History of American Fashion
History of American Fashion
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Society in History of American Fashion

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of Society

Native American Garb

Whites and Indians encountered one another in the first decades after European settlement from seemingly opposite ends of the cultural, social, and religious spectrum. Aside from differences in beliefs, customs, social structures, and languages, the two societies simply looked very distinctive from one another. In the New England region, the Abenaki Indians who the Puritans encountered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would have been wearing clothing of moose hide or tanned deerskin, sometimes decorated with embroidery from moose hair or dyed porcupine quills. When the Puritans arrived, the Abenaki had already commenced a bartering relationship with French, Dutch, and English traders. The Indians would offer their expertise in food cultivation, survival skills, and geography in exchange for new accoutrements such as European glass beads, blue woolens, or red cloth.

Abenaki men typically wore breechcloths held in place by a leather belt. When the cold New England climate required it, this basic outfit was often accompanied by thigh-high leggings suspended from the belt.184 Abenaki women wore knee-length skirts of deerskin or trade cloth—this skirt height was not deemed acceptable among "respectable" white ladies until the 1930s—along with leggings and sometimes a breech cloth under the skirt. Like the men, they too wore moose hide or deerskin shirts, which were sometimes embellished on the edges with beautifully intricate embroidery. During the cold winter months, in addition to leggings, the Abenaki could wear their fur robes, moccasins, hats, and other headdresses and hair decorations. The Abenaki adopted (and adapted) some forms of the settlers' dress, and the settlers reciprocated; whites in New England donned fur coats to stay warm in winter, and those in the backcountry soon wore leather leggings and moccasins. These white settlers also employed deerskin in some of their ostensibly European outfits.

Little Adults

Colonial Americans were influenced both by the Indians in their midst and by the European society they left behind. Part of that Old World tradition involved a conceptualization of children as miniature versions of adults, rather than thinking of childhood as a separate stage of life. Thus, until new concepts of childhood and education developed in the mid-eighteenth century, white children were dressed in the same constricting clothing as their elders. This included the use of stays stiffened with whalebones in the piping (the predecessor of corsets) for children of both sexes in middling and upper-class families; sometimes, babies less than one year old were confined in these stays. Parents believed that stays encouraged correct posture and would shape their children's bodies into becoming adult figures.185 Boys could stop wearing the stays when they began wearing breeches, or trousers (made of rough linen or fustian) between the ages of four and eight; until then, babies of both sexes wore dresses or petticoats.186 In eighteenth century portraits, it is often difficult for modern viewers to distinguish between children's genders, because the boys appear to be wearing the same dresses as the girls. In fact, there were subtle but important distinctions: boys wore button-decorated cuffs that curved over the elbows, like men's coats, with a complete front opening to the hem, and a full skirt. Linda Baumgarten, the curator of textiles and costumes at Colonial Williamsburg, has argued that these skirts "symbolized children's dependence, in the same way that adult women, all of whom wore skirts, were dependent on their husbands or fathers. People who wore pants (men) were the dominant members of the family and society"—thus the expression, "who wears the pants in this family?"187 On special occasions, boys wore dress coats and suits which were styled after the clothes of their fathers, although boys wore ruffled shirt collars instead of the stiffer stocks (neck bindings that preceded modern neckties) that men wore. Children's clothing was literally made out of adult garments that had been altered to shrink their proportions.

In the second half of the 1700s, a philosophical movement prompted in part by the writings of John Locke and Jean Jacques Rosseau advocated for the conception of childhood as a separate stage of life, and children as people with special needs apart from adults. The once rigidly formal lifestyles of middling- and upper-class families began to assume a more casual demeanor, one that encompassed more open demonstrations of affection towards children. By the late eighteenth century, items such as corsets for girls and button-up shirts for boys had become rights of passage into adulthood. Children were increasingly dressed in more loose and comfortable garb; this usually consisted of trousers and open-necked shirts for boys (modeled on the trousers that sailors and laborers wore) and sashed dresses for girls. On Sundays, girls would wear bonnets and dresses of printed cotton fabrics or white muslin with drawstrings at the waist, mid-chest, and neckline. Most children's clothing was made of washable materials, thereby acknowledging children's increased freedom to play outside. This seemingly obvious provision for children's clothing—an acknowledgement of their proclivity for playing and getting a bit dirty in the process—was thus more of a modern development than a time-honored fact. Changes in fashion history often reflect such social and cultural developments, and they reveal the standards and values that successive generations then take for granted. The same would prove true of perhaps the most ubiquitously accepted clothing essential today: our underwear.

Underwear: The Unmentionables

For all of their celebrated propriety, the ladies of early America did not wear underwear as we now know it under their chemises (a.k.a. shifts, or loosely fitting dresses) until the mid-1830s. Until then, women first put on a shift—a long linen piece with short sleeves resembling a very simple nightshirt—because this simple item prevented subsequent layers from chafing the skin. In the late eighteenth century it was made from plain woven linen and sewn with flat seams for comfort, sometimes with initials or numbers cross-stitched on the center front neckline so that families could tell them apart in the wash. In the 1790s, shifts had low neckline—about level with the armpits—to accommodate the cleavage-friendly fashions of the period. Shifts were used throughout the nineteenth century, when they became known as chemises. Then came a corset—known in the eighteenth century by the English term, "stays"—a rigid, boned bodice that laced together and shaped a woman's upper body like an inverted cone. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, pockets were not sewn into women's gowns, because the weight of items stored in the pockets would have ruined the lines of the full skirts. Instead, women wore their pockets separately, underneath their skirts, in bags that were tied around the waist (sort of like a holster, but worn beneath the outerwear). Pockets were pear-shaped, with a slit down the upper front portion (petticoats had slits so that you could reach directly into these pockets). If a woman wore stockings, they were held up with knitted, braided, or ribbon garters tied around the leg. Women also slept in their shifts; they might have one for nighttime and one for daytime wear, but only wealthy women owned more than two shifts. There was no concept of nighttime-specific wear (that is, clothing made expressly for sleeping in—i.e., pajamas) until the nineteenth century.

By the 1830s, pantaloons or "drawers" (so called because you would put them on by drawing up one leg, then the other) became the standard for women's underwear. They usually included an opening in the crotch area for easy bathroom access. This development did not come without controversy, for anything resembling pants was deemed masculine and therefore unfitting for a lady. But public health proponents argued that drawers—always hidden beneath skirts or dresses—went unseen by the general public and therefore did little damage, and that they offered useful protection from the elements. That the propriety of drawers was discussed at all is somewhat surprising, for in the prim and proper Victorian age, underclothes were deemed "unmentionables"; that is, they were considered inappropriate subject matter for polite conversation. Nonetheless, for most Americans, undergarments remained a seldom discussed but increasingly de rigueur fact of life for the rest of the nineteenth century and beyond.

Men, too, "went commando" until the early nineteenth century, although some wore linen drawers that buttoned at the front waist and featured an open placket beneath (much like today's boxer shorts). Thomas Jefferson was an early proponent of underwear; he wore linen and woolen undergarments throughout his life for extra warmth, because he was very susceptible to cold.188 By the 1830s, men began wearing underdrawers made of flannel. In the late nineteenth century, a more elaborate three-piece sleep-suit of wool was developed, complete with a cap, crewneck sweater, and long drawers with feet. The famous nineteenth-century boxer John L. Sullivan wore wool drawers as his boxing outfit, perhaps because he came from the cold climate of Boston—hence the American term "long johns."189 Montgomery Ward sold them for ten cents each in its 1895 catalog; red was the most popular color.

As for the "boxers or briefs" dilemma... neither option existed until the twentieth century, when the development of synthetic textile materials and elastic made such clothing possible. Unlike their predecessors, boxers and briefs could double as nightwear and as underclothes during the day. Of course, American designer Calvin Klein elevated the white cotton boxer shorts to a form of fashion iconography with his risqué—and very public—1980s and 1990s advertising campaigns, featuring men posing provocatively in nothing but boxers. Like the T-shirt, men's underwear once carried particular connotations of class and even sexual orientation; recently however, those distinctions have faded. As authors Elaine Benson and John Esten have written, "the cliché that preppies choose boxer shorts, working class men wear Jockey shorts, and briefs are preferred by gays....clearly no longer hold[s]."190

Blue Jean Babies

Aside from underwear and T-shirts, one article of clothing historically tied to working-class men has become the most iconic and perhaps ubiquitous fashion statement in United States history: the denim blue jean. Levi Strauss was a Bavarian immigrant who went into business as a dry goods wholesaler on San Francisco's Market Street during the California Gold Rush.191 In 1853, Strauss made trousers for miners from heavy brown cloth. His firm later switched materials and created the first denim blue jeans in 1873, catering to workingmen who needed tough garments that could withstand hard manual labor. (The company's slogan in 1900 was "For Men Who Toil.") All Levi's 501 jeans, among other brands, feature copper rivets on pocket corners. Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor, devised this innovation around 1872, when one of his customers complained that her husband was wearing through his pants too quickly. Davis secured the husband's pockets with copper rivets, and other tailors emulated his design. Davis could not afford the paperwork to patent his idea, and the demand for riveted pockets was already outpacing his capabilities. So Davis joined up with his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss, and the two jointly applied for a patent. Davis soon moved to San Francisco to oversee manufacturing of the pants, which they called Copper Riveted Waist Overalls; if the rivets ever gave out, customers were guaranteed a new pair, free of charge. Today, company spokesmen claim that the denim overalls "were so popular that miners and prospectors would say, 'Have you heard about these pants coming from Levi's?'...Over time, the name just stuck."192 By 1890, Levi Strauss & Co. products were being assigned lot-numbers, and the number 501 was given to copper-riveted overalls. The famous double row of stitching on the back pocket of Levi's jeans (back pockets were added in 1902) is still the oldest apparel trademark in use today.193 It is actually illegal for competing denim manufacturers to place a cloth label on the back left pocket, because that is also a Levi's trademark.194 Levi Strauss & Co. has become the world's largest pants manufacturer.

In the 1930s, a spate of Hollywood Westerns sparked a renewed interest in cowboy lifestyle and culture, which included blue jeans. Easterners journeyed to western dude ranches and brought back denims with them as nostalgic souvenirs of the rugged life out on the range. Jeans also became a bit more domesticated; responding to customer complaints, Levi Strauss restitched the back pockets of its jeans in 1937 so that the rivets were covered and would not scratch furniture or saddles. Suspender buttons were also removed that year, though all jeans still came with a snap-on set.195 During World War II, the Levi's crotch rivet (like the rivets on the back pockets, but situated at the base of the zipper fly, where four seams came together) and back cinch (a buckle in the back so that you could tighten the jeans to fit) were removed to cut down on use of precious raw materials. Residents of foreign countries saw the jeans that GIs often wore when they were off duty, and these iconic symbols of American culture captivated the residents of war-torn Europe. Then in 1947 the jeans brand Wrangler introduced the first 'body fit' jeans, a slimmer and more body-hugging cut that indicated some of the denim sex appeal that was to come. Levi's began to sell its denims outside of the West for the first time after the war, and suddenly had to compete with new brands like Wrangler and Lee. This was the period of Levi's most rapid growth, as the company stopped wholesaling and began selling merchandise under its own brand-name label.

Blue jeans became a craze among young people at the University of California, Berkeley, just across San Francisco Bay from Levis Strauss headquarters, in the mid-1960s. "It spread from one class to the university generally, and from that to other universities, from the universities to the high schools," remembered Daniel Koshland, who succeeded Walter Haas as Levi Strauss's company president in the mid-1950s. Jeans soon became ubiquitous: they appeared in photos of the Woodstock music festival in 1969, at the iconic protests of that decade and again throughout the 1970s, and students were still wearing them when they celebrated the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Of course, as authors Robert Lenzner and Stephen S. Johnson argue, "What started as a badge of nonconformity has become the accepted way to conform to certain norms." By the 1950s and 1960s, the authors note, stars like "Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Desi and Lucy [of "I Love Lucy" fame] wore them, too. Pop star Elton John sang about a 'blue jean baby.'"196 These celebrities doubtless provided at least partial inspiration for the Cal students' new fad. Yet it is difficult to say just where nonconformity stopped and conformity began.

Just a few years before they the denim trend hit Berkeley, Marlon Brando wore jeans—and a white T-shirt, soon to become another iconic style—in his 1953 film The Wild One. Brando starred as Johnny the biker, who led the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club against their gang rival, The Beetles, jointly terrorizing the small town of Wrightsville. The Wild One was banned in Great Britain for a decade, officially for its violence, but perhaps also because it also conveyed powerful messages about nonconformity in postwar consumer society. James Dean wore the same outfit in the 1955 classic of teenage angst, Rebel Without A Cause, for which he had prepared by hanging out with kids in Los Angeles, who he said "wear leather jackets and go driving about looking to for somebody to beat up.197" In 1964 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. acquired a pair of Levi's as part of its permanent collection.198

Designers in Milan, the fashion capital of Italy, devised the seemingly paradoxical concept of designer jeans in the 1970s. Suddenly, by sewing a designer label onto the back of a historically populist clothing item, a new social hierarchy could be created and companies could enjoy a whole new mass market for their brand. Italian companies were soon followed by high-fashion American brands like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and others. Designer labels made up 15% of the total U.S. market for blue jeans in 1996; by that point, the women's denim industry alone was worth over $2.4 billion a year.199

This designer trend was highlighted in a famous television and magazine advertisement featuring a sixteen-year-old Brooke Shields in 1981, provocatively telling the camera: "You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing." The ad sold jeans using highly sexualized imagery of an underage girl, and New York City's WCBS-TV and WABC-TV banned the commercial in response to listener complaints. The infamous Brooke Shields commercial was actually just one of a series featuring the young star, which began when Klein contracted famous photographer Richard Avedon in 1979 to shoot Shields in the ads. This ad campaign was thus launched by a major American designer with the aid of respected practitioners like Avedon and starring one of the country's major young celebrities; it was not a fringe operation but rather a product of the mainstream. The Calvin Klein jeans promotion embodied—and helped legitimize—a new concept of "shockvertising" that intentionally stirred controversy, providing additional, unpaid publicity for the product. After the Shields advertisements aired, Calvin Klein reported a 300% increase in sales revenues over a ninety-day period.200 As Klein himself remarked, "Wasn't the controversy a blessing in disguise? You mean, did we sell more jeans? Yes, of course!"201

Skinny Jeans, Skinny Women

Women's jeans also became increasingly tight-fitting during this period, thus emphasizing the social pressure on women to be thin. This pressure has been reflected in the growing national epidemic of eating disorders, and is perhaps most dramatically embodied by the models of the fashion industry who are pressured to set the standard for cultural notions of feminine beauty. By the early 1990s, models like Cleo Glyde were starving themselves on draconian diet schemes in order to fit into their skintight couture dresses. Glyde—who was a typically model-tall height of six feet, two inches, and years later discovered that her natural size was a twelve—ate only green grapes before her scheduled catwalk appearance in the 1992 Bill Blass show. She ate three grapes for breakfast, two for snacks, and six for binges, and wound up collapsing in New York's Chelsea Hotel eight days before the fashion show. From 1997 to 2007, the average runway sample dropped from a size six to a size two, and models were expected to "shrink to fit," as one Vogue writer put it.202 Designers, convinced along with the rest of the fashion industry that "Clothes look better on a thin person," began to cast increasingly young models in runway shows, reasoning that pre-pubescent girls as young as thirteen can be tall but still naturally thin. Once they hit puberty and their bodies start changing, such girls are "going to start hearing [that they are] too big," in the words of one casting director for designer Derek Lam.203 In August 2006, the 22-year-old Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos was backstage between costume changes at a fashion show when she died of anorexia-related heart failure. Three months later, Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston also died; allegedly, she was living on a diet of apples and tomatoes, and weighed 88 pounds when she entered the hospital.204 Of course, many models were simply born with thin frames and robust metabolisms; but they remain the trendsetters for a popular culture that ordinary women follow closely and often seek to emulate. The trend continues today; in the spring of 2007, a new jeans size was invented for the super-thin: 00.205

An overwhelming cultural pressure toward thinness thus applies to every facet of the fashion industry, including denims once deemed the exclusive province of men toiling in the California gold fields. Although pragmatism principally governed the origins of denim and the fashions that Native Americans and white settlers wore throughout the colonial and post-independence periods, there were also clear indications of popular trends, accessorizing, and experimentation during this early period. Indians adopted and reconfigured elements of the white settlers' dress, and settlers incorporated elements of Indian clothing into their wardrobes. Whites embellished their clothing with elaborate embroidery, even down to the pockets, and Indians prized the European glass beads in their trades with the whites. The children's clothing industry—a concept that first emerged with the shift in popular understandings of childhood in the mid-1700s—is now worth over $20 billion.206 It features couture lines from designers like Bottega Veneta, Donna Karan, Tod's, and Dolce & Gabbana.207 And the market for women's undergarments alone is now valued at some $13 billion. Thus as certain styles have proliferated among Americans, and as the capitalist marketplace expanded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the whims of popular culture became the lucrative basis for a host of industries, employing thousands of people ranging from clothing designers to public relations firms to marketers to chain stores to supermodels and their agents. These industries sought to shape and even create subsequent trends, in order to gain more profits and control the marketplace. In the process, they have also showcased the sexuality of increasingly younger spokesmen and women, and prized thinness as the modern cultural standard of feminine beauty. Just as blue jeans once represented a working-class lifestyle, then became vogue among college students and high schoolers in the 1950s, the ever-changing nature of popular fashion dictates that what is deemed rebellious today might well become the industry standard of tomorrow.

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