- 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
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.”