- 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
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 Adriandesigned 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 ‘hiladelphia 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.