- 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
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.”