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We Were What We Wore
Fashion once expressed America’s class distinctions. But it doesn’t any more.
December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
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.”