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We Were What We Wore

May 2024
16min read

Fashion once expressed America’s class distinctions. But it doesn’t any more.

A Chicago judge ruled in 1908 that a nightgown was a luxury, not a necessity, and thereupon issued a restraining order forbidding an eighteen-year-old girl from buying one against her father’s wishes. “The only possible use of a nightgown,” the judge explained, “is to keep off flies and mosquitoes, and the bedclothes will do just as well.” The father testified: “She never wore a nightgown in her life, and neither did her parents. She’s been associating with nifty people, that’s the trouble with her.” Clearly, as recently as this century, all Americans did not enjoy freedom of dress.

By the 1920s, however, production and distribution of ready-to-wear clothing had reached a stage that enabled most men and women to dress stylishly at moderate cost. As a Midwestern businessman observed, "1 used to be able to tell something about the background of a girl applying for a job as a stenographer by her clothes, but today I often have to wait till she speaks, shows a gold tooth or otherwise gives me a second clew.” This egalitarian confusion of class distinctions would seem to reflect the ideals of the early Republic, but in fact, it had evolved only gradually. For much of our history, according to Claudia Kidwell, the head curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s Costume Division, “Clothing’s most pervading function has been to declare status.” From the beginning Americans have loved fine clothes. In 1676 Hannah Lyman and thirty-five other young women of Northampton, Massachusetts, were arrested for overdressing—specifically for wearing hoods. A defiant Hannah appeared in court in the offending garment and was censured and fined on the spot for “wearing silk in a fflonting manner, in an offensive way. . . .” Along with their style of dress, the colonists had brought from England laws like the 1621 Virginia resolution to “supress excess in cloaths” and to prevent anyone but high government officials from wearing “gold in their cloaths.”

Declaring its “utter detestation and dislike” of men and women of “mean condition, education and calling” who would wear the “garb of gentlemen,” the Massachusetts General Court in 1639 particularly prohibited Puritans of low estate from wearing “immoderate great breeches, knots of riban, silk roses, double ruffles and capes.” Women of low rank were forbidden silk hoods and scarves, as well as short sleeves “whereby the nakedness of the arms may be discovered"— the daring new fashion popular among the upper classes.

Washington loved fine clothes and felt the dignity of a new nation depended to a degree on the appearance of its leaders.

Such legislation hardly seems to have been necessary for the somber Puritans of popular imagery. Yet rich, elegant, and stylish clothing was as important to New England merchants as it was to Virginia cavaliers or to the good dames of New Amsterdam. Although the Puritan Church did in fact preach simplicity of dress, it was widely ignored by a flock that counted fine clothing as an outward sign of God’s favor. Eventually the laws attempting to dictate dress in the American colonies proved unenforceable and were abandoned.

This meant that for New Englanders of means, plain and dull-colored dress was not among the hardships of the New World. Bills and inventories record “pinck hose,” “green sleeves,” “a Scarlet petticoat with Silver Lace.” One Massachusetts governor was noted for the gold-fringed gloves he wore, and another ordered several dozen scarlet coats to be sent to him from England.

Shipping lists, portraits, advertisements, court records, and tailors’ bills give evidence of the fashion ties that bound prosperous American colonists to their counterparts overseas. Norwich garters—decorative ornaments worn by Sir Walter Raleigh—came over on the Mayflower, and a Madame Padishal of Plymouth, Massachusetts, posed for her portrait in a low-necked black velvet gown with a lace whisk to cover her bare neck, the latest court fashion in France.


Class distinctions had not been left on Old World shores, and fashion was clear evidence of social standing. Affluent American settlers eagerly sought news of style changes in Europe.

Margaret Winthrop, the wife of the governor of Massachusetts, insisted on “the civilest fashion now in use” when she ordered gowns from John Smith, the family tailor in London. But at that distance even personal tailoring could not guarantee good fit, as Smith made clear in a letter accompanying a coat for the governor: “Good Mr. Winthrop, I have, by Mr. Downing’s directions sent you a coat. . . . For the fittness I am a little vncerteyne, but if it be too bigg or too little it is esie to amend, vnder the arme to take in or let out the lyning; the outside may be let out in the gathering or taken in also without any prejudice.”

Not all clothing in colonial America, however, was made by a tailor. Elegantly dressed ladies or gentlemen in silks and brocades from London were outnumbered by craftsmen in leather aprons, female servants in simple petticoats and jackets and the men in livery, seamen and farmers coming to market in homespun trousers, and, in the South, slaves in hand-me-downs. A person’s clothing indelibly marked an eighteenth-century man or woman.


Housewives made most of the clothing worn by average people. Using both imported and domestic fabrics, colonial women made their own clothes and their children’s, and such simply constructed men’s clothes as undergarments, shirts, and trousers. But a fashionably cut coat or smooth-fitting breeches were beyond their skills. By the second half of the eighteenth century, breeches were worn so skintight that—the story goes—in Alexandria, Virginia, they were hung on hooks and the wearer-to-be put them on by mounting three steps and letting himself into them from above. Small wonder, then, that the making of jacket, waistcoat, and breeches was left to the art of the tailor.

Preindustrial American clothing was mostly made to order. The well-to-do kept measurements on file with a London tailor, ordering, perhaps, as one gentleman did, “A Suit of Lemmon Collour Brocaded or flowered Lustering the best that can be had for Ten Shillings pr yard made Fashionable and Genteel to the Inclosed measures. . . .” And Americans—even after the Revolution—announced their stations in life sartorially. High-hatting went to a ridiculous extreme. Martha Washington may have worn a modest and democratic mobcap, but hats worn by her contemporaries abounded with flowers, vegetables, windmills (that turned), shepherds with their sheep, and, in one case, a naval battle featuring a spun-glass French ship of war. Feathers as much as a yard and a half high topped turbans and other hats. At a New Year’s Assembly in 1814, according to a news account of the day, Dolley Madison’s “towering feathers above the excessive throng distinctly pointed out her station wherever she moved.”

“Do not conceive that fine clothes make fine men any more than fine feathers make fine birds,” George Washington advised his nephew Bushrod. But Washington himself loved fine clothes and believed that the dignity of a new nation depended to a degree on the outward appearance of its leaders. Records show that John Hancock owned a scarlet velvet suit. And on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence wasn’t even mentioned in Thomas Jefferson’s daybook. He made only one entry that day: “For Seven pair of Womens Gloves, 20 shillings.”


Not all Americans followed the latest fashions. Benjamin Franklin, a plain dresser himself, urged his wife and daughter to eschew their feathers and silks for honest calico. And at Harvard College a dress code prohibited “Schollars” from wearing “strange, ruffianlike, or new-fangled fashions.” But it is doubtful whether the “Schollars” abandoned their “lavish dress” any more than the Franklin women turned in their silks or the young Puritan Hannah Lyman gave up her hood.

By the end of the eighteenth century, class distinctions in dress were beginning to be threatened by new developments in technology. On December 20, 1791, Samuel Slater harnessed the waterwheel at Carpenter’s Clothier Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to the falls of the Blackstone River and thereby brought the Industrial Revolution to this country. Slater, a young English immigrant, combined waterpower and a superior system of cotton yarn manufacture to produce the first power-spun yarn in America. A few years later Eli Whitney’s cotton gin pulled the fibers away from the cotton seeds—a technique that made the mass cultivation of cotton economically feasible. By 1814 the Boston businessman Francis Cabot Lowell had collaborated with the machinist Paul Moody to perfect a power loom superior to the English models. At Lowell’s Boston Manufacturing Company of Waltham, for the first time in history, every process of clothmaking was performed under one roof by power machinery.

An ample supply of fabric encouraged an emerging ready-to-wear industry. Early in the nineteenth century clothing manufacture also began to move to the factory, where, as the century progressed, steadily improved machinery was to make much shorter work of what hands alone could do.

At mid-century, ready-made clothing for women consisted of the one-size-fits-all cloak, worn since the 1600s, and the corset.

One of the earliest clothing manufactories was the United States Army Clothing Establishment, begun in Philadelphia at the start of the War of 1812 to meet the need for enlisted men’s uniforms. It organized production into several key operations. The uniform was cut from a standardized pattern; the pieces were packaged with buttons, padding, lining, facing cloth, and thread and then sent out for sewing to “widows and other meritorious females,” who could by “close application . . . make twelve shirts pr week and the same number of pants.” Civilian manufacturers followed the model of inside and outside labor division provided by this “immense Government Tailor’s Shop.”


Military organization may have been precise, but the fit of the uniforms was not. The real hero of the ready-to-wear revolution was the custom tailor. This specialist, who had once sewn only for those able to afford his individualized services, rescued ready-made clothing from the realm of “slops”—cheap, coarse, and ill-fitting garments that marked their wearers as second-class citizens. Early in the nineteenth century custom tailors began to modify their techniques in order to manufacture ready-made clothing that was cheaper than custom, yet fashionable and reasonably well fitting. The tailor had a new weapon: the tape measure. “Scientific principles” helped tailors establish standardized rules for measurement that meant they could make not only styles for individuals but apparel for everybody. By 1832 most tailors carried a large stock of ready-made clothing.

“Clothing is created out of motivation,” says Claudia Kidwell. “The wealthy wanted to maintain distinctions. Everyone else wanted to close the gap. When the working man took off his apron, he wanted to be part of the gentry. He wore frockcoat, vest and trousers to work, then took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves.”

By mid-century the editor Horace Greeley could write, “No distinction of clothing between gentlemen and otherwise can be seen in the United States.” Men—but not women—could purchase in a range of prices a great variety of garments manufactured in Baltimore, Newark, Albany, Rochester, Philadelphia, and New York.


Representative of the Eastern manufactories was the New York retail clothing shop founded in 1818 by Henry Sands Brooks as a “gentlemen’s store run by gentlemen” and by 1850 known as Brooks Bros. Before the widespread use of the sewing machine in clothing manufacture, cloth was inspected and cut, and trimmings for garments provided, by a small number of people in the shop. A pool of more than a thousand seamstresses on the outside sewed the pieces together by hand and added the finishing touches. Returned and found satisfactory, the garments then went to the sales department. In 1859 Brooks Bros, advertised a “large and complete assortment of Ready-Made Clothing and Furnishings/Goods of superior style and make.”

Thanks to ready-made clothes, a common style of dressing found favor across the land. Clothes made on the Eastern seaboard were available across the country. In Philadelphia the Clothing Palace offered “the most extensive assortment and the finest quality of READY-MADE GARMENTS for the lowest cash price in plain figures.” Alfred Munroe of New Orleans challenged anyone to match his twenty-three hundred coats, nineteen hundred pantaloons, fifteen hundred vests, and eight thousand shirts. San Francisco’s Keyes & Co. advertised "$100,000 stock in the very latest styles.”

For promotional vigor, however, it was hard to top Boston’s George Simmons, who described his store, Oak Hall, as a “Spacious Magnificent & Inviting TEMPLE , the Centre of Trade, the Wonder of an Admiring World.” In pursuit of “large sales, small profits and quick returns,” Simmons sent up balloons announcing bargains and threw free overcoats from his roof. Simmons boasted of the “largest and best assortment of Ready-Made Clothing and Furnishing Goods to be found in the United States.” Here “the Man of Fashion, the Professional, Gentlemen Clerks with moderate salaries, Merchants, Mechanics and Farmers, Military and Naval Officers” could find “any article from a pair of Gloves to a superfine Dress or Frock coat.” In short, Oak Hall and its counterparts had something for everybody—as long as everybody was male. Women would have to wait several decades to participate in the democracy of dress.

Ready-made clothing for women at midcentury consisted of the one-size-fits-all cloak, worn since the seventeenth century, and the corset. Blouses, skirts, and dresses that were complexly constructed, individually fitted, and subject to changes in style were still too formidable a challenge for clothing manufacturers before the Civil War. Women depended on their own sewing skills or on dressmakers, who were numerous and charged little, for the better part of their wardrobes.

“A Victorian lady stayed at home and stuck to her needlework,” according to Pamela Puryear, the author of Dressing Victorian (1987). Puryear became interested in historical clothing when she moved into her great-grandparents’ home in Navasota, Texas, and found her great-grandmother’s 1873 wedding dress. A cousin then gave her twenty-two trunks of clothes belonging to his grandparents and great-grandparents. Puryear discovered that in Texas Victorian women in a reasonably comfortable economic position dressed the same way as women in Boston or New York. “Clothing revealed a Victorian woman’s station in life,” Puryear writes. “Women wearing a tight corset, at least four petticoats, dresses with tight elbows and gloves inside the house, didn’t do the cleaning and the washing. What you wore was you.”


Hallie Gudger of Old Washington, Texas, wore for her portrait a dress with a satin bodice, double ruffled organdy at the neck, satin rosettes on the skirt and on the sleeves, a draped overskirt, an underskirt, and a bustle. Mary Frances Wickes of Houston was photographed in the late 1850s in a dress of “black silk with gathers in the bodice and triangular black gimp edging. The sleeves were sewn with a geometric interlace of a lighter-colored braid,” probably done with the new sewing machine.

Between 1842 and 1895 the United States issued more than seven thousand patents for sewing machines and their accessories. Elias Howe and Isaac Sineer fought for the right to be called the machine’s inventor. But it was Allen B. Wilson who created the machine first adopted by the clothing manufacturers. A shirt that had taken fourteen hours and twenty-six minutes to sew by hand could be sewn on the “Wheeler and Wilson” in one hour and sixteen minutes. In the 1860s Brooks Bros, reported that a good overcoat, which had once required six days of sewing, could be done in half that time by machine.

Before department stores, if you wanted to see luxury goods, you had to be deemed a suitable client at a small specialty store.

Mechanization revolutionized the garment industry in the late nineteenth century. Powerful machines that were able to slice through a hundred layers of cloth at a time brought the speed of cutting clothes in line with the sewing operation. Completely automatic looms meant one weaver could produce four hundred yards of fabric an hour. Improved cylinder presses had the capability of printing from two to twelve colors simultaneously. As calico florals rolled off the cylinders, one of the most expensive fabrics of the eighteenth century became one of the cheapest of the nineteenth.

Almost all the processes of clothing manufacture had moved into the machine age. Only pressing was still done by hand. The heavy tailor’s iron held its own until the early twentieth century, when Adon J. Huffman of Syracuse dislocated his shoulder and invented a steam pressing machine operated by a foot pedal.


Foot power and hand power were needed in ever-greater quantity as production in the garment industry accelerated. New Americans, by and large, did the job. In the 1840s Irish tailors, cutters, and seamstresses came to America in unprecedented numbers. Later in the decade German tailors arrived and with their wives and children produced clothing at home. But it was the great migration from eastern and southern Europe—Poland, Russia, and Italy—beginning in 1880 that provided the garment industry with the cheap labor that permitted mass production in this country. Beryl Fried, a founder of the Cloakmaker’s Union, described working conditions as he knew them in 1885 and as they continued to be until immigrant clothing workers formed their own union in 1914: “Eighteen men and women were crowded into a small dark room: operators, pressers and finishers. During the season there was no time limit. We started working at dawn and stopped at ten or eleven at night. If a worker happened to be an hour late he was met by the others with ridicule, ‘Here comes the doctor.’ In their conception only a doctor could permit himself the luxury of sleeping so late.”


In a crazy quilt of inside and outside shops, factory and home production, contracting and subcontracting, the men, women, and children of the garment industry worked long hours for low wages in overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe conditions. By their toil they gave a new word to the English language—sweatshop—and they gave to this country an immense variety of clothes that the majority of Americans could afford.

During the late 1890s the Sears, Roebuck catalog listed men’s suits costing from ninety-eight cents to twenty dollars, and on a single day Sears sold nine thousand of them. The “trusty blue serge suit” was worn by store clerks, office workers, professionals, and businessmen, so that Giuseppe Giacosa, an Italian who visited in 1908, was struck by the fact that “no European would be able to pick out by eye who there represents the infinite variety of professions, trades, states, fortune, culture, education that may be encountered among the whole people . . . the shape and texture of the clothing in all shows the same care, the same cut, and almost the same easy circumstances.” While visiting Chicago’s slaughterhouses, he saw the workers at day’s end change their bloody clothes and emerge “a lordly collection of gentlemen” in “handsome ties and plaid jackets.”

Even the shirt, that once-reliable indicator of social status, dividing white collar from blue, no longer divided men—at least from a distance. Shirts with detachable collars and cuffs, as advertised by the Arrow Collar man, meant that every man could without excessive laundry costs wear what appeared to be a clean white shirt every day. Working men’s blue shirts turned up as sportswear along with shirts in a kaleidoscopic array of colors and patterns. Some sense of proportion was retained, however. Boston’s Jordan Marsh department store in 1883 announced selections that included “mostly neat designs, such as stripes, figures, spots etc. Large figures, stripes, pug dogs, armchairs etc. have been avoided.”

Clothes even for occasions too formal for the trusty blue serge were available off the rack and were adapted to the American love of comfort. Thanks to Griswold Lorillard, who in 1886 appeared in a tailless evening coat at the Tuxedo Park Club’s formal autumn ball, the tuxedo became part of America’s sartorial style.


In the years before World War I, sports and leisure activities swept across America. One of the nation’s largest manufacturers of clothing, Browning King, proclaimed, “In these days of almost universal wheeling no man’s or boy’s wardrobe is complete without a bicycle suit.” There were bathing suits, tennis suits, yachting suits, and golf clothes. But there were no blue jeans. Levi’s waist pantaloons or overalls—in blue denim or brown duck—were still strictly work clothes.

Working clothes began to be important for women, too, after the Civil War. Many women came into the business world as “typewriters” to operate that clacking invention, and as retail establishments proliferated, there was a need for shopgirls. Thousands of immigrant women worked in factories. With no time to sew or suffer endless fittings at a dressmaker’s, women needed ready-to-wear clothing. A women’s garment industry emerged and grew, until by 1919 it exceeded the men’s clothing industry in number of establishments and value of production.

Carson Pirie Scott & Co. of Chicago explained that its women’s suits were “what the name was meant to imply—strictly man-tailored.” But when the woman-on-the-go removed the jacket of her tailored suit, she stood revealed in shirtwaist and skirt, the American girl immortalized by the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. For the first time in America, women had the equivalent of the trusty blue suit—a uniform that blurred social and economic distinctions. Once the basic investment in the suit had been made, the look could be changed for a mere dollar—the price of a blouse pleated at the shoulders “giving the pronounced Gibson effect.”

Now there was a new pastime in America: shopping. “Consumer palaces” began to appear in America’s cities in response to the large assortment of factory-made goods that were being produced. A typical department store early in the twentieth century was reported to have six miles of sales counters. In one window display, Jordan Marsh re-created the hall of Henri II’s palace at Fontainebleau out of “ladies', misses', and children’s silk, lisle, and cotton hose.” Another store urged everybody to come in: “We want you to feel perfectly at home and free to inspect the goods and ask for information, regardless of whether you wish to buy or not.”

“Before department stores,” Kidwell points out, “if you wanted to see luxury goods, you had to be deemed a suitable client at a small specialty store.” The department stores went out of their way to suit everyone. Wanamaker’s held white sales; R. H. Macy & Co. gave away fans with its picture on them; and Jordan Marsh & Co. sent out free catalogs for mail-order service.

To report the changing styles, fashion communication itself became an industry, with fashion magazines for every audience.

By 1872 small-town residents and farmers could also see all manner of goods simply by looking in a catalog. Aaron Montgomery Ward’s first “catalog” was a one-page price list. But by 1875 it had grown to 152 pages listing 3,899 items including: #1399—striped velvet vests for $2.50 each; #1406 —Black Union Cassimere suit for $12.00; and #1456—2 pairs of Blue Denim Overalls for $1.25. Sears, Roebuck and Co., proudly calling itself the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth,” had a 1,120-page catalog in 1898. Mail-order catalogs were the first outlets for women’s ready-to-wear clothing, and by the early twentieth century some ten million Americans shopped by mail.


By 1920 almost any American was able to acquire any article of apparel he or she was able to afford. The nation’s garment industry had successfully achieved mass production of clothing at low-to-moderate prices. Now that the national closet could easily be filled, the question became, What would Americans choose to hang there?

Whatever they chose, it would soon go out of style. In the past, styles had changed slowly. Now, with almost unlimited capacity for production, there had to be a reason for buying new clothes, even if the closet was full. Fashions began to change with every season.

To report the rapidly changing styles, fashion communication itself became an industry. In the twenties Paris fashions were reported by newspapers all over the country. Papers ran fashion ads and featured fashion columns. There were fashion magazines for every audience. Vogue wanted to help the women of “more than average wealth and refinement with their clothes and social. life.” Magazines like Woman’s Home Companion were content to offer advice to the millions of women with average wealth—the housewives of America. Glamour of Hollywood, later simply Glamour, was subtitled “For the Girl with a Job.” And the males of America had Esquire, which, when begun in 1933, set as its goal “the establishment of elegance.”


Before long the fashions these magazines were reporting came not from Paris but from Hollywood. When Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night (1934) and revealed a bare chest, undershirt sales in America plummeted. And when Joan Crawford wore an Adrian-designed dress with multiruffled, puffed sleeves in Letty Lynton (1932), the story of a “girl who loved too often and too well,” American women everywhere bought dresses with multiruffled, puffed sleeves. Who needed Paris when for $18.74 Macy’s had a copy of the very gown Rita Hayworth wore to marry Aly Khan.

In the 1930s not only Hollywood but the rest of California, with its mild climate and casual way of life, began to influence what other Americans wore. California companies made an American contribution to international clothing history—sportswear. Even the French were impressed.

Levi Strauss, one of California’s first clothing manufacturers, had gotten together with a tailor, Jacob Davis, in 1873 to give the world blue jeans. But not until the 1930s, when Western movies became popular and Easterners began visiting dude ranches in the West, did America decide that jeans were romantic. Soon young Americans made these guaranteed-to-shrink-and-fade blue denim pants the ultimate sartorial symbol of social equality.

Teen-agers all across the country began to wear blue jeans. In Los Angeles, in the 1940s, high schoolers walked around with one hand permanently protecting the right buttock. The little red Levi’s tab, the first external manufacturer’s brand, was a lure to razor-wielding classmates who collected them. In the mid-fifties, James Dean, in the movie Rebel without a Cause, and Marlon Brando, in The Wild Ones, turned T-shirts and blue jeans into the emblems of youthful rebellion. In the sixties and seventies T-shirts and blue jeans became the universal uniform of social protest. “Blue jeans were adopted by the ‘enemy'—adults,” says the Smithsonian Institution’s twentieth-century clothing specialist, Barbara Dickstein. Today Levi’s—the all-American pants—are sold in at least seventy countries, including the U.S.S.R.

“Contemporary clothing blurs generational and social distinctions,” Dickstein comments. The avant-garde designer Rudi Gernreich once explained it this way: “Clothes are just not that important. They’re not status symbols any longer. They’re for fun.” Ultimately, the late designer decided that fashion for both sexes was “a kind of flaunting of one’s personality.”


Three hundred years earlier, in 1676, Hannah Lyman had “fflonted” her personality with a silk hood and become one of the first Americans to fight for equality in dress. By the mid-nineteenth century the democratization if clothing that we enjoy tolay was well under way. In Philadelphia the Great Cen:ral Clothing Depot was flourishing at Seventh and Market streets selling such “Fashionable Ready-made Clothing” as cloaks, dress and frock coats, and trousers.

Fittingly, in this very building, in 1776, one of America’s earliest wearers of trousers, Thomas Jefferson, had created the pattern for a new nation’s democracy—the Declaration of Independence.


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