History of American Fashion
Summary & Analysis
Class and Clothing
Fashion has been intertwined with money, status, and power throughout the history of human civilization. As authors Elaine Benson and John Esten have written, "from Egypt to Greece to Rome, one rule cut across cultures: the higher you stood on the social scale, the more you wore."126 The displays of wealth and luxury inherent in a person's external appearance have long been used as social markers to differentiate between ranks or classes, and America has certainly been no exception. In the words of noted colonial historian John Demos, "what a man wore reflected his worth in the eyes of his neighbors."127
Yet for as long as elites have used fashion trends to mark their status, people from lower ranks of society have coveted and co-opted the same trends for their own purposes. Elites have never had an easy time of it when trying to use clothes to differentiate themselves conclusively from those they regarded as their social inferiors. In colonial Virginia, in 1621, authorities forbade "any but the council and the heads of hundreds [prominent planters who owned large land tracts] to wear gold in their cloaths or to wear silk till they make it themselves."128 The ruling was inspired in part to stimulate domestic silk manufacture, but the gold edict appears to have been imposed for no reason other than to visibly distinguish the elite from the masses. The Massachusetts Bay Colony also legislated which garments were permissible for its inhabitants to wear, based on their social rank. Elite women in seventeenth-century Massachusetts wore gloves and often had French heels (a shoe with a curved, medium-height heel), with silver buckles. Wealthy men, such as the most prosperous merchants of Salem, strutted about town with silver-headed canes, coats trimmed with lace or velvet, multiple gloves—some embroidered, others with black fringe—and silk stockings.129 Meanwhile, commoners wore simple and coarse garb; women often dressed in woolen or linen clothes, while servants and laborers wore cheap outfits of deerskin.
In the early eighteenth century, gentlemen (men of social and financial prominence) always wore full suits with waistcoats (or vests, which replaced the tight red leather doublet in popularity around 1700), and were not supposed to appear in their shirtsleeves alone in public. If they were military officers, their elite status could be identified by the opulent gold thread sewn around their oversized buttonholes, the width of their lapels, the length of their coats and waistcoats, and their wide linen ruffles at the wrists.130 Otherwise, prominent gentlemen wore stocks—the neck bindings that preceded modern neckties. These were often made of fine white linen, pleated into tabs that fastened with a removable buckle at the back of the neck. Along with shirt ruffles, stocks were a clear indicator of status, because they required considerable upkeep from servants who had to wash, starch, and press the long pieces of fabric. They marked their wearers as superior and distinct from the laboring classes.131 On special occasions, upper-class women wore panniers (from the French word for "baskets"), wicker or whalebone skirt skeletons over which expensive dress material could be draped. These supporting structures created wide skirts that were flat in the front and back, and sometimes (depending on the formality of the occasion) extended out several feet to both sides, thus necessitating some careful planning in order for women to maneuver through doorways. By the mid-1700s, men of the affluent gentry class commonly gave their new brides hoop skirts as wedding gifts. As for the garment itself, well-to-do women wore fabrics that signified continental sophistication and glamour, such as expensive imported silk and French lace.
These styles did not simply signify class status; from the 1740s through the 1780s, a woman's marital status could be deduced by the style of dress that she wore. Married women typically wore "sacks" during this time period; these gowns were worn open in the front to show the matching petticoat beneath, and were popular among French, English, and American gentry.132 For all the propriety of the colonial age, Americans took their stylistic cues from Europe, and the French trend-setters were not shy about displaying the female bosom. Dresses were thus usually quite low-cut so as to showcase cleavage.
After Americans gained their independence, styles became more tempered to reflect the widespread distrust of opulence and foppery that Americans associated with corrupt English aristocrats. Men's suits were still adorned with large and elaborate buttons, but exhibited less intricate embroidery. Women's dresses were often made of white cotton with simple drawstring necks and increasingly high waistlines, usually with a wide sash of light blue or pink. Fashionable women's dresses for church, weddings, dances, or election celebrations might be made of a very thin silk known as "lustring" or imported silk satin or cotton chintz. Following the English style, American women usually wore hooded wool cloaks, known as cardinals for their scarlet-red color, or furs. In 1799, Abigail Adams commented in a letter from Philadelphia on the red cloth cloaks trimmed with white furs that were "all the mode."133 Nonetheless, this was perhaps one of the few periods in history where at least some of the wealthy and powerful embraced a more common appearance as a symbolic statement of patriotic pride. When Benjamin Franklin appeared at the court of French King Louis XVI in 1778, he did not wear a wig (the one he ordered did not fit him, and he did not normally wear one), and donned a plain suit of dark velvet, without the customary sword. The artist Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, who was present for Franklin's entrance, wrote that "I should have mistaken him for a big farmer, so great was his contrast with the other diplomats, who were all powdered, in full dress, and splashed all over with gold and ribbons." Ten years after Franklin, Thomas Jefferson also presented himself to Louis XVI, and was described by one onlooker as "the plainest man in the room, and the most destitute of ribbands crosses [military decorations hung from ribbons] and other insignia of rank." On the other hand, Jefferson did a great deal of shopping during his stay in Paris; his slave Isaac reported that Jefferson purchased "a great many clothes," including a blue cloth coat trimmed with gold lace that, in Isaac's estimation, "weighed fifty pounds."134
As time went on and styles changed, even the common working clothing of the masses came to reflect new fads initiated by elites. Simple cotton short gowns began exhibiting high waists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in accordance with the Empire Style initially popularized by Napoleon's wife. Women's skirts again served as signs of the times when stiffened petticoats came into vogue in the 1840s, as the bottom half of the female figure was increasingly enlarged in order to make the waistline appear ever smaller. Petticoats (the skirts worn underneath women's dresses) were layered atop one another in huge numbers, creating ever larger dome-shaped bottom halves for nineteenth-century "ladies." This uncomfortable style quickly led to technological innovation: the steel hoopskirt (or artificial crinoline) was patented in 1856 as a skeletal framework of steel springs attached to tapes. Women had begun to wear so many pounds of fabric on their lower bodies that they needed a steel support structure underneath to hold it all up! Benson and Esten have explained that the great width of the hoopskirt "gave a woman an impression of unapproachability, but it was also seductive, with a graceful, swaying motion when she walked, giving tantalizing glimpses of ankles." Yet it was also an impractical and oft-ridiculed trend: "when the wearer was seated, it rose in front, and when she leaned forward, it rose in back, and in a high wind it invited indecent exposure."135 Such fashion trends, for all their impracticalities, were not always confined to middle- and upper-class white women. During the antebellum period, some young slave girls made their own crinoline hoops from grape vines to spruce up their Sunday dresses.136
Dress bottoms changed again after the Civil War, when crinoline fell out of fashion, skirt fronts became flat, and the newly invented bustle—characterized by extremely tight lacing at the back of the skirt—was employed to create fullness in the back. That lasted until the 1880s, when only corsets and petticoats remained. For the laboring women of that period, corsets were too restricting to permit them to do their jobs. Thus while most people might follow fashion trends and emulate them, they also had to dress pragmatically in order to satisfy their job requirements and stay within their limited budgets. Ironically, trends reversed somewhat in the twentieth century, when corseted ladies began to crave more mobility for sports, dancing, and other activities, and middle-class teenagers started to adopt the blue jeans and white T-shirts that were previously the garb of the working class man.
More Pragmatism, Less Fashion
For most Americans throughout history, fashion trends were perhaps a subject of interest, but they were ultimately subordinate to the demands and vicissitudes of daily existence. Many middling families of the post-independence period sought to carve out a living in the newly settled lands of the trans-Appalachian West, where the hardships of daily life required more forgiving and durable clothing styles, most of which had to be made by hand in the absence of stores, tailors, or textile importers. A petticoat and gown with an apron or neckerchief would usually suffice for a woman's work on the farm or at home. In town and in the country, women wore full skirts long enough to conceal the rags or towels that they had to wear underneath during menstruation.137 In contrast to form-fitting garments, these same full skirts also required little if any alteration when a woman became pregnant.
Middling families of populous towns usually reserved their finest clothes for Sunday church services. For men, these included broadcloth coats, and women would wear printed cotton gowns with muslin kerchiefs filling in the necklines. Otherwise woolen cloth or home-manufactured linen, dyed with indigo or butternut bark, served as everyday wear. Men wore rough linen clothing in the summer and homespun wool in the winter. Rather than fashionable waistcoats, which were nothing but a hindrance to farm labor, hard-toiling men wore frocks—garments resembling oversized shirts, made of linen or wool. To wish friends and relatives well when they migrated to other states, the women of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century communities would organize sewing-bees to benefit the emigrants. They would sew enough clothing to last a year or two by cutting the material and preparing it.138 On the frontier and in rural parts of the United States, friends, relatives, and neighbors thus assumed the role of clothing manufacturer, and their work was geared towards functional wear that enabled its owners to labor throughout the day and stay warm in winter. The fact that a rare dash of style may have been reserved for Sundays indicates the importance of religion (and the Christian Sabbath) in early American life.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, fewer than one in five American women worked for wages. Among this female working class, 85% toiled in one of three industries: agriculture, domestic service, and manufacturing. These women could not be burdened by constricting corsets; to do their jobs, they needed to be able to move about freely. There is evidence that many of these women nonetheless coveted the contemporary fashions of their day; one nineteenth-century report described newly arrived Irish immigrants' desire for hoop skirts upon their arrival in America.139 But working-class women could not afford expensive clothing. In 1926, a "successful" businesswoman was estimated to have an annual clothing budget of $500; by contrast, the wife of an industrial worker in New York was expected to spend between $52.60 and $63.08 a year on clothes. Factory workers who made $6 a week could barely afford a 29-cent brassiere from Sears, Roebuck or Montgomery Ward.140 By the mid-1930s, brassieres—or "bras," as they were now called by the younger generation of women—were made more affordable in order to appeal to working women on tight budgets.
But the Second World War changed everything. Millions of women entered the workforce—in the defense industry, in private-sector offices, or in the U.S. armed forces themselves. One quarter of all American women held jobs when the war began, and by war's end that portion had risen to 36%.141 In the booming wartime economy women earned more money than they ever had before. Half a million women alone joined the armed forces, serving as WACs (Women's Army Corps), WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), and WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). For the first time in American history, women received uniforms directly issued by the U.S. Quartermaster General. Even their undergarments varied in color according to branch of service: tan for the Army, grey for the Air Corps, white for the Navy and for nurses, and nude for civilians. Local department stores issued clothing to these women, in sets that often included bras, panties, slips, pajamas, socks, stockings, and gloves. Many of these women still emulated the styles of the fashion magazines or the Hollywood movie stars like Rita Hayworth and Veronica Lake. But for a short time, those who donned "Rosie the Riveter" worksuits or military uniforms could earn a decent wage while taking pride in their patriotic service.
Whether in wartime or at peace on the frontier, the demands of daily life and the restraints of a budgeted income have influenced the average American's choice of clothing and her means of obtaining it. Fashion styles have come and gone, and individuals' wardrobes have often served as a signifier their class status, but at the same time non-elites have always managed to co-opt popular trends and make them their own.