were adopted at several religious communities, including the Oneida community led by John Humphrey Noyes and Michigan's Beaver Island group of Strangite Mormons. Leaders in the water-cure movement also advocated women's wearing of trousers and created the National Dress Reform Association in 1856.

The most important attempt at dress reform—and the most covered by the contemporary press—involves the actions of a small group of feminists—Elizabeth Smith Miller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Amelia Jenks Bloomer—who walked through Seneca Falls, New York, in 1851 wearing short skirts and pantaloons. The occasion was covered in several newspapers, and hostile cartoons and essays soon spread throughout the popular press. Called at various times "Turkish Trousers" and the "freedom dress," the outfit quickly became known as "bloomers." Although a number of feminist leaders defended the outfit, most soon abandoned it, realizing that it was detracting from their overall political objectives.


The public's heated response to these attempts at dress reform suggest that fashion is not simply about basic essentials of comfort or protection from sun or cold. On the contrary, fashion inevitably carries social and political meanings.

Following the influential work of turn-of-the-century philosophers, most notably Thorstein Veblen, fashion has long been linked with the development of a bourgeois capitalist society. The spread of fashion beyond the aristocracy in the late eighteenth century, then, was the result of the middle class's growing power and its desire both to imitate the aristocracy and to distinguish itself from the lower classes. According to Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), elaborate fashionable dress was a sign of a woman's leisure, which in turn reflected the economic power of her husband or father. One of the essential functions of fashion, then, is to indicate one's class position.

But as the examples from antebellum America make clear, fashion was not limited to middle- and upper-class women. Diaries from U.S. women in fact demonstrate that working-class women observed and participated in fashion. While they might not have been able to hire a seamstress, as did their middle-class counterparts, they could make their own dresses, often with cheaper fabrics but in styles similar to the latest fashions displayed in women's magazines. In this way fashion could be used to promote social mobility or to mask one's social class.

In addition to class, fashion has been linked with issues of sexuality. For many years antebellum fashion was assumed to be a systemic part of patriarchy that kept women oppressed. The Victorians's long dresses, for example, have been interpreted as evidence of a heightened discomfort with the female body and female sexuality. The corset, likewise, is often associated with keeping women passive and confined.

More recently, however, historians have questioned these assumptions. Refuting the idea that any one type of clothing is universally seen as natural, comfortable, or erotic, Anne Hollander has shown how both shapeless and tight-fitting clothing, long and short skirts, have all been understood as reflecting—rather than concealing—the wearer's sexuality. Valerie Steele has likewise challenged the stereotype of Victorian fashion as inherently prudish, arguing that expression of eroticism was an essential feature of Victorian fashion. Indeed, the barely exposed toe, the tight waists, and the low necklines popular were all markers of sexuality in Victorian fashion.

While economic theories of fashion generally portray women as competing with one another for fashionable status, more recent interpretations have begun to explore how fashion can also serve to connect women with one another. The popular fashion plates, for instance, frequently depict women in intimate settings with one another. Much like twentieth- and twenty-first century women who take pleasure in shopping together, these images suggest that fashion can be important components of women's shared culture.


Because it sometimes suggests an absolute obedience to a superficial standard of beauty rather than an inherent appreciation of aesthetics, fashion has long been portrayed as antithetical to literature. Certainly a number of antebellum writers defined their goals in stark contrast to the practices of fashionable life. In the opening chapter of Walden (1854), for instance, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) expresses his complete disdain for fashion. Eager for his readers to transform themselves rather than their clothing, Thoreau bemoans Americans's blind obedience to Fashion, who "spins and weaves and cuts with full authority." As Thoreau explains, "The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller's cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same" (p. 25).

But Thoreau's opposition of fashion with spiritual transformation masks the complex relationship between fashion and literature in the antebellum period. Many writers were aware of the symbolic power of dress, as suggested, for example, by Nathaniel Hawthorne's portrayal of Hester's beautifully embroidered A in The Scarlet Letter (1850) or Harriet Beecher Stowe's attention to Marie St. Clare's silk dresses, lace, and jewelry in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Moreover, many of the period's best-known writers, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, published their work in magazines literally alongside fashion plates. Fashion was also influenced by literature. Capitola Black, the heroine in E. D. E. N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand (1859), for example, inspired the "Capitola" hat.

The response of women writers to fashion was particularly diverse. On the one hand is a writer like Ann S. Stephens, a popular novelist and editor who worked for more than fifty years in fashionable magazines such as Peterson's Magazine, Ladies's Companion, and her own Mrs. Stephens's Illustrated New Monthly. Refusing to accept the idea that fashion was antithetical to art and literature, these magazines repeatedly defined literature and fashion as similar enterprises. As early as 1834, for example, the Ladies's Companion published an essay titled "The Dress of Ladies," in which the author compares the "pains, which a lady takes in adorning her person" to the poet's "genius, invention, and taste" (August 1834, p. 193). A later editorial likewise promised readers to "talk over our favorite authors, painters, sculptors, milliners and dressmakers" (January 1838, p. 146). This strong link between fashion and art is also demonstrated by the facts of Stephens's career. Best known for her serial novels that were issued in Peterson's from 1848 until her death in 1886, Stephens not only wrote novels attentive to details of fashionable clothing, but she also enjoyed a reputation as a fashionable celebrity.

Other women writers, however, were much more critical of contemporary fashion. In addition to poking fun at men's fashions, for instance, Fanny Fern frequently mocked the ridiculous excesses of fashion, from $40 handkerchiefs to waist laces so tight that a woman "breathes only by rare accident" (pp. 267, 341). In A New Home—Who'll Follow? (1839), Caroline Kirkland likewise exposes the worthlessness of paper-soled shoes on the muddy Michigan frontier. In addition to these more comical concerns about fashion, many women writers focused attention on the fashionable belle who spent all of her time and energy maintaining her looks. Emphasizing the corrupt basis of fashionable life, these writers used this familiar figure as a foil to their virtuous heroines. Near the opening of Susan Warner's (1819–1885) The Wide, Wide World (1850), for instance, the heroine Ellen meets Mrs. Dunscombe, who will be escorting Ellen as she leaves her mother to live with her aunt. While much of the novel is devoted to Ellen's searching for appropriate mentors, Mrs. Dunscombe is quickly identified as incapable of serving in this capacity. A "lady of the first family and fashion," Mrs. Dunscombe has virtually no sympathy for Ellen and instead complains of Ellen's dress. Mrs. Duncombe's daughter Margaret likewise criticizes Ellen for looking as if she had "come out of the woods," with an unfashionable bonnet and no gloves (pp. 58, 66). While the novel does not completely condemn attention to clothing—indeed one of the novel's most memorable scenes involves an elaborate shopping expedition—it does suggest, as do many other novels of the period, that excessive attention to one's appearance is a mark of inadequate moral development.

One of the most elaborate literary explorations of contemporary fashion was Anna Cora Mowatt's (1819–1870) satiric play Fashion, which was first performed in New York in 1845. Like many sentimental novels of the antebellum period, Mowatt presents the fashionable belle Seraphina Tiffany as a foil to the more virtuous Gertrude. But Seraphina's greatest offenses—and those of her equally fashionable mother—are not so much their clothing as their behavior. Filled with foolish ideas of what fashionable life entails, Mrs. Tiffany speaks bad French, praises people who are late, plans balls even though her husband is near bankruptcy, and ultimately is fooled by someone pretending to be a count. As the hero, appropriately named Adam Trueman, declares, not only does fashion require people to "expend all their rapture upon the works of their tailors and dressmakers," it also demands far more dangerous goals. As Trueman explains, fashion is an "agreement between certain persons to live without using their souls! to substitute etiquette for virtue—decorum for purity—manners for morals! to affect a shame for the works of their Creator!" (p. 39). Suggesting the extent to which concerns about fashion extended far beyond simple choices of clothing, Mowatt's play attests to the rich cultural meanings of socially accepted behaviors and dress.

See alsoFeminism; Godey's Lady's Book;Periodicals; Seneca Falls Convention; Sentimentalism; Sexuality and the Body; Theater; Utopian Communities


Primary Works

Fern, Fanny. Ruth Hall and Other Writings. Edited by Joyce W. Warren. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Mowatt, Anna Cora. Fashion; or, Life in New York: AComedy, in Five Acts. New York: Samuel French, 1849.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Edited by J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Warner, Susan. The Wide, Wide World. 1850. New York: Feminist Press, 1987.

Secondary Works

Banner, Lois W. American Beauty. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Fischer, Gayle V. Pantaloons and Power: Nineteenth-CenturyDress Reform in the United States. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001.

Haltunnen, Karen. Confidence Men and Painted Women:A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830–1870. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Hollander, Anne. Seeing through Clothes. New York: Viking, 1978.

Lehuu, Isabelle. Carnival on the Page: Popular Print Media in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Okker, Patricia. "Fashion and the Magazine Novelist: The Case of Ann Stephens." In her Social Stories: The Magazine Novel in Nineteenth-Century America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.

Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: OrdinaryAmericans and Fashion, 1840–1900. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1995.

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

Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. London: Virago, 1985.

Zakim, Michael. Ready-Made Democracy: A History of Men'sDress in the American Republic, 1760–1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Patricia Okker


views updated May 23 2018


Historically, children have been clothed to mirror the adult society responsible for producing and assembling their wardrobes. The protective wrapping of infants and children not old enough to physically clothe themselves has alternately served as fantasy in miniature or as a burdensome necessity for doting or struggling parents or guardians. As manifest through images and surviving textile artifacts, the study of children's clothing predominantly serves to testify to social class or ethnicity. Only within the recent epoch, beginning with the Age of Enlightenment, has the physical design of children's dress evolved to acknowledge and facilitate their developmental stages.

Children's Dress as an Extension of the Adult

Other than religious representations of the infant Jesus, early Western images of infants and children are within the context of larger, adult-dominated pictorial scenes. When not portrayed in the nude, infants are almost universally shown constrained by swaddling bands. Depending on the period or locale, these were widths of linen or cotton looped around clothing or strips of material, intended to immobilize the baby and prevent injury resulting from its uninhibited flailings. Older children, portrayed within the context of crowd scenes, are shown wearing scaled-down versions of adult attire, comprising tunics, coats, and cloaks of amorphous shape with only head or armholes, and held at the waist by belts or girdles. This clothing was functionally plain, fabricated by hand from hand-spun linen or wool. As fashion became more complex it evolved to differentiate between and accentuate the features of the female and male anatomy. Children's garments emulate this aesthetic, with only minor simplifications. During and following the Renaissance, those at the pinnacle of society reinforced their rank by wearing conspicuous and sumptuous clothing. Contemporary portraiture vividly illustrates an opulent vocabulary of silk velvets, metallic brocades encrusted with pearls, embroidery, stiffened lace and linen collars, and jewelry in both adult clothing and that of their progeny. This miniaturization extends to the wearing of form-modifying undergarments, including tightly laced boned stays, horsehair-stiffened underskirts and hoops, and varying shapes. A rigidly constructed combination conspires to make any playful or spontaneous childish motion impossible.

Concurrently, depictions of children of the working classes show functional garments that have been cobbled and reconfigured from larger, previously worn clothing. As textiles are an inherently costly commodity, while hand sewing is self-provided and abundant, fabrics initially acquired for adult purposes are almost indefinitely reused to the point of rags. The practical necessity of recycling endures throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, with successive siblings, relatives, and neighbors receiving still-useful castoffs. Only the contemporary advent of inexpensive yard goods and lavish supplies of ready-to-wear clothing has served to diminish the financial hardship of purchasing new clothing.

Ethnicity and Children's Clothing

In broad terms, children's dress and body adornment reinforce, and are derivative of, cultural ethnicity. In pursuit of an adult aesthetic, children have been subjected to an unmodified array of social customs, in some cases almost from birth. Head flattening, whereby an infant's skull is distorted through pressure applied by boards, pads, bindings, and massage, created a mark of high status among tribal peoples in North and South America through the nineteenth century. The practice of foot binding in China, which requires the irrevocable manipulation of pliant bones to produce the culturally desirable lily-shaped foot, subjected girls between the ages of five and six to a first, painful step toward their initiation into womanhood well into the twentieth century. The universal vogue for ear piercing is clearly apparent in Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian depictions of royal children adorned with large, decorative glass earplugs. More elaborate and ornate body altering techniques, such as tattoos

and scarification, are reserved for adolescents as a rite of passage into adult societal status. Practiced by cultures of central Africa and by the Maoris of New Zealand and Dayak groups of Central Borneo respectively these remain as tools for reinforcing ethnic identities.

Specialized Clothing for Special Needs

The first customized children's accessories appeared in the seventeenth century to address the specific needs of toddlers, who were in particular peril of injury or death due to their inquisitive, sometimes unsupervised, adventures. The innovations of the pudding (a leather and textile padded cap) and leading strings (separate tethers or reigns cut as part of a dress bodice) were first introduced in Europe but remained in use through the colonial period in America. Other early attempts at protecting children included the ubiquitous presence of baby caps, as well as a superstitious and talismanic use of coral for jewelry and rattle handles as a safeguard against evil.

By the late eighteenth century, philosophical departures celebrating the inquisitive nature of childhood set the tone for innovations in the attire of children. Influenced by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Émile (1762), and reflecting his pursuit of nature in child-rearing practices, a dramatic revision in the formula of dress began by banishing corsets and swaddling clothes in western Europe. A new empathetic and rational approach expounded the wearing of high-waisted, loose-fitting muslin chemise gowns over long pantalets for small children of both sexes. A plentiful supply of cotton and linen goods brought on by the increased output of the Industrial Revolution underscored the appeal of this soft, picturesque fashion for women as well. The skeleton suit, a period novelty, was recommended as garb for slightly older boys. A more formal look, its tailored design facilitated ease of motion by providing trousers that buttoned into the suit's bodice. Short simple hairstyles were worn with soft, flat-soled slippers to compliment this neoclassical look for children and adults alike.

After a mid-nineteenth century return to miniaturized adult dress, the influence of both the aesthetic and dress reform movements at the century's end can be seen in the stylistic direction of children's styles. Popularized in the 1890s in the West and in Western-influenced societies a penchant for pastel-tinted natural dyes and soft smocked shapes supplanted the garish, synthetic palette and Parisian-derived silhouette fashionable in the mid-nineteenth century to join the permanent vocabulary of children's custom and ready-to-wear clothing for the next century.

Special Occasion Dressing

The prospect of dressing for a unique occasion furnishes children and their guardians with a varied menu of socially prescribed garments. Rites of passage are enduring and momentous events that traditionally require clothing of formulaic and memorable design. Frequently worn only one time, attire for occasions such as christening, first communion, bar and bat mitzvahs, quinceañera (a girl's fifteenth birthday celebration in Latino cultures), confirmation, and social debuts is envisioned as a timeless garment of fantasy. As if in theatrical costume, the fledgling wearer assumes an unfamiliar identity and acts out a culturally defined role. Accordingly, many of these garments reflect an ethnic aesthetic, and sometimes provide a single opportunity to resurrect a long-silent family history. Surviving images of children taken at these thresholds of life serve to document the transition and its accomplishment through the interaction between garment and wearer.

Children's Clothing and Gender

The inherent naïveté of infants and small children has traditionally precluded the relevance of gender-specific dressing. Even christening gowns failed to betray a baby's sexual identity until the advent of color-coded ribbon trim in the twentieth century. Following their release from the bondage of swaddling, toddlers of both sexes were androgynously garbed in skirted, feminine styles. During the seventeenth century, these were interpreted in the same heavy, stiffened silk or wool worn by older children and adults. By the beginning of the eighteenth century androgynous baby and toddler dresses of bleached linen or cotton were embellished with an inexhaustible range of intricate embroidery and openwork. The strengthening affect of the handwork, coupled with the presence of rows of growth tucks, simultaneously served to preserve and extend the life of the dresses. Frequently they passed from one sibling to another, many times being worn by children of opposite sexes.

For small boys, the sartorial rite of passage marking the transition from dressing in skirts to short trousers occurred somewhere between the ages of three and five, generally corresponding with a first haircut. Into the twentieth century, the age of breeching remained subjective, and was ultimately determined by sentimentality and the readiness of family members to release their baby on the path toward manhood. A preoccupation with gender-mandated roles characterized children's dress for most of the nineteenth century. Parroting the vocational demeanor and somber tones of men's attire, boys were costumed in sailor and Scottish suits, military uniforms, and a variety of tailored clothes. The somewhat effeminate tone of the theatrically derived Little Lord Fauntleroy suit made it the ideal transitional garment for recently breeched children.

The homemaking woman of the same period was advised by a newfound proliferation of ladies' companion and fashion publications. The increased accessibility of home-sewing patterns, augmented by the proximity of merchandise in department store displays, exposed all classes to the allure of fashion trends. Affluent young ladies were dressed in store-bought cage crinolines and bustles, while homemade interpretations sufficed for most. Distinct, sexually prescribed parameters continued to govern the fashionable look for children and adolescents throughout most of the twentieth century, before they were superceded by the overwhelmingly popular trend toward transgender dressing that became prevalent by the mid-1980s. The carefree, practical appeal of intermixing ready-to-wear components came to dominate the contemporary fashion scene for all ages.

Increased exposure to fashion trends through pop culture and marketing devices has progressively lowered the age of children's personal involvement in the selection of their own wardrobes. Clamoring for looks endorsed by media icons, contemporary children demand a historically unprecedented voice in the way they look. The modern emphasis on named or designer apparel has also strongly affected the youth and even infant market as trademarks designate the status and fashion savvy of the young and their parents. In the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries shoes have become part of this trend as choices for this formerly utilitarian and expensive item have been influenced by peer pressure.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Consumer Culture.


Brooke, Iris. 1930. English Children's Costume since 1775. London: A. and C. Black.

Cunnington, Phillis, and Anne Buck. 1965. Children's Costume in England. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Ewing, Elizabeth. 1977. History of Children's Costume. New York: Scribner.

Felger, Donna H. 1984. Boy's Fashion 18851905. Cumberland, MD: Hobby Horse Press.

Macquoid, Percy. 1923. Four Hundred Years of Children's Costume from the Great Master: 14001800. London: Medici Society.

Moore, Doris. 1953. The Child in Fashion. London: Batsford.

Olian, JoAnne. 1994. Children's Fashions, 18601912: 1,065 Costume Designs from "La Mode Illustree." New York: Dover Publications.

Paoletti, Jo B. 1983. "Clothes Make the Boy, 18601910." Dress: The Annual Journal of the Costume Society of America 9:1620.

Rose, Claire. 1989. Children's Clothes since 1750. London: Batsford.

Schorsch, Anita. 1979. Images of Childhood: An Illustrated Social History. New York: Mayflower Books.

Sichel, Marion. 1983. History of Children's Costume. London: Batsford.

Villa, Nora. 1989. Children in Their Party Dress. Trans. Donna R. Miller. Modena, Italy: Zanfi.

Worrell, Estelle Ansley. 1980. Children's Costume in America: 16071910. New York: Scribner.

Phyllis Magidson


views updated Jun 27 2018



Fashion's relationship to film is characterized by two factors: how film has influenced fashion and how fashion and the work of specific fashion designers have been used in film. These are not mutually exclusive but parallel trajectories. The extrovert couturier Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) once remarked that what Hollywood did today, fashion would do tomorrow, but it could be said equally that what fashion did today, cinema would do tomorrow. Hollywood, for example, instantly dropped its hemlines following the vogue for longer fashions set by Jean Patou (1887–1936) in 1929. More commonly, a monolithic institution like Hollywood has not always been swift to change; once it has found a fashion it likes, it tends to stick with it, as was the case with Patou's long, bias-cut style, which prevailed with few exceptions throughout its films of the 1930s.


Fashion—or rather the fashionability of film, particularly Hollywood's—has always been an important element of cinema's appeal. There are many individual examples of garments having had a direct impact on off-screen fashions and sales. For example, one of the designer Adrian's (1903–1959) robes for Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton in 1932, the year Crawford was first named "The Most Imitated Woman of the Year," was widely copied, as was Edith Head's (1897–1981) white party dress for Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951). Head herself once declared that she had seen more than thirty copies of the dress at a single party. Other elements of a movie star's look were mimicked by an adoring film-going public: Veronica Lake, for example, was reputedly asked to change her peek-a-boo hairstyle because as worn by her many female fans, it was causing accidents in the wartime factories of the 1940s. Later, one could point to the notable effect films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Annie Hall (1977) had on contemporary fashions. Faye Dunaway's thirties wardrobe in Bonnie and Clyde has been credited with re-launching the beret and the cardigan, while Diane Keaton's androgynous ensembles as Annie Hall—created by the American fashion designer Ralph Lauren (b. 1939)—were swiftly copied in both the exclusive pages of Vogue and on the High Street, where the wearing of masculine trousers, shirts, and waistcoats by women became the epitome of chic. Through the influence of film on fashion, one can see the true democratization of the movies and movies' relationship with spectatorship: the fans might not be able to become their favorite stars, but they can mimic and emulate them.

Similarly, in contemporary cinema one can see the same pattern of mimicry when it comes to both clothes and accessories—a crucial difference being that it is now more often the male stars who have become fashion icons, in keeping with a heightened awareness of male fashion that has been evident since the early 1990s. Retro aviator shades made a comeback after Tom Cruise wore them in Top Gun (1987); after the success of Quentin Tarantino's second movie, Pulp Fiction (1994), the black suits and monochrome outfits of French designer Agnès (b. 1941) (along with Uma Thurman's Chanel "Rouge Noir" nail varnish) became synonymous with masculinity and cool. In this millennium, one could point to the innate fashionability of The Matrix (1999): Keanu Reeves's long swishing coat, his mobile phone, and his glasses.

However, fashion's relationship to film extends beyond the domain of film's fashionability. In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, few fashion designers did much work for films, the notable exception being Chanel (1883–1971), who in 1931 went to MGM. Her Hollywood film work was not deemed a success; Chanel was too meticulous and precise (insisting at one point on making several copies of the same dress, one for each individual scene), and she soon elected to return to Paris, later designing costumes for such films as Louis Malle's Les Amants (1958) and Alain Resnais's L'annéedernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, 1961). The most important fashion designers have not always been those who have become involved in film and film costume design. While the influence of Christian Dior's "New Look," launched in 1947, endured within Hollywood far longer than it did outside it (so much so that the much more fashionable Funny Face [1957] looked slightly anachronistic alongside mid-1950s contemporaries, such as Rear Window [1954] and All That Heaven Allows [1955]). Dior himself lent his designs to a relatively small and eclectic series of films, including René Clair's Le silence est d'or (Man About Town, 1947), Jean-Pierre Melville's Les enfants terribles (1950), and Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950).

Although historically significant overlaps have existed between the two, fashion and costume design remain separate arts. Whereas the costume designer, more often than not, serves the dominant purposes of character and narrative, the fashion designer, when used in a film, frequently is brought in to achieve virtually the opposite result (an exception here would be cinema's use of classic designers, such as the Italian Giorgio Armani [b. 1934]). In rare instances, individuals have had dual careers as fashion and costume designers, the most notable example being Jean Louis (1907–1997), who was born in Paris and trained at the Paris couture house of Drecol before going to New York to work for Hattie Carnegie. Louis then made the switch to Hollywood and became head designer at Columbia Pictures from 1944 to 1958, when he moved to Universal. Simultaneously, Louis ran his own couture business, often supplying clothes for his favorite female stars (Doris Day, for instance) for their appearances both on and off the screen. In the same vein, Edith Head (1897–1981) was fond of recounting how Grace Kelly was so enamored of her designs for To Catch a Thief (1955) that she wore one of her costumes on a date with future husband Prince Rainier; later Kelly commissioned MGM designer Helen Rose (1904–1985) to design her wedding dress and Head to design her going-away outfit.


It was Hubert de Givenchy's (b. 1927) collaboration with Audrey Hepburn that fundamentally changed the relationship between film and fashion. In Sabrina (1954), as in Funny Face, the distinction between the costume designer and the couturier co-opted into costume design is signaled ironically within the films' Cinderella narratives. In both, Edith Head, the films' costume designer, produced the drab, ordinary clothes that Hepburn wore as the still-immature chauffeur's daughter or bookshop assistant. In both films, Head's role as designer was usurped by Givenchy who designed the show-stopping evening gowns that Hepburn wore after her character had metamorphosed into a sophisticated, glamorous woman. The joke in Funny Face—in which Hepburn's character models clothes on a Paris catwalk—is ultimately that, for all the appeal of high fashion, Hepburn is happiest (and most iconic) when dressing down in black leggings, polo neck, and flats.

Following these films, couturiers it became far more commonplace to use couturiers alongside costume designers on movies, and certain couturiers were given virtual license to use the films on which they worked as showcases for their own fashion designs. There is little sense here of costume's traditional subservience to character and narrative. Hardy Amies (1909–2003) (the British Queen's favorite fashion designer) designed the wardrobe for films such as The Grass Is Greener (1960) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). His designs for the latter, though muted compared to much of the 1960s "space age" fashion, were very much of their time and quintessentially Hardy Amies: classic, refined, but never too daring. This incorporation of classic as opposed to outrageous fashion designers into film increasingly predominated, particularly in Hollywood. In European cinema, one can point to the example of Yves Saint Laurent (b. 1936), whose muse was the French actress Catherine Deneuve. Saint Laurent's designs for Deneuve as Severine in Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967) epitomized his approach: her clothes are straight and muted, notable for their unsexy elegance (ironic considering Severine's day job as a prostitute), much like Saint Laurent's own classic-with-a-twist late-1960s lines. Severine is enigmatic

b. Piacenza, Italy, 11 July 1934

The Italian designer Giorgio Armani, known for his classic designs, neutral tones, and unstructured suits, has made a significant intervention into film history. Armani is arguably best known for the Hollywood stars he has dressed for the Academy Awards® (for example, Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer). However, his costumes for Richard Gere's character Julian in American Gigolo (1980) helped to alter the way in which mainstream cinema perceived and represented masculinity. The most cited scene in the movie shows Julian choosing an outfit to wear for an evening appointment. He lays out on his bed a selection of Armani jackets, then matches them with some shirts and finally adds an array of possible ties. While choosing what to wear, Julian shimmies sensuously to music, dressed only in his boxer shorts. Then he gets dressed and checks his appearance in the mirror. Julian's overt narcissism, coupled with his love of Armani's expensive clothes, ushered in a radical recodification of heterosexual masculinity on screen.

Since American Gigolo, Armani has costumed many films, particularly in Hollywood. Sometimes he has provided only items for the stars' wardrobes: for Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours (1982), Mel Gibson and Rene Russo in Ransom (1996), and Samuel L. Jackson in the remake of Shaft (2000). By 2000, Armani's name itself had gained enough narrative significance for Shaft to be able to warn another character possessively not to touch his Armani. Dressing male characters has set Armani apart, and he has been particularly effective at dressing groups of men. He uses costumes to denote camaraderie, support, and affection between the protagonists of The Untouchables (1987) and characters in the remake of The Italian Job (2003), deftly dressing them in the Armani capsule wardrobe of the time. In both films, the group's leader (Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland, respectively) wears a paternal, safe, and suavely unstructured wool coat, while the young turks (Andy Garcia and Mark Wahlberg, respectively) wear slightly spiffier leather jackets and casuals. This form of typage through costume is quintessential Armani.

Armani has made himself synonymous with effortless elegance. This equation was not automatic, because his suits were used in the TV series Miami Vice and in Cadillac Man (1990) to suggest shallow tackiness. The crucial component in his innate class has been his Italianness. Most enduring has been his friendship and collaboration with Martin Scorsese. The two worked together on Made in Milan (1990), a twenty-minute short Scorsese directed about Armani that was notable for its extravagant and stylized filming of a catwalk show. Armani later acted as executive producer for Scorsese's reverential history of Italian cinema, Il mio viaggio in Italia (1999), thus cementing his integration into cinema history.


American Gigolo (1980), 48 Hours (1982), The Untouchables (1987), Cadillac Man (1990), Ransom (1996), Il mio viaggio in Italia (1999), Shaft (2000), The Italian Job (2003)


Celant, Germano, and Koda, Harold, eds. Giorgio Armani. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2000.

Stella Bruzzi

and unobtainable; her wearing of an Yves Saint Laurent capsule wardrobe in Belle de jour (1967) confirms the use of fashion as a means of maintaining this distance and representing her exclusivity, her wealth, and her class.

Within Hollywood, the most prolific couturier costume designer is Giorgio Armani, whose costumes work to define character and narrative. Other designers whose work is used in films in a similar way have been Nino Cerruti (b. 1930), with whom Armani trained, Ralph Lauren (b. 1939), Donna Karan (b. 1948), and Calvin Klein (b. 1942), all quintessentially classic designers. Lauren's most important film as costume designer is The Great Gatsby (1974), soon followed by Annie Hall. These two films together defined the retrogressive and romantic trends in US fashions that would begin to predominate off as well as on the screen in the 1970s. The significance of fashion designers' contributions to film should perhaps be judged by their ability to manufacture a pervasive image and to evoke a lifestyle. Lauren achieved this with his films of the 1970s (the class aspirations encapsulated by The Great Gatsby, the feminist aspirations represented by Keaton's androgynous look in Annie Hall), although recently he is probably better known for having dressed Gwyneth Paltrow in pink for her Academy Award® Best Actress acceptance speech. Cerruti's costumes for Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990) or Karan's for Gwyneth Paltrow in Alfonso Cuaròn's modern-day Great Expectations (1998), like those of Lauren and Cerruti, remain stylish but unobtrusive, conjuring a look that connotes a certain class, breeding, and refinement. Cinema's most popular couturier costume designers, it seems, are those who follow the underpinning conventions of costume design and produce safe, middle of the road designs rather than more spectacular, outrageous costumes.

Fashion is more often considered a craft than an art, and self-consciously artistic, spectacular fashions have been reserved for self-consciously spectacular, art-house movies. Jean-Paul Gaultier (b. 1952) has been the most prolific of these designers, doing costumes for various nonmainstream films, including The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), Kika (1993), and La cité des enfants perdus (The City of Lost Children, 1995), as well as producing all the costumes for Luc Besson's more mainstream sci-fi extravaganza, The Fifth Element (1997). In all of these, Gaultier's designs are exaggerated versions of his signature fashion styles, in the way they make underwear into outerwear, juxtapose asymmetrical cutting with classic tailoring. In Kika, the smooth surface of classicism—exemplified by Victoria Abril's black, bias-cut dress—is ruptured by radical flourishes, such as the prosthetic breasts bursting out of the dress. Gaultier, unlike many other fashion designers turned costume designers, immerses himself in his films, designing costumes for all the characters, not just the protagonists, and reputedly checking all costumes before they go on set. Just as his designs are fantastical rather than wearable (his designs for The Fifth Element include Gary Oldman's asymmetrical suits and Milla Jovovich's minimal bondage gear), so Gaultier's personality is important. Unlike Armani or Lauren, who have taken their involvement in film extremely seriously, Gaultier has not been averse to sending himself—and by implication, the fashion world—up. Gaultier's personality has demystified high fashion; he has appeared as himself in Robert Altman's parody of the Paris fashion scene Prêt-a-porter (1994), mixing white and red wine together to make rosé, and from 1993 to 1997 he fronted the TV show Eurotrash, a broadcast that, as its title suggests, sought out and edited together examples of trashy, gross, and comic European television.

The accessibility of fashion in film has become a hugely significant factor in its appeal reminiscent of the prewar era of Letty Lynton, when women bought patterns of their favorite movie dresses to sew them for themselves. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992), which inspired the design of London department store windows and led to an increase in the wearing of dark suits and shades among younger men, is just such an example of film's democratization of fashion. The costume designer Betsy Heimann bought the suits seen in Reservoir Dogs cheaply. When the film became successful, so did the clean-silhouetted French gangster look, which Tarantino readily admitted to having borrowed from a look created by French director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917–1973) for his movie gangsters. Reservoir Dogs offered style on the cheap because it offered a look rather than an exclusive range of garments.

Audiences respond positively to being able to buy and emulate what they see on the screen—for example, Nicole Kidman's half-fitted, half-loose teddy in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Once women found out what the garment was, it was sold out everywhere. What has emerged is a fluid, flexible interaction between fashion and film—sometimes fashion borrows from film, often the exchange is reversed.

SEE ALSO Costume


Bruzzi, Stella. Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Head, Edith, and Jane Kesner Ardmore. The Dress Doctor. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1959.

Keenan, Brigid. The Women We Wanted to Look Like. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Maeder, Edward, ed. Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Pritchard, Susan Perez. Film Costume: An Annotated Bibliography. Metuchen, NJ, and London: Scarecrow Press, 1981.

Saint Laurent, Yves. Yves Saint Laurent: Images of Design 1958–1988. London: Ebury Press, and New York: Knopf, 1988.

Wollen, Peter. "Strike a Pose." Sight and Sound 5, no. 3 (March 1995): 10–15.

Stella Bruzzi


views updated May 11 2018



During the twentieth century, European fashion evolved from its aristocratic and bourgeois roots in Paris and London into a democratic, global phenomenon. The couture system had been established in France since the 1860s, and in Britain the arts of tailoring had produced the man's suit, a cornerstone of modern clothing design. In the sphere of mass production, the sewing and cutting technologies necessary for the manufacture of cheap ready-made clothing had been in operation since the 1840s. This was supported by a well-established retail network crowned by the department store and a sophisticated advertising and publishing industry set up to foment desire for fashionable goods. By 1914 all the elements were in place for the expansion of a sector that, by the turn of the twenty-first century, would come to symbolize the consumerist nature of modern life itself.


Although the concept of fashion encompasses the design, manufacture, distribution, marketing, and retailing of clothing, together with its role in the formation of identity and the practice of everyday life, in the twentieth century it was the figure of the designer who came most powerfully to symbolize fashion's particular character. The designer's ability to communicate novel ideas around design and dressing smoothed the relationship, necessary in a capitalist system of provision, between the production and consumption of goods, and ensured that new products carried the requisite cachet to stand out in a busy marketplace. In essence, the modern fashion designer had to master the creative skills associated with dressmaking, theater, and art, and also of business, mass marketing, and self-promotion. Paradoxically, most of the key designers in the twentieth century were primarily associated with the traditions of couture, which had only a small and elite clientele. Yet the expert management of their reputations was vital to the democratization of fashion and the expansion of markets. This was largely achieved through the association of their names and ideas with diffusion (wholesale) lines, the distribution of syndicated patterns, the sale of branded perfumes and accessories, and tie-ins with the mass media through magazines and films.

The Englishman Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895) had pioneered this system in Paris, setting a precedent for later generations. The first to follow his lead was Paul Poiret (1879–1944), who opened his couture house in Paris in 1903 and became famous for producing "exotic" garments that drew on current crazes for orientalist fantasy and for rejecting the nineteenth-century corseted feminine form in favor of a more fluid ideal. By 1914 he had also made an unprecedented contribution to the modernization of the French fashion industry through his innovative promotion of design. This was especially marked in his collaboration with avant-garde illustrators such as Paul Iribe and George Lepape, who produced lavish volumes celebrating Poiret's vision. In a similar vein he promoted interior design at the Atelier Martine and the manufacture of perfume and makeup at the House of Rosine, of paper goods at the Colin workshop, of fabric painting at the Petite Usine, and of fine art at his own commercial gallery. This catholic understanding of fashion as a complete "lifestyle" extended ideas of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, first developed in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century, and laid the foundations for future understandings of high fashion as a Parisian practice.

After World War I a trio of female designers continued Poiret's legacy. The Frenchwoman Coco Chanel (1883–1971) was adept at turning her personal taste into a powerful commodity. By 1930 she had built up an impressive network of patrons and had honed her design and marketing expertise to such an extent that her name had become synonymous with a symbolic modernization of women's clothing styles that was equated with Henry Ford's impact on the American automobile industry, though her "little black dress," the so-called Model T of the modern woman's wardrobe, was launched to a rather more select market. Nevertheless, in 1935, her most productive year before the outbreak of World War II, Chanel employed four thousand workers and sold twenty-eight thousand designs across the globe. Chanel's contemporary Madeleine Vionnet (1876–1975) was more of a technical pioneer; her work bears closest comparison to that of modernist architects such as Adolf Loos or Le Corbusier. She approached couture as a problem of structure and engineering, constructing dynamic forms that combined classic grace with purist abstraction. The reality of dealing in the fashion marketplace, however, also necessitated an attention to commercial issues, and the novelty of her designs obliged Vionnet to protect her copyright by photographing and numbering each product. Individual creativity was thus subordinated to a concern with standards and control, which was in tune with the fetishization of the machine so dominant in Western culture in the interwar period. This extended to Vionnet's interest in the welfare of her employees, who worked under the most advanced conditions. In many ways her persona was closer to that of the philanthropic industrialist than the autocratic old-style couturier. The Italian Elsa Schiaparelli (1896–1973), in her work, looked more toward the antirational impulses of surrealism. Based in Paris from 1922 on, she built up a reputation for her knitwear, which clung provocatively to the body and used extraordinary trompe l'oeil motifs. Her later collaborations with the artists Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau traded on the shock of unlikely connections and a fetishistic attention to de-contextualized details such as zippers, hair, and mirrors; and lip, newsprint, and hand patterns. Her significance as a designer lay in her idiosyncratic and eclectic avant-garde vision and her understanding of the fragility of the fashion psyche (i.e., the creative practice and the psyche of the fashion consumer). These characteristics would resurface in the spectacular couture shows produced by a later generation of designers in Paris at the end of the twentieth century.

After World War II, when the German occupation of Paris brought a temporary halt to that city's global dominance, the 1950s witnessed a flowering of designer-led couture. The leading personality in this period was Christian Dior (1905–1957), who in 1947 launched the "New Look." His attitude toward fashion differed somewhat from that of his predecessors in that he rejected the forward-looking vision of Chanel for a more nostalgic and conservative interpretation of traditional ideals of femininity. This coincided with a return to more constrained domestic and decorative roles for women in the postwar years. Dior's New Look models promoted a romantic style that required the use of nineteenth-century-style boning and support structures and many yards of fabric (it is no coincidence that Dior was funded by Marcel Boussac, a French textiles magnate, for whom the generous use of fabric was a boon). Austerity tempered the initial reception of the collection in Europe, and several governments and journalists condemned it as wasteful and reactionary. For many consumers, however, it offered a welcome escapism and beauty and it translated well to the American market, where its voluptuous surfaces were especially well suited to a new era of conspicuous consumption. Dior's most famous competitor was the Spanish-born Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972), whose signature collections also stressed luxury but were more self-consciously artistic, making reference to seventeenth-century paintings and contemporary art in their innovative draping and sculptural form. Balenciaga's imperious yet reserved personality refined the idea of the designer once again, presenting a model of tortured genius that would be taken up by several of his followers.

The social and political revolutions of the 1960s issued a challenge to the dominant traditions of Parisian couture, and the bourgeois sensibility of the salon no longer seemed relevant. Yves Saint Laurent (b. 1936) continued the artistic traditions of Dior and Balenciaga, but adapted them to the new demands of pop culture. His influences were diverse, spanning the formal simplicity of his Mondrian collection in 1965, the cartoonlike "Pop Art" of 1966, and safari suits and African art in 1968. But perhaps Saint Laurent's most lasting contribution to the history of fashion was his pioneering of tailored evening suits for women, first presented in 1967. Beyond the design of clothing, the designer's body, name, and opinions were used to an unprecedented degree to promote the YSL brand. Diversifying from couture, he launched the boutique chain Rive Gauche in 1966 and posed naked for an advertising campaign for his men's fragrance in 1971. This adoption of outrageous tactics was shared by Saint Laurent's contemporaries, such as Pierre Cardin and André Courreges, whose futuristic "space age" designs in new synthetic fabrics were quite at odds with the soigné elegance of old-style couture. The 1960s generation of Parisian designers opened up a world of freedom and opportunity, which was enjoyed by French designers, including Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix in the 1980s and Rei Kawakubo, Hedi Slimane, and others in the 1990s and 2000s. But by the opening of the twenty-first century the idea of Paris as the capital of fashion had become diluted. Its supremacy was challenged by other European and world centers. The market for couture had disappeared, and the global nature of a fashion industry now controlled by a limited number of luxury brand companies meant that the epoch of the independent autocratic designer and of specialized craft skills, on which Paris's preeminence had been based, had come to an end.


If Paris was widely perceived as the capital of couture during the twentieth century, then London was equally lauded as a center for street style and innovative dressing. As a world trade city and the political hub of an empire during the nineteenth century, it was more closely associated with the production of elite tailoring for powerful men, and Savile Row, the source of the gentleman's wardrobe, continued to attract statesmen, film stars, and celebrities from across the world for most of the following century. As for women's clothing, most wealthy socialites looked to Paris, but from 1914 to the early 1960s London did sustain a small couture industry whose wares drew on strong tailoring traditions and were suitable for the social pursuits of the British Social Season. Couturiers including Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies, Victor Steibel, and Digby Morton joined forces during World War II to form the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers. But although they had some success in designing a series of ingenious fabric-saving garments as part of the Utility scheme—a British government-sponsored wartime initiative that supported the production of fashionable garments designed to save on materials and labor while boosting consumer morale—their work did not really deserve international recognition on a par with Paris fashions. The challenge to French models and the introduction of a more democratic and avant-garde form of London fashion did not occur until the rise of Mary Quant in the late 1950s and the whole "swinging" phenomenon of the 1960s.

Mary Quant opened her boutique Bazaar on the Kings Road in London's bohemian Chelsea in 1955. A graduate of Goldsmith's College of Art, she had no formal training in fashion design, but with her partner, Alexander Plunkett-Green, she worked up collections of garments that were more attractive to her peers than the formal dress associated with their mothers' generation. Her happy childlike designs with their simple cut, abstract pattern, and clear colors were a real departure from tradition, and the informality of the shop with its quirky window displays offered a new relaxed way of buying clothes. The success of Bazaar brought invitations for Quant to design for the American market via J. C. Penney in 1962. In 1963 she set up the diffusion label "Ginger Group" and diversified into makeup and hosiery. Most important, her example opened up the terrain for a generation of young designers and entrepreneurs such as Foale and Tuffin, John Stephen, Ossie Clark, Barbara Hulaniki, and Zandra Rhodes, whose work pushed at the boundaries between high and popular culture, art and fashion, and craft and commerce in a distinctively "London" manner.

The reinvention of British fashion on the Kings Road was echoed in the West End's Carnaby Street with its colorful men's boutiques, and soon London had caught the attention of the international media, which equated the London fashion revolution with the global success of pop bands such as the Beatles. In 1966 Time magazine produced its famous "Swinging London" edition, which sealed the reputation of the city as the new center of "cool." But it is important not to lay all the credit at the feet of the designers and boutique owners. They were simply responding to the demands of a new market of teenagers who had more disposable income than ever before and an iconoclastic attitude toward outdated ideas of respectability or conformity. For the first time, new fashion trends were not being dictated by remote designers in Paris but by working-class subcultures such as the Mods, whose taste for sharp styling and a distinctive image set in motion a new form of conspicuous consumption that "bubbled up" from the British street. Much of the variety of the "scene" was captured in and driven by London's style publishing industry. Pioneering magazines such as Nova in the 1960s and 1970s and I.D., Face, and Dazed and Confused in the 1980s and 1990s, superseded Vogue as the most influential fashion publication. London's art schools were also a source of inspiration, as was the city's multi-ethnic culture, and by the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, with the rise first of punk and then of the club scene as their backdrop, London-based designers such as Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, and Alexander McQueen were able to sell a distinctive postmodern look back to Paris and the world.

As London was reinventing itself as a center for quirky iconoclastic fashions in the 1960s, Milan was also undergoing a transformation as a slick industrial and retail challenger to Paris. American financial support, administered through the Marshall Plan of the late 1940s, guaranteed that the struggling textile factories of northern Italy had access to capital, new technologies, and raw materials. As this process of reconstruction continued through the 1950s and 1960s, Italian manufacturers and consumers also embraced an American idea of modernity, filtered through Hollywood film and television, which promoted the positive aspects of a consumer society. An ensuing domestic boom coincided with a very favorable reception for new mass-produced Italian goods in the rest of Europe and America. Alongside clothing and textiles, Italian food and drink, furniture, and automobiles were universally celebrated for their modern styling, high quality, beautiful materials, and urbane characteristics. Working within such a context, fashion designers, including the Fontana sisters at couture level, Emilio Pucci at made-to-measure, and the company MaxMara at the ready-to-wear end of the industry pioneered a distinctive Italian look during this period.

By the early 1970s Milan had overtaken Rome and Florence as the new capital of the Italian fashion industry, mirroring a shift from the promotion of couture to a celebration of ready-to-wear. A younger generation of designers, including Spazio Krizia, Ottavio Missoni, Gianni Versace, and Giorgio Armani, who had enjoyed a more wide-ranging experience of design, manufacturing, marketing, and retailing of clothing than their predecessors, found the commercial and manufacturing infrastructure of Milan to be a more congenial base than the stuffier cultures of the older centers. Many of these new names benefited from the financial backing of large corporate sponsors whose interest lay in anticipating the desires of a mass market through the adoption of new research practices borrowed from architecture, philosophy, and advertising. This conceptual radicalism went hand in hand with an entirely practical approach, borrowed from long-established merchant trading houses such as Fendi and Gucci, who sold branded luggage and accessories and maintained a belief in the importance of "craft." The success of the "second economic miracle" of the 1980s also owed much to the dolce vita attitudes of the Italian consumer and the materialist culture of Milan itself, evident in the cosmopolitan shopping streets, exhibition halls, and design studios of the city and the glamorous products of a design community that by the 1990s included Domenico Dolce, Stefano Gabbana, and Miuccia Prada.

The experience of Paris, London, and Milan in the twentieth century suggests that modern sartorial goods operate in the "realm of values." The stereotypical products and images of each city are never entirely fixed by their geographical location, even though their meanings are informed by a concrete social and industrial history and aesthetic heritage. Instead, their coherence has been constantly challenged by the global nature of their production and reception and the subjective ordering of their merits in the media. Beginning in the 1970s, for example, much of the manufacturing of garments associated with European centers took place in the Far East, and Paris, London, and Milan also competed with New York and Tokyo as world-class fashion cities. Indeed, it is precisely the fluid nature of such values that endows the modern fashion system with the extraordinary capacity to create and overturn social realities and identities on an unprecedented scale; but it also means that the continuing cultural and economic dominance of European fashion capitals can never be guaranteed.

See alsoAvant-Garde; Chanel, Coco; Consumption; Surrealism.


Breward, Christopher. Fashion. Oxford, U.K., 2003.

Evans, Caroline. Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness. New Haven, Conn., 2003.

Lipovetsky, Gilles. The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy. Translated by Catherine Porter. Princeton, N.J., 1994.

White, N. Reconstructing Italian Fashion: America and the Development of the Italian Fashion Industry. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Christopher Breward


views updated May 18 2018


At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States witnessed great changes, including a shift in the phenomenon called "fashion," most particularly women's fashion. This shift had social, cultural, and political implications. In the 1870s a middleor upper-class woman's daily garb consisted of ten to twelve pounds of flannel or muslin petticoats, stays, and a corset of whalebone. These underclothes were covered by a full-skirted woolen or muslin dress, a style that had prevailed since the 1840s. Confining, these clothes did not promote mobility; some women argued that such clothing impeded child rearing. Yet fashion—and for upper-class, white American women that meant dresses or dress patterns imported from France or styled after such—dictated, for the most part, a nipped waist, full breast, and flounce.


Indeed, until the first decade of the twentieth century American fashion was European; even jewelry was imported, not made and designed in America. But some American women argued that because "fashion" was a foreign import, it was un-American; women of the upper classes had a moral, even democratic duty to dress with less ostentation than French and European women; American women should begin a gradual shift toward a more healthful style befitting the natural shape of a woman's childbearing form—or what would eventually be termed "rational" dressing. And curiously, if asked, most women thought that trousers, when considered merely as an item of dress, were far more comfortable and hygienic than women's wear.

But trousers signified masculinity; when Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818–1894), along with other abolitionist women, disseminated patterns for "haremstyle" trousers—a design seen in European spas—in order to rid women of corset and skirts, the idea that women could wear trousers was deemed preposterous. (A hostile press would come to call these "bloomers.") This women's dress reform movement, mostly a political gesture aligned with abolitionist, child-labor, and temperance reforms, only lasted from about 1851 to 1854. Nevertheless, it had an impact: references to the bloomer can be found in diaries, novels, and newspapers; the bloomer craze even generated societies, music, and drama. No matter how much more comfortable or indeed "rational" bloomers were, by 1854 most women who had rallied around the cause of dress reform had returned to corset and petticoats because the costume had become a liability.

However, by 1873–1874, dress reform once again became an issue for public debate, first in Boston, then in other cities. Abba Louisa Goold Woolson (1838–1921), a teacher, popular literary essayist, and officer of the New England Women's Club, sponsored a series of lectures about dress. This is not to say that dress reform had died out in the intervening years; although Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony gave up on bloomers, Amelia Jenks Bloomer wore the costume until her death. But during the Civil War, the general public lost interest. In 1873, however, Woolson's lectures became so popular that they were collected and published. In addition to Woolson, four physicians also embraced the dress reform movement. Mary J. Safford-Blake, Caroline E. Hastings, Mercy B. Jackson, and Arvilla B. Haynes tried to convince people that "the whole structure and the essential features of our present apparel are undeniably opposed to the plainest requirements of health, beauty and convenience" (Woolson, p. vi). These women saw to it that an "accessible and attractive room, which is intended to serve for a bureau of information on all matters connected with dress reform," was set up in Boston at "25 Winter Street, over Chandler's dry-goods store, room 15." They also provided, at the lowest cost possible, garments and patterns for garments designed on "strict hygienic principles" (Woolson, p. 1).

Although she seldom said so in public, Woolson favored trousers; but in 1874 the memory of "bloomers" had yet to die, and trousers were still regarded as radical. Overly heavy skirts, corseting, flimsy materials: these might all prove to be physically dangerous, but bloomers were still deemed even worse. So Woolson and the doctors changed tactics. Rather than cite the rational politics of female emancipation and mobility, they chose to use moral patriotism and the science of hygiene to argue that fashion was a foreign import, that women of the upper classes had a moral duty to dress with less ostentation, and that American women should begin a gradual shift toward a more healthful style. They had, they said, a far more scientifically sound version of dress than that of the radical Bloomerites, and they offered a series of talks that presented what they saw as medical and historical evidence to prove that women's fashionable clothing was physiologically dangerous and morally repugnant, a threat to the life of the (white) woman, her child, and the future of the nation. "In presenting to you some thoughts upon the subject of dress," wrote Safford-Blake, "I do not desire you to accept my ipse dixit of right or wrong; but I hope you will probe the facts presented, and, if they appeal to your common sense and reason as truths, that you will heed them, not alone for your own good, but that your influence may go forth as a help and guide to others" (Woolson, p. 5). Jackson went even further: "I appeal to the moral sense of the ladies present, and I ask them if they are willing, by their example and influence, longer to countenance a mode of dress which is so little fitted to answer the reasonable demands that should be made upon it, and so destructive of health and morals?" (Woolson, pp. 91–95).

Yet corset and hoop remained: a "lady," most people continued to believe, wore fashionable French frocks. The persistence of the corset and hoop shows that the women physicians ran into as much resistance as their forebears. It should be noted too that many of the physiological, hygienic, and antifashion arguments would continue to be made over and over again, as in, for example, Ada S. Ballin's The Science of Dress in Theory and Practice (1885). Ballin thought the bloomer had failed because it was too violent a change from tradition. She promoted the demure divided skirt. The author, socialist activist, and orator Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) wrote a serial in 1915 for the Forerunner, now published in book form as The Dress of Women, that presented Gilman's sociological analysis of clothing in which she too concluded that the degrading, indeed slavish, aspects of women's dress need rational reform. In her speculative novel Herland (1915), she dressed her utopian young women in suits "of some light firm stuff, the closest of tunics and kneebreeches, met by trim gaiters" (p. 15).

During the 1870s and into the early twentieth century, most middle-class women continued to tightly lace and hoop, especially at the behest of the designer Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895), whose "reign" over ladies' fashion became something of a dictatorship during the Gilded Age, when the United States saw an unprecedented economic boom. Worth, who had emigrated from Britain to France as a young man, made his salon in Paris at 7, rue de la Paix a mecca for wealthy American women, who between 1871 and 1920 would travel specifically to have their wardrobes made by Worth. It is no exaggeration to say that, at a time when upper-class American women had little to do other than attend society functions and wear clothes deemed suitable to that society, Worth's genius and arrogance made him the only absolute ruler left in Europe. Very few of his clients, even if persuaded that their health might be at risk, took heed of medical or scientific arguments against the corset or bustle, because a lady was not born, a lady was made (by Worth). Fashion signified gender, race, and class through the material means of silk, lace, and stays, and it held sway especially in the age of the robber baron. Both Henry James and Edith Wharton, writers who are seen as chroniclers of this "society," note at some length in many of their novels the degree to which dressing "fashionably"—in imitation of fading European royalty—was the epitome of an upper-class woman's life.


By the 1890s, however, technological invention and changes in manufacturing, immigration, and labor practices began to put pressure on fashion in a number of significant ways. One of the most significant was the change in the manufacture of clothing. Invented as early as the 1830s but culminating in Isaac Merritt Singer's patent in February 1854, the sewing machine allowed what was soon to be the mass production of first men's then women's clothing—something that Worth capitalized upon, for he was the first dressmaker to streamline production through pattern design and the sewing machine. He was also the first dressmaker to use a label to guarantee the value or "worth" of his product. Indeed, as the twentieth century came into view, more and more clothes were being made for women "ready-to-wear," and by 1911 the most popular of these mass-market items was the shirtwaist—a stylish cotton blouse cheap enough for a working woman to buy and wear. The shirtwaist and skirt combination still allowed for a ladylike shape similar to the one produced by corset and stays, but this dress—the skirt was now raised to ankle height to allow more mobility—was more convenient and comfortable and was regarded as modern, stylish, sophisticated: all key issues for the increasing number of young women who worked, often as low-paid seamstresses who produced the same shirtwaists they wore. In New York City, which had rapidly become the center of the new mass-market ready-to-wear garment industry, the interrelation of women's labor and women's clothing became only too tragically clear when, in March 1911, a fire struck the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on the Lower East Side. In all, 146 workers died—most of them young, Jewish immigrant women, who either jumped from the ninth floor of the building or burned to death. The fire was a significant turning point for New York, for the garment industry, and for labor reform in general, because it underscored in blood the cause for which these same young women went on strike in the famous labor uprising of 1909. Both the 1909 strike—chronicled in Theresa Malkiel's Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker—and the horrific fire helped to bring upper-class women and working-class women together politically, an alliance that aided the suffragist movement.

Meanwhile, the first large-scale jewelry production in the United States began at the turn of the century, when corporations such as Gorham of Rhode Island and Krementz of New Jersey manufactured paste imitations of original French designs. Tiffany and Company, already established as the premier American jeweler, became involved in all branches of the decorative arts. In 1902 Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) opened an art jewelry department, which offered Byzantine and Oriental pieces, unusual at that time in America, where most jewelry designs were based on French art nouveau. Tiffany began to experiment with new combinations of colors and materials and was the first to make jewelry out of lava glass.

Indeed, young women in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century wanted innovation in clothing, in jewelry, in activity. They demanded more mobility than their mothers had enjoyed—thus the shirtwaist and shorter skirts. One invention that influenced their desires was the bicycle. Although the bicycle—also a French import—had been available as early as 1869, advances in design made it a popular and affordable vehicle only late in the century. As Elizabeth Ewing explains: "Women began riding bicycles and for this new sport, they wore bloomers. Soon after that bloomers became the name of a style of feminine drawers or knickers which had a great vogue in the early twentieth century, especially under sports clothes and schoolgirls' gym tunics" (p. 64). Sometimes called knickerbockers but more often and more generally once again named bloomers, the cycling costume spread with the bicycling craze. Like the bicycle itself, Betty Bloomer—also called the "New Woman" and sometimes the "Gibson Girl"—had arrived. Therefore, even if "Betty Bloomer was ahead of her time in pushing pants" (Green, p. 27), her ubiquity and familiarity, along with changes in manufacturing, labor practices, and technology, paved the way for the public's acceptance of changing standards of a woman's public costume. Thus many middle-class girls in the United States adopted the bike, the bloomer, and the shirtwaist, and the "New Woman" ushered in the twentieth century. Like Theodore Dreiser's infamous Carrie Meeber in his novel Sister Carrie (1900), women moved into the public sphere as industrialization and urbanization created the mass marketing of all household goods, and the department store was born.

This is not to say that changes in fashion were launched without controversy. Sharp battles were still being fought over woman's proper place as signified by her public appearance. If that bête noire of 1851 the bloomer saw acceptance, it was also understood that the bloomer was a specialized "costume" for the bicycle, for gymnastics, for bathing: not donned in lieu of a dress. For the upper class, opulent Worth gowns ruled; but the preeminence of the Worth name was severely shaken in the years before World War I, chiefly by another designer. Paul Poiret, a Worth employee who quit when his designs challenged tradition, revolutionized a woman's figure. Poiret's inventions—lithe and skimpy in comparison to a Worth gown—spurred the invention of the bra, originally designed to flatten the breast so that the Poiret shift could be worn properly; his "look" changed the fashionable woman's silhouette from the corseted hourglass to the more boyish flapper. Young women responded with enthusiasm; moreover, as previously noted, the growing participation of women in the workforce both before and during World War I required more functional clothing, especially during the day. After the war, women refused to return to anything like the restrictive formality of their mothers' corsets.


By the 1920s the physical freedom and increasing athleticism of girls was generally considered natural and healthy. The New Woman and the Gibson Girl gave way to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age flappers featured in his short stories and novels, like "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" and The Great Gatsby. In fact, the economic and social pressures that immediately followed the First World War brought with them a new mood for a rigorous and clean-cut look. In the age of the flapper, function and sophistication were signified by a shift away from traditional fashion.

As the nineteenth century came to a close, changes in technology and marketing and the increase in industrial labor altered many aspects of daily life, including dress. Clothing once made in the home was now factory made, bought ready-to-wear. Women entered the workforce and became consumers in this new mass market. Fashion reflected these social changes, as young women abandoned the corset and adopted the less-restrictive shirtwaist, a jacket, and a shorter skirt, designed to allow a woman to walk city streets and to show off shoes. Ready-to-wear clothes became items of desire and emblems of mobility. Theodore Dreiser represented such a change in Sister Carrie. In this excerpt Carrie Meeber, who has come from the county to the city to work, is seduced by such department store, ready-to-wear fashion.

Fine clothes to her were a vast persuasion; they spoke tenderly and Jesuitically for themselves. When she came within earshot of their pleading, desire in her bent a willing ear. . . .

"My dear," said the lace collar she secured from Partridge's, "I fit you beautifully; don't give me up."

"Ah such little feet," said the leather of the soft new shoes.

Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (New York: Modern Library, 1927), p. 111.

Influences on fashion also became more ethnic and varied. From dress to architecture, the styles inspired by such trends as pharaonic Egypt, Asia, tribal Africa, Cubism, and futurism all came and went. Hemlines rose; daring young women bobbed their hair, began to attend college in record numbers, smoked, and bought mass-marketed cosmetics. If trousers were yet to be seen as a form of women's wear, the burden of ten to twelve pounds of flannel or muslin petticoats, stays, and a corset of whalebone covered by a full-skirted woolen or muslin dress had been consigned to the past. The modern, fashionable woman—at least by 1920—looked nothing like the lady her mother had once been.

See alsoDomestic and Sentimental Fiction; Mass-Marketing


Primary Works

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. 1915. New York: Pantheon, 1979.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda J. Gage. History of Woman Suffrage. 6 vols. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1881–1922.

Woolson, Abba Goold, ed. Dress Reform: A Series of LecturesDelivered in Boston, on Dress as It Affects the Health of Women. 1874. In Women in America: From Colonial Times to the 20th Century, edited by Leon Stein and Annette K. Baxter. New York: Arno Press, 1974.

Secondary Works

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project: An IntimateHistory of American Girls. New York: Vintage, 1997.

Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress: A History of Women'sUnderwear. London: Bibliophile, 1981.

Green, Nancy L. Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: ACentury of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Martin, Linda. The Way We Wore: Fashion Illustrations ofChildren's Wear 1870–1970. New York: Scribners, 1978.

Olien, JoAnne. The Gilded Age: Charles Frederick Worth, theFounder of Haute Couture. Available at

Peiss, Kathy. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's BeautyCulture. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

Smith, Stephanie. "Antebellum Politics and Women's Writing." In The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Women's Writing, edited by Dale Bauer and Philip Gould. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire That ChangedAmerica. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.

Whitehouse, Richard. A History of 20th Century Jewelry. Available at

Stephanie A. Smith


views updated May 18 2018


Explanations of fashion

Processes of social change

Social functions of fashion

Collective taste



Fads and fashion are related yet fundamentally different social phenomena. Fashion is the more important of the two. Its general nature is suggested by the contrasting terms “in fashion” and “outmoded.” These terms signify a continuing pattern of change in which certain social forms enjoy temporary acceptance and respectability only to be replaced by others more abreast of the times. This parade of social forms sets fashion apart from custom, which is to be seen as established and fixed. The social approbation with which fashion is invested does not come from any demonstration of utility or superior merit; instead, it is a response to the direction of sensitivities and taste.

Although conspicuous in the area of dress, fashion operates in a wide assortment of fields. Among them are painting, music, drama, architecture, household decoration, entertainment, literature, medical practice, business management, political doctrines, philosophy, psychological and social science, and even such redoubtable areas as the physical sciences and mathematics. Any area of social life that is caught in continuing change is open to the intrusion of fashion. In contrast, fashion is scarcely to be found in settled societies, such as primitive tribes, peasant societies, or caste societies, which cling to what is established and has been sanctioned through long usage.

The picture of fashion as a distinctive social process in which collective judgment of what is proper and correct shifts in response to the direction of sensitivity and taste sets three major questions: What is the nature of the situation in which the fashion process operates? What is responsible for its operation? What societal role or function does the fashion process perform?

Areas of fashion . Areas amenable to fashion are those that have been pulled into an orbit of continuing social change. The structuring of social life in such areas tilts away from reliance on established social forms and toward a receptiveness to novel ones that reflect new concerns and interests; thus, these areas are open to the recurrent presentation of prospective models of new social forms that differ from each other and from prevailing social forms. These models compete for adoption, and opportunity must exist for effective choice among them. Most significant in this selective process are prestigeful personages who through their advocacy of a model give social endorsement or legitimacy to it. Means and resources must be available for the adoption of the favored models.

Explanations of fashion

Most theoretical analysis of fashion centers on the major question of what is responsible for the operation of fashion. We may dismiss trivial answers such as that fashion is a crazelike outburst of collective disturbance or that it is a hoax perpetrated by venal-minded sets of persons seeking financial or personal gain. The more serious analyses fall into two categories. One type seeks to account for fashion in terms of psychological motives, the other in terms of societal or structured processes.

Psychological theories . Psychological explanations generally treat fashion as an expression of feelings of revolt against the confinement of prevailing social forms. Scholars identify different feelings. Some regard as most important the effort to escape from ennui, or boredom, especially in the leisure class. Some ascribe fashion to playful and whimsical impulses to embroider the routines of life. Some attribute major weight to the excitement that comes from venturing into novel forms of conduct. Others regard fashion as a symbolic expression of hidden sexual interests. Particularly important is the view, most clearly expressed by Edward Sapir (1931), that fashion is an effort to add to the attractiveness of the self, especially under conditions which impair the integrity of the ego; fashion is seen as a means of rediscovering the self through novel yet socially sanctioned departures from prevailing social forms. Finally, some scholars trace fashion to desires for personal prestige or notoriety.

These various psychological explanations are deficient in that they do not explain how or why the various feelings give rise to a fashion process. Such feelings are present and operate in societies and areas of life in which fashion does not occur. We are given no account of why the feelings should lead to the formation of fashion rather than taking other channels of expression available to them. Instead of accounting for fashion, the feelings presuppose its existence as a medium for their play.

Simmel’s view of fashion . Most sociological explanations center on the idea that fashion is basically an emulation of prestige groups. Georg Simmel (1904) has given the most sophisticated presentation of this view. He contends that in an open-class society the elite class seeks to set itself apart visibly by distinctive insignia, such as dress and modes of living. Members of subjacent classes seeking higher status adopt these insignia. It is then necessary for the elite class to introduce new differentiating insignia, which in turn leads to a new wave of emulation. Simmel’s scheme characterizes fashion as a recurring process. It provides an explanation of how new fashions are introduced and acquire sanction, an account of their spread, and an explanation of their disappearance. It also supplies an explanation for the absence of fashion from folk and caste societies and from certain areas in modern society, such as the area of utility and that of the sacred, in which status considerations are irrelevant.

However, this scheme fails to see fashion as a process that transcends and embraces the elite. The elite, although in the vanguard of fashion, is itself required to follow fashion’s direction. Its prestige does not assure that anything it introduces will become the fashion; instead, its introductions must coincide with the direction of what is acceptable. People adopt a new model to be “in fashion” rather than to emulate prestige groups. Any concern of the elite to set itself apart as a distinctive status group takes place within the ongoing process of fashion; such concern does not account for the process or set it in motion.

Processes of social change

Fashion should be seen as a process of reaching out for new congenial social forms in an area that is a part of a continually changing world. The movement of that world introduces new horizons, germinates new inclinations and interests, and shifts orientation away from the past to the proximate future. The fashion process meets this kind of developing world through two major stages– innovation and selection. In the innovative stage new models or proposals–such as new dress designs, styles of furniture, themes in entertainment, approaches in philosophy, or theoretical schemes in science–are presented. Such models are geared to the current state of their respective fields; each seeks to sketch out a prospective line of movement. The models appear as rival claimants for adoption and thus initiate a selective process, which results in a new fashion. Prestigeful individuals and groups occupy a key role in the selection; they make the initial choices, and they give a stamp of endorsement to the model they embrace. To influence others, however, they must be qualified to give an endorsement. Further, the model they endorse must be found congenial to current trends in order to gain general dissemination. The history of fashion shows dramatic instances of the failure of a model to become fashionable despite an effective marshaling of prestige groups on its behalf, for example, the failure of the highly organized effort to check the trend toward shorter skirts in 1922–1923. Fashion leaders are the unwitting surrogates of the larger body of people sharing in the movement of fashion. The vague tastes and proclivities aroused in such people by their moving world are the ultimate source and shaper of fashion.

Historical continuity . The underlying connection between fashion and emerging taste helps to explain two important features of fashion: its historical continuity and its modernity. The history of fashion shows that new fashions are related to and grow out of their immediate predecessors. The typical picture is that of fashion trends–a feature that enables us to identify fashion periods and to speak of fashion cycles. Changing tastes and proclivities, while moving toward something new, must also take into account what is currently defined as proper and correct. Correspondingly, in devising their new models, fashion innovators always have to consider the prevailing fashion. Although the intrinsic nature of the object of fashion may set a limit to a trend (as in the case of the lengthening or shortening of the skirt), and although a trend may reach a point of exhausting its possibilities, a reversal or abrupt redirection of fashion necessarily has temporal linkage with the preceding fashion form.

Modernity. The feature of modernity in fashion is particularly significant. Fashion is always modern; it always seeks to keep abreast of the times. Fashion is sensitive to the movement of current developments not only in its given field but also in adjacent fields and, indeed, to general movements in the larger social world. Thus, fashion in women’s dress is responsive to its own trend, to developments in fabrics, ornamentation, and in the fine arts, to exciting events such as the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, to political happenings, and to major social shifts such as the emancipation of women or the rise of the “cult of youth.” In an indirect and attenuated way, fashion in every field responds to the general or over-all direction of modernity itself. This responsiveness seems to be the chief factor in the formation of a “spirit of the times” or Zeitgeist.

Social functions of fashion

The remaining major question–what is the social role or function of fashion–has not received satisfactory consideration. The conventional answers are that fashion allows for the harmless play of fancy and caprice, for a mild and legitimate escape from the tyranny of custom, for socially sanctioned adventure into an area of novelty, for the display and parading of the ego, for a cloaked expression of sexual interests, for the invidious demarcation of elite classes, and for an external and spurious identification by lower status people with a higher status group.

Control functions . Fashions at different points in their careers may serve varied purposes; yet, the function of the fashion process cannot be reduced to such purposes. The functions of fashion derive, instead, from the fact that it introduces controlling social forms into a moving area of divergent possibilities. As such, it performs three significant functions. First, it introduces uniformity by selecting from many models one which is to carry the stamp of propriety and thus compel adherence. If all proposed models were to be followed, social life in a given fashion area would become chaotic. In this respect, fashion performs in a moving society the control function that custom performs in a settled society.

Second, fashion provides for an orderly march from the immediate past to the proximate future. By presenting new models and subjecting them to the process of competition and collective selection, the fashion process offers a continuous means of adjusting to a changing and shifting world. The fashion mechanism detaches social forms from the grip of the past, as suggested by the derogatory connotation of such expressions as “old-fashioned” and “out of date”; yet, in growing out of the preceding mode fashion maintains continuity of development.

Third, the fashion process nurtures and shapes a common sensitivity and taste, as is suggested by the congeniality and naturalness of current fashion in contrast to the oddness and incongruity of past fashions. This common sensitivity and taste is analogous on the subjective side to a “universe of discourse.” Like the latter, it provides a basis for a common approach to the world and for handling and digesting the experiences the world yields. The value of a pliable and re-forming body of common taste to meet a shifting and developing world is apparent.

Collective taste

The term “taste,” which is central in the above discussion, deserves clarification. It represents an organic sensitivity to objects of social experience, as when we say, for example, that “vulgar comedy does not suit our taste” or that “they have a taste for orderly procedure.” Taste has a trifold character: it is like an appetite in seeking positive satisfaction; it operates as a sensitive selector, giving a basis for acceptance or rejection; and it is a formative agent, guiding the development of lines of action and shaping objects to meet its demands. Thus, it appears as a subjective mechanism, giving orientation to individuals, structuring activity, and molding the world of experience.

Tastes are themselves a product of experience; they usually develop from an initial state of vagueness to a state of refinement and stability, but once formed they may decay and disintegrate. They are formed in the context of social interaction, responding to the definitions and affirmations given by others. People thrown into areas of common interaction and having similar runs of experience develop common tastes.

The fashion process involves both a formation and an expression of collective taste in the given area of fashion. The taste is initially a loose fusion of vague inclinations and dissatisfactions that are aroused by new experiences in the field of fashion and in the larger surrounding world. In this initial state, collective taste is amorphous, inarticulate, and awaiting specific direction. Through models and proposals, fashion innovators sketch possible lines along which the incipient taste may gain objective expression and take definite form. Collective taste is an active force in the ensuing process of selection, setting limits and providing guidance; yet, at the same time it undergoes refinement and organization through its attachment to, and embodiment in, specific social forms. The origin, formation, and career of collective taste constitute the huge problematic area in the study of fashion. Major advancement in our knowledge of the fashion mechanism depends on the charting of this area.


Fads, like fashion, may occur in widely different areas of group life, such as games, recreation, entertainment, dietary practice, health and medical practice, dress, ornamentation, language, and popular beliefs. Although superficially fads seem to be similar to fashion, they actually constitute a separate genre of collective behavior. The most noticeable difference is that fads have no line of historical continuity; each springs up independent of a predecessor and gives rise to no successor. This separate, detached, and free-floating character signifies that fads, unlike fashion, are not part of a regulating social process that gives shape and structure to group life. The derogatory connotation of the term “faddish” points to the alien and questionable status of fads. We may note other significant differences. Fads do not require endorsement by a qualified prestige group in order to gain acceptance; they may spread from any section of hierarchized society. Fads are ephemeral, leaving no residue except in the occasional remnants of a detached cult. Fads follow the pattern of a craze or boom, thriving on spectacular and excitatory appearance, suddenly riveting attention and inducing a quasi-impulsive adoption, only to exhaust their attractiveness and undergo a rapid demise.

Fads, unlike fashion, may occur in any type of society, traditional or modern. Their universality suggests that they have a natural root in human existence. But we know little about the generic conditions that bring them into being. Most of the psychological explanations advanced to explain fashion seem far more appropriate as explanations of fads.

Herbert G. Blumer

[See alsoCollective behavior; Style.]


BArber, bernard; and LOBEL, LYLE S. 1952 Fashion in Women’s Clothes and the American Social System. Social Forces31 : 124–131.

Bell, Quentin 1947 On Human Finery. London: Hogarth.

Bergler, Edmund 1953 Fashion and the Unconscious. New York: Brunner.

Clerget, Pierre 1914 The Economic and Social Role of Fashion. Pages 755-765 in Smithsonian Institution, Annual Report: 1913. Washington: The Institution.

Fishbein, Morris 1932 Fads and Quackery in Healing. New York: Covici.

Flugel, John C. (1930) 1950 The Psychology of Clothes. London: Hogarth.

Gregory, Paul M. 1947 An Economic Interpretation of Women’s Fashions. Southern Economic Journal14: 148–162.

Huhlock, Elizabeth B. 1929a Motivation in Fashion. Archives of Psychology17, no. 111.

Hurlock, Elizabeth B. 1929fo The Psychology of Dress: An Analysis of Fashion and Its Motive. New York: Ronald Press.

Jack, Nancy K.; and SCHIFFER, BETTY 1948 The Limits of Fashion Control. American Sociological Review13: 730–738.

Kellett, Ernest E. 1931 Fashion in Literature: A Study of Changing Taste. London: Routledge.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1919 On the Principle of Order in Civilization as Exemplified by Changes of Fashion. American Anthropologist New Series 21:235–263.

LANG, KURT; and LANG, GLADYS 1961 Collective Dynamics. New York: Crowell. → See especially Chapter 15 on “Fashion: Identification and Differentiation in the Mass Society.”

MEYERSOHN, ROLF; and KATZ, ELIHU 1957 Notes on a Natural History of Fads. American Journal of Sociology62 : 594–601.

Morowitz, Harold J. 1953 Fashions in Science. Science118 : 331–332.

Nystrom, Paul H. 1928 Economics of Fashion. New York: Ronald Press.

RICHARDSON, JANE; and KROEBER, ALFRED L. 1940 Three Centuries of Women’s Dress Fashions: A Quantitative Analysis. California, University of, Anthropological Records5, no. 2: 111–153.

Sapir, Edward 1931 Fashion. Volume 6, pages 139-144 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Simmel, Georg (1904) 1957 Fashion. American Journal of Sociology62 : 541–558.

Smelser, Neil J. (1962)1963 Theory of Collective Behavior. London: Routledge; New York: Free Press. → See especially Chapter 7.

Sombart, Werner 1902 Wirtschaft und Mode. Wiesbaden (Germany): Bergmann.

Sumner, William Graham (1906) 1959 Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Dover.

Veblen, Thorstein (1899) 1953 The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library. → A paperback edition was published in 1959. See especially Chapter 7.

Young, Agnes B. 1937 Recurring Cycles of Fashion: 1760–1937. New York: Harper.


views updated May 23 2018

fashion In a fairly literal translation from its French and Latin origins, the word fashion describes the make or cut of an item, the forming of its shape. However, over the centuries, the word has acquired a specific association with the design, making, and wearing of clothing. Fashion now implies an awareness of and a desire to be at the forefront of changes in styles of dress and personal appearance. It can be used to suggest an extravagance and frivolity far removed from the mere functional need to clothe the body for reasons of modesty or to offer protection.


There is general agreement amongst costume historians that the origins of what we understand as fashion are to be found in the late fourteenth century. The flowing, unemphatic full-length lines which had characterized the dress of both sexes since late antiquity were gradually abandoned. Men's dress changed faster than women's, with the adoption of short tunics and closely-fitted garments. This coincided with the newly formed guilds of tailors developing skills in cutting and fitting fabric to the figure, thus allowing a much wider repertoire of stylistic effects to be achieved, with fabric and padding emphasizing or exaggerating the contours of the body. Better trading links with the Near and Middle East had introduced wider ranges of fabric, new techniques for their manufacture, and fresh ideas about colour and decoration. Inevitably, fashion, even in this early phase, was the prerogative of the wealthy who could afford the rich silks and fine linens which supplemented the staple Western European woollen fabrics. Over the next two centuries the emergence of a wealthy merchant class with international interests in trade and banking widened demand for luxurious possessions. Sumptuary laws were introduced, prohibiting the wearing of certain fabrics and colours, and meting out punishment to those who dared to presume that mere wealth could ensure equality of choice with the ruling class. This reinforcement of the notion that fashion was the prerogative of the few recurred throughout the succeeding centuries.

Fashion changed relatively slowly in the period c.1500 to 1700, and the finest clothing was a valuable commodity, finding its way into inventories and wills, being remade and, not infrequently, stolen. The limited terminology of dress began to expand from the late seventeenth century onwards, with a proliferation of new terms indicating an increased rate of change in fashionable dress. This acceleration was underpinned by a more sophisticated process of manufacture and further improved skills but, of course, the speed of change also maintained the status quo. To be dressed in the height of fashion meant being rich or heavily in debt.

Fashion was both national and international with, in succession, Burgundian, French, and Spanish styles in the ascendant with some Italian, German, Dutch, and English elements in the mix. Curiosity about the fashions of others found expression in the costume books which began appearing in the late sixteenth century and, by the late seventeenth century, when Europe began to be dominated by all aspects of French culture, the production of exquisite engravings — precursors of the fashion plate — depicted what the most stylish French courtiers were wearing. This French hegemony was supported by the production of superb silks, delicate lace, and an ingenious array of accessories, and by a centralized court at which all the fine and applied arts from painting to dress were accorded equal attention. It is hardly surprising that the first dressmaker of international renown was Rose Bertin, who made clothes for Marie Antoinette at the French court in the 1780s; she and other dressmakers despatched fashion dolls dressed in the latest styles throughout Europe to add miniature, three-dimensional verisimilitude to supplement the available fashion illustrations.

Design and production

By the late seventeenth century a division had occurred between the provision of male and female clothing. Tailors continued to produce men's tailored garments, but female dressmakers undertook the making of women's clothing, with the exception of riding habits and corsets. A limited democratization of fashion occurred in the eighteenth century as some ready-made and partly made clothing allowed the less wealthy to keep in step with the growing pace of changes in fashion. The principle of exclusivity was reasserted by the continued use of the finest tailors and dressmakers by those able to afford their services and the expensive fabrics they recommended. By the nineteenth century the rise of the couturier whose name and clientele implied the height of fashion reinforced such distinctions. The idea of men being equally as interested in fashion as women declined sharply in the nineteenth century. The beaus, macaronis, and dandies of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who were caricatured and ridiculed for their dedication to the more outré details of personal appearance, were replaced by dour, dark-suited men of business.

Fashion, from the period of the Englishman Charles Worth's rise to dominance over the design of women's dress, during the Second Empire in France (when he became the first great couturier as understood today), until the 1950s, was in the main, about women's clothing. The origins of the late twentieth century's multi-billion pound fashion industry can be traced back to Worth and his two sons. He created new designs to show to his clients rather than deferring to their ideas, a notable change from previous practice. These garments were displayed on human models for his clientele of royalties, aristocrats, and the rich bourgeoisie. His clothes were bought by foreign buyers, and became available in the capitals of Europe and the US, and he was treated like an artist rather than as a tradesman by his clients, although he always thought of himself as the latter. He also reinvented the idea that a man can understand and design for women as well, if not better, than another woman. This dichotomy has been preserved; there have been inventive, even great female couturiers — Chanel, Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Grès — but the male dominance of female fashion in France, in Italy, in America, and in Great Britain has been a feature of the last 150 years.

During this period there were important technical changes which influenced the creation and marketing of fashionable clothing. The introduction of the sewing machine in the 1840s, of aniline dyes in the 1860s, and of artificial fibres from the 1890s onwards offered important improvements to the process of production. Fashion also benefited from the growing sophistication of the media: specialist magazines, dedicated newspaper articles, photographic images, and the advertising opportunities offered by film, radio, and television all contributed to an international awareness, at many levels in society, of the latest fashion trends and ideas. Increased demand for novelty in all matters to do with dress caused misery amongst the employees of many dressmakers; cramped conditions, long hours, and pitiful pay combined to create sweat shops. Unfortunately, despite legislation, this problem is still found today, and not just in the so-called Third World.

Fashion designers, especially in the period from the 1920s onwards, diversified into ranges of ready-to-wear garments, scent, and cosmetics. Specialist suppliers of accessories became equally aware of the possibilities inherent in designer footwear, jewellery, luggage, and much more. Ultimately, as both compliment and curse, talented copyists ignored patent law to produce cheap facsimiles of the most luxurious labels, and, within the law, chain stores ‘imitated’ the latest suit, dress, shoe, or scarf, to offer affordable fashion to mass markets.

Even in the area of alternative fashion in the post 1945 period, the world of Teddy boys, mods and rockers, hippies, punks, new Romantics, and so on, the driving force has been a masculine one. And, to a degree, alternative fashion is about men reasserting their right to attention through the adoption of unusual, exotic, or bizarre forms of dress. Ironically, these so-called street fashions have in turn, influenced the expensive, handmade creations of the powerful fashion designers.

Today, so we are led to believe, we can create our own fashion statements by buying across the spectrum from charity shops to couture houses. Fashion is fun, it is adventurous, it defines us and our approach to life. In fact, the majority prefer to conform to the dress codes of their social group, accepting or rejecting the dictates of fashion according to their circumstances and means.

Theories about dress

No overview of fashion, however basic, can ignore the corpus of criticism and theoretical analysis that has surrounded it across the centuries. The Judaeo-Christian tradition laid considerable emphasis on modesty and simplicity in all matters concerning personal adornment. As a consequence both clerical and secular moralists felt able to criticize fashion on the grounds of the supposed morality or immorality of clothing and personal adornment. Any excessive display could be construed as the sin of pride and any unnecessary revealing or emphasizing of the body could be deemed a provocation to immoral behaviour. Women's fashions were a favourite target for such moral condemnation; undoubtedly this criticism expressed real or imagined concerns about loss of chastity or adultery.

Caricature and ridicule had also partnered the vagaries and absurdities of fashionable dress throughout the centuries. Artists disapproved of fashions that distorted and unbalanced their portrayal of sitters and, from the seventeenth century onwards, a number used so-called ‘timeless’ draperies to replace the fashions they disliked. In the nineteenth century, medical opinion was enlisted in order to question the effects on health that distorting the anatomy in quest of a fashionable silhouette might provoke. More idealistically, there was an interesting conjunction between groups of artists, doctors, and political thinkers which produced theories about aesthetic dress, dress reform, and universal suffrage which, if followed, would release women from their slavery to fashion.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century criticism was overtaken by a more analytical approach to fashion. Exponents of this approach were interested in applying their knowledge of anthropology, economic and social theory, sociology, and psychology to the reasons for the creation and popularity of certain fashions. A detailed consideration of these theories can be found in Valerie Steele's Fashion and eroticism (OUP, 1985). A few influential examples will indicate the range of their analysis. For instance, the American economist Thorstein Veblen, in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, criticized fashionable dress as a symbol of conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, and conspicuous waste. In contrast, the German historian of dress and manners, Max von Boehn, promoted the appealingly simple idea that fashion is ‘a visible manifestation of the Zeitgeist’ in his book Modespiegel (1919). The sexual significance of dress was discussed by the psychologist J. C. Flügel in The Psychology of Clothes (1930), a work which popularized the theory of ‘shifting erogenous zones’; an idea he had extracted from the earlier work of Havelock Ellis. Flügel suggested that all clothing is charged with sexual symbolism. This was not a wholly new approach, for Richard von Krafft–Ebing had discussed ‘erotic fetishism’ and its place in the interpretation of dress in the Psychopathia Sexualis, published in 1886.

There have been many subsequent studies, some descriptive, some analytical, all of them drawing upon a wide range of source material. A recently launched quarterly publication — Fashion Theory; The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture — has chosen to begin its examination of fashion from the viewpoint that it is ‘the cultural construction of the embodied identity’. This offers a late-twentieth-century, multi-disciplinary approach to the subject by broadening and democratizing the term across the boundaries of gender, multi-culturalism, and sexual preference. This merging of body decoration, clothing, and fashion into one subject area for critical analysis suggests that the ephemeral nature of clothing the human form will continue to be debated for the indefinite future.

Valerie Cumming


Newton, S. M. (1974). Health, art and reason: dress reformers of the nineteenth century. John Murray, London.
Ribeiro, A. and and Cumming, V. (1989). The visual history of costume. Batsford, London.
Ribeiro, A. (1986). Dress and Morality. Batsford, London.

See also clothes; modelling, fashion.


views updated May 17 2018



New Technologies. The most significant changes in the way Americans dressed during the middle decades of the nineteenth century came about because of improvements in technology. Though various types of sewing machines had been invented during the 1830s and 1840s, the first practical, workable machine for the home sewer was invented by Isaac Merrit Singer in 1850. By the middle of that decade sewing machines were selling at the rate of one hundred thousand per year. In 1871 manufacturers made seven times that number. While a woman might have spent days sewing a mans shirt by hand, she could make one in an afternoon with her sewing machine. New technologies also changed textile production, making it possible for manufacturers to mass-produce printed cottons that were both cheap and pretty. Aniline dyes, invented in the 1850s, permitted silks and wools to be dyed in astonishingly bright, sharp colors such as fuchsia, magenta, and violet. A fashionable Civil War-era theater or dinner party was often a colorful sight. With these fabrics and her new sewing machine the average middle-class housewife could make dresses that would have been too expensive and too time-consuming for her to tackle in the past. Sewing machines also permitted greater ornamentation of clothing. As womens fashions became more elaborate in the 1860s, sewing-machine manufacturers produced attachments such as binders, tuckers, rufflers, shirrers, puffers, braiders, quilters, hemstitchers, and embroiders that allowed the middle-class woman to copy these styles at home. Some commentators, mostly men, noted that the sewing machine did not seem to be such a labor-saving device after all. Commercial printed-paper patterns also helped middle-class women dress like their upper-class counterparts. Fashion designer Madame Demorestwho despite her French-sounding name was Ellen Curtis Demorest, the American-born wife of New York publisher William Demorestbegan marketing paper patterns for her versions of Paris fashions in her own magazine, Mme. Demorests Mirror of Fashion, in 1865. Ebenezer Butterick, who started manufacturing patterns for boys and mens clothing in 1863, began making patterns for womens clothes in 1867 and also marketed them in his own magazines.

The Seamstress. Some clothing could be bought ready-made, but most clothing was made expressly for the wearer. Wealthy women in cities such as New York or Philadelphia had their clothes custom-made by exclusive dressmakers who copied designs from magazines

such as Godeys Ladys Book and Petersons. These magazines pirated French fashion plates in their monthly issues. Studies of photographs from this period show, however, that American women did not wear line-for-line copies of these styles. Their gowns were usually three or even four years out of date. Middle-class women usually had a seamstress come in to cut and fit clothing which they would later finish themselves. Sometimes, the seamstress would stay with the family in a separate sewing room, producing dresses, shirts, and clothing for the children. Respectable women still did a great deal of fine hand sewing in public or at gatherings with friends. On southern plantations the mistresses were responsible for all the clothing worn by family and

workers alike. One of their most important chores was to cut out the cloth, which they would then give to slaves to sew. Most women also did charity sewing in addition to making clothes for their families (at least the familys underwear and shirts). People of all ages and social classes wore cotton underwear, which they washed as often as they could afford.

Mens Clothing. Men working on the farm wore simple calico shirts, often flowered or checked, trousers, waistcoats, coats with full sleeves, and a straw or felt hat. In public a man always wore a white or black neck cloth, or stock. For town he wore a checked or black coat, and a black waistcoat. Black wool, summer or winter, was the respectable businessmans uniform. The most favored headgear for men in the city was the tall, narrow stovepipe hat like the one often seen in photographs of President Abraham Lincoln. In the South a broad-brimmed felt or straw hat was more popular than the stovepipe. By the 1870s the skirted frock coat favored by gentlemen for dress occasions had mainly been replaced by the shorter sack coat. Before the Civil War only work clothes for slaves and sailors were mass-produced in the United States. During the Civil War, however, manufacturers met the demand for hundreds of thousands of uniforms by gearing up production and developing a system of standard sizing. After the war they applied this new technology to manufacturing civilian clothing for men.

Womens Clothing. In the 1850s middle-class and upper-class women wore voluminous full-skirted cotton or silk dresses for day. All women wore several petticoats. By mid-decade they had begun wearing crinoline petticoats, originally made of stiffened horsehair, to hold the skirt away from the body. About 1858 hoop petticoats, with large circles of flexible watch-spring steel sewn into them, began to serve a similar purpose. A woman who wore one of these garments had to learn not to sit on one of the hoops because if she did so, her skirt would fly up in front, exposing her ankle-length pantalets. During the second half of the century these drawers gradually became shorter. These full-skirted fashions with narrow waists were popularized by the beautiful Empress Eugénie of France. Corsets, which had been worn since colonial days, became more heavily boned to give a woman the neat, small-waisted look she desired. Critics pointed out that women who wore tight corsets were injuring their health. The worst excesses in such tight lacing, however, did not occur until the 1880s and 1890s. During the Civil War women wore closely fitted bodices and dropped shoulders, with full skirts pleated into a corseted waist. After the war skirts became relatively flat in front with a full train in back. By the early 1870s the hoop skirt had disappeared and was replaced with a bustle made of wire or crinoline to create fullness at the back of the skirt. Full skirts, especially with hoops, were impractical, and sometimes dangerous, for farm work. Rural women and poor women wore less-elaborate clothing made of simpler, less expensive fabrics, including homespun cloth. Like more-affluent women, farm women wore several petticoats, but their skirts were not as full because they seldom wore hoops or crinolines. Instead of the feather-and-ribbon-trimmed hats favored by city women, rural women, particularly in the West and the South, often wore simple sun bonnets.

Dress Reform. Often linked to the womens rights movement, dress reformers, and some doctors, charged that the heavy skirts and tight bodices were unhealthy and unsanitary. In 1851 abolitionist and social reformer Amelia Bloomer became one of the first American women to wear a Turkish trouser suit, loose trousers, worn under a fitted tunic. Because it exposed a ladys legs, this garment, which quickly became known as the bloomer costume, caused a scandal. While some people praised it as a practical garment for overland travel, a woman who wore bloomers was more often than not criticized by other women and ridiculed by men. The fact that variations of this style were worn by many Mormon women during their cross-country trek to Utah and by women in the Oneida colony in upstate New York did not help to spread this new style. Both groups were heavily criticized during the 1850s for their advocacy of marriages involving more than two partners. Most women kept on wearing their corsets and petticoats.

Childrens Clothing. As childhood increasingly became recognized as a separate and important phase of life, children were no longer dressed as miniature adults, but with some effort toward comfort and freedom of movement. Babies and toddlers of both sexes wore short hair and low-necked dresses. As in the past, small boys wore skirts at least until they were out of diapers. After they reached the age of five or six, boys began to wear short pants and tunics. Between the ages of ten and twelve a boy received his first pair of long pants, which was an unmistakable sign of maturity and approaching manhood.

Slave Clothing. What slaves wore depended a great deal on their owners. Some gave their slaves their own cast-off clothing, while on other plantations slaves wore nothing better than rags. Usually domestic slaves were better dressed than field workers. Their outfits consisted of simple cotton clothing. Few had real shoes, wearing instead slops or slaps on their feet. These shoes were crude sandals with one leather strap across the instep, manufactured in Lynn, Massachusetts.


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

Priscilla Harris Dalrymple, American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs (New York: Dover, 1991);

J. C. Furnas, The Americans: A Social History of the United States, 1587-1914 (New York: Putnam, 1969);

Lee Hall, Common Threads: A Parade of American Clothing (Boston: Little, Brown, 1992);

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


views updated May 17 2018


Both as a concept and a changing array of consumer goods and cultural practices, fashion served as an important means of social communication in eighteenth-century British America. Composed not only of objects and styles, but also of behaviors and the arenas in which such items and actions were displayed, fashion provided for connection as well as personal distinction. It possessed intensely local significance as a tool for distinguishing among and within social groups, yet also expressed participation in a cosmopolitan Atlantic world. While most inhabitants of the colonies recognized the symbols of power that fashion conveyed, they did not necessarily regard or respond to those markers in the same ways. Thus, fashion was a primary register of cultural and political contest.

For Anglo colonists, England was the locus and source of all things fashionable, although many modes actually originated in France. A burgeoning Atlantic trade made the adoption of European fashions, from fabrics and fans to teapots, possible, while waves of immigrants, many trained in the fashion trades, also spurred the transmission of modes. Newspaper advertisements for imports regularly deployed the adjective "fashionable" as a powerful selling point for the rising volume and selection of items that suffused even middling colonial households by the middle of the eighteenth century. Indeed, the British Empire's smooth operation depended on consumption of fashionable goods in colonial outposts

and the consumer appetites for novelty that changing fashions fed. As social critic Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) observed, fashion was a "strange, ridic'lous vice" that nonetheless "turned the trade." This trade reached across the Atlantic and into the heart of North America, as diplomatic and social relations on the frontier created amalgams of Indian, Anglo, and French fashions.

In contrast to more recent cycles, fashions in dress changed slowly during the eighteenth century, indicated by seasonal variety in fabrics and more glacial shifts in the widths of hoop-supported skirts or the cuts of sleeves—changes subtle enough to be acknowledged and adopted by the people "of fashion." Likewise, the display of fashionable practices, from dancing the minuet to drinking tea, the imperial good par excellence, and the social spaces in which those occurred (and in which fashionable dress could be displayed to great advantage) signified high status and participation in the empire. While fashion's appropriation and refashioning by slaves, servants, and other "lower sorts" due to theft and an underground trade in stolen and secondhand goods made it an unstable

marker of rank, other forms of social distinction, such as speech and carriage, countered fashion's democratizing potential. Thus was the very idea of fashion rife with contradiction: desirable as an expression of high rank, yet disdained as the province of mere pretenders to status; displaced onto consuming women, but avidly pursued by both sexes; connected to other celebrated concepts such as gentility, taste, and refinement, yet also suggesting luxury, appetite, and effeminacy; and fueling commerce through consumption, but creating a potentially uneasy dependence on markets.

fashioning a revolution

Due to its considerable influence, fashion served as a flashpoint for cultural and political contests during the revolutionary era. By the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, some Anglo colonists and Indians alike, facing ailing postwar economies after more than a decade of increasing consumption, called for retrenchment and a lessening of dependence on foreign "luxuries," even as English bourgeois styles in dress and furnishings grew more restrained. By 1764, when Britain's Parliament moved to diminish its war debt by collecting taxes on items such as sugar and French fabrics, the climate was ripe for calls to reject imports and the fashions they expressed. In response to the following year's Stamp Act, which levied a one-pence duty on all paper and paper transactions, merchants in the northern port cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia pledged not to import goods until the bill was repealed, and outraged colonists swore not to consume such articles. Supporters used the public prints to enforce the boycotts, promoting the virtuous behaviors of genteel "people of fashion" while attempting to create new "American" fashions, namely homespun cloth, domestic tea, and minimalist mourning garb. Yet after the Stamp Act's much-celebrated repeal, colonists jettisoned the new modes, never widely adopted but symbolically important nonetheless.

With Parliament's passage of the Townshend Act of 1767, designed to raise revenue through the assiduous collection of duties on certain items, including beloved tea, some colonists revisited boycotts. Resistance leaders called upon Anglo women in particular to discipline their appetites and thus prove themselves good female patriots, foregoing fashion's cultural power while gaining a new kind of visibility, yet also scrutiny. Extravagant display, from the form-fitting macaroni mode for men to high, ornamented hairstyles for women, characterized the period between the repeal of all Townshend duties except the tea tax in 1770 and 1773, demonstrating that many colonists had little use for asceticism and understatement. The Tea Act of 1773, which gave Britain's East India Company a monopoly on the sale of tea to the colonies, defined tea, once the hallmark of female-orchestrated gentility and participation in the empire, as a symbol of subjugation, and the colonists who consumed it complicit in a despotic, tyrannical regime. In 1774 the First Continental Congress's Association enacted colonywide nonimportation and nonconsumption resolutions, clamping down on appetites for all things fashionable in language that decried forms of "extravagance and dissipation," which undermined professed American values of virtue, simplicity, and sacrifice. Such regulation persisted through the onset of hostilities between Britain and the colonies in 1775, as hunting shirts and leather breeches joined traditional military uniforms. Benjamin Franklin himself donned the persona of rustic American, along with the beaver hat and homespun suit that conveyed it, when appearing before the French court at Versailles to plead for French assistance. Yet the American Revolution resolved little in the battle over fashion, which shaped the contest not only between England and the newly created United States of America, but between Whigs (Patriots) and Tories (Loyalists), merchants and artisans, slaves and masters, men and women—all competing to see who would define fashion for the new nation.

the new nation

Revolutionary leaders had cast fashion as a threat to the Republic while promoting an American antifashion stance that was itself a fashion, one that they often failed to adopt. The new nation and its leaders needed to appear legitimate in the eyes of the world, and European modes retained their ability to communicate power and status, locally and internationally. Many Anglo Americans continued to regard Europe as the seat of the mode (the fashionable) as goods flooded an American confederation of states powerless to enact national commercial policy in the mid-1780s. Social critics pinned the Republic's potential demise on appetites for fashionable "gewgaws."

Fortunately for Americans faced with the dilemma of signifying both prestige and virtue, European fashions themselves grew more understated in the final decades of the eighteenth century, the so-called age of democratic revolutions. The Empire-style gown that became popular in the 1790s served the image of American, republican simplicity well, projecting it onto white women clad in simple white gowns, standard-bearers of virtue, if not rights. Meanwhile, the displacement of Indians beyond the literal and figurative borders of the nation made the interpretation of Indian-influenced frontier dress as an American folk form possible, and unthreatening.

With the emergence of partisan politics in the 1790s, Democratic Republicans used fashion to attack ostensibly foppish, elitist Federalists. Whereas George Washington had donned a suit of homespun for his 1789 inauguration, in 1793 he appeared in velvet. The cut and cloth of a man's breeches, and the color of one's cockade—ribbons worn during the French Revolution—signified political allegiance, in fact, created it. The influx of refugees from the slave revolt in Saint Domingue to cities such as Charleston and Philadelphia helped create a distinct African American style that recalled the French Revolution's contagion of social upheaval. With Thomas Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1800, the fashion of genteel understatement triumphed; Jefferson would famously greet guests donned in a banyan (a robelike garment), the height of genteel fashion for the learned, leisurely set. Into the nineteenth century, Anglo American men traded knee breeches and brocade for long trousers and somber cloth, while the high-waisted, corset-free Empire dress for women persisted into the 1810s. Indeed, men's and women's "fashionable" garb steadily diverged throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century, mirroring the rise of an ideology of separate "male" and "female" bourgeois spheres of influence as white men abandoned obvious ornamentation in favor of other representations of power available to them alone.

See alsoClothing; Consumerism and Consumption .


Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America, the Colonial Williamsburg Collection. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002.

Breen, T. H. The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Carson, Cary, Ronald Hoffman, and Peter Albert, eds. Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994.

Haulman, Catherine Anna. "The Empire's New Clothes: The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth Century British America." Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 2002.

Shannon, Timothy J. "Dressing for Success on the Mohawk Frontier: Hendrick, William Johnson and the Indian Fashion." William and Mary Quarterly, third series, 53 (1996): 13–42.

Shields, David S. Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Kate Haulman


views updated May 14 2018



Early Styles. The first generation of European settlers brought with them the fashions of their day, which functioned to place them within specific social ranks as well as to adorn them. Dutch settlers of all ranks wore clothing of similar style, but their social rank was distinguished by the relative coarseness or fineness of the fabric. French settlers distinguished their rank both by the type of cloth used and by the style. The early soldier-settlers of the Spanish borderlands clad themselves in

military attire but always kept an eye trained on the finery of the wealthy at home, whom they intended to emulate once they achieved New World wealth and position. Portraits of English settlers of this period depict gentlemen and ladies in dashing Elizabethan garments adorned with showy lace collars and cuffs and reveal that colonists of Massachusetts Bay shared Virginia adventurers taste for fashionable clothes. Puritan ministers urged people to renounce the outer vanity of ostentatious dress for the inward adornment of a pious life. New England magistrates tried to enforce their ministers teaching through laws regulating dress. Nevertheless, Puritans were not limited to somber clothing of black and gray. The laws aimed mainly at preventing ordinary farmers or craftsmen from dressing ostentatiously or above their station in clothing regarded as appropriate only for wealthy and important families. Puritans were generally free to clothe themselves in the range of colors and styles appropriate to their rank or position in society. The persistent anxiety of ministers and magistrates over clothing suggests that Puritan men and women never lost their eye for fashion and constantly pushed the limits of the law with fancy clothes and accessories.


Like most aspects of colonial life, dress varied according to social station as well as style. Slaves received only a change or two of clothes per year, while wealthy gentlefolk possessed extensive wardrobes tailored for every occasion in a variety of fine imported textiles. The average family living between these two extremes might possess the following clothes:

Man: One good suit, two fine shirts, three coarse shirts, two pairs of work trousers, two pairs of breeches, one waistcoat, one coat, and one hat.

Woman: One good gown, one petticoat, one good cloak, two bodices or short gowns, two aprons, two shifts, and a coarse cloak.

Source: David Freeman Hawke, Everyday Life in Early America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

American Influence. Fashions in the middle and later seventeenth century were dictated by the materials available to most settlers as well as by adaptations to their new environment. Settlers of the Spanish borderlands and New France sometimes adapted elements of Native American dress and adapted their apparel to the climate. French settlers often dressed in buckskin, and the hooded wool coat known as a capote characteristically shielded men from the icy Canadian winds. To enforce the racial caste system of New Spain, a law of 1582 prohibited mestizo women (those of mixed Spanish and Indian

blood) from wearing Native American dresses. These women adopted a shawl known as the rebozo, which over time came to be finely crafted and decorated. English colonists brought with them a knowledge of spinning and weaving. They never developed a large textile industry, however, and imported cloth was relatively scarce and expensive. Homespun woolens and linens became the common apparel of ordinary seventeenth-century Americans. Yet the bewigged figures of portraits reveal that prominent colonistseven Puritan ministers such as Cotton Mathercontinued to imitate the styles of their English contemporaries.

London. After 1700 a growing range of English textiles began flowing into colonial ports; prices dropped so low that colonial producers could not compete; and some households no longer found it worthwhile to invest time and labor in producing inferior homespun cloth. Newspapers advertised the varieties of English and Dutch chintzes, silks, linens, damasks, woolens, velvets, and laces. They also included other items of apparel and accessories such as stockings, gloves, and buttons. Tailors placed their own advertisements nearby, enticing customers with their ability to cut and sew in the latest London fashions. Diarists traveling the countryside often recorded remarks on the widespread imitation of European fashion in America. In 1740 the Anglican preacher George Whitefield remarked on the fashionable dress of audiences from Massachusetts to Georgia, going so far as to declare that his followers in Charleston, South Carolina, dressed more extravagantly than gentry from the court-end of London! Portraiture of eighteenth-century gentry bears out the observations of diarists such as Whitefield, and historians studying wills and probate records have discovered that ordinary colonists imitated the fashions of their betters by buying and wearing an increasing range of cheap imported items. Many colonial leaders worried that the widespread wearing of fashionable wigs, fancy dresses, handsome waistcoats, silk stockings, and silver buckles was making it increasingly difficult to distinguish the gentry from their inferiors. Advertisements for runaways reveal that indentured servants and slaves were dressing in the cast-off fashions of the period.

The Frontier. Eighteenth-century backcountry apparel often contrasted sharply with that worn on the coast. Traders and settlers adopted certain articles of Native American clothing such as buckskin or woolen leggings both to establish cultural ties with them and because the clothing was better adapted to the environment. The Indian commissioner Sir William Johnson

adopted Iroquois dress to help him gain trust and understanding as he pursued diplomacy among the Six Nations of upstate New York. Further south in the Carolina backcountry the Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason expressed shock at women who went about barefoot and immodestly dressed for that time in thin, tight-fitting garments that exposed their lower legs. Such womens apparel was partly the result of poverty and partly an adaptation to the hot southern climate. The adaptations were usually temporary as well: frontier settlers could seldom resist fancy eastern fashions when they became available at affordable prices.


Gary Carson, Ronald Hoffman, and Peter J. Albert, eds., Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994);

Jack Cassin-Scott, Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550-1760 (Poole, U.K.: Blandford Press, 1975);

Alice Morse Earle, Costume of Colonial Times (Detroit: Gale, 1974).

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