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