History of American Fashion
Early Wardrobe Stored in Chests
Closets do not exist in the seventeenth century, so American colonists store their wardrobes in chests of all sizes that are kept in the parlor of the house.11
Clothing Ordered for Massachussetts Colony
The Massachusetts Bay Colony arranges for the delivery of extra clothing to be sent over on Governor Endecott's voyage from Europe, so that North American colonists can purchase more. The clothing order includes 300 suits, 400 shirts, and 400 pairs of shoes. Of the suits, 200 are made from doublet (a close-fitting men's jacket) and hose (close-fitting breeches or leggings that reach up to the hips and fasten to a doublet), "made up of leather, lined with oiled skin leather, and fastened with hooks and eyes." The rest of the suits are made of Hampshire kerseys, in which the doublets are lined with linen and the hose with skins. The order also includes 100 Monmouth caps (the Monmouth is a soldier's cap about six inches wide, the best of which were made at Monmouth, England) at two shillings apiece, 500 red knit caps at five pence each, and 100 black hats that are lined in the brows (the ridges) with leather.12
Clothing Scarce in American Colonies
Reverend Francis Higginson of Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony, advises newcomers to America to pack carefully, "For when you are once parted with England you shall meete [sic] neither markets nor fayres [sic] to buy what you want." Among the items he suggests colonists take to America are a complete suit of armor with sword, and the clothing required for a man: "a Monmouth cap, a suit of canvas, a suit of freize [sic], a suit of cloth, four pairs of shoes, three shirts and three falling bands [white collars consisting of two strips of material that extend down from the neckline, a replacement for the puffy Elizabethan ruff]."13
Clothing Used in Sentencing
Plymouth Colony defines the punishment for adultery as two severe whippings. The guilty party also has to wear the letters AD "cut out in cloth and sowed [sic] on their uppermost garment on their arm or back." If at any time the convicted party is found without the mark within the jurisdiction of the Colony, he or she will be publicly whipped.14
Puritan Authorities Ban Wig Fad
The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony condemns the newest fad among men-wearing wigs.15
High-waisted Empire Style Dresses
High-waisted dresses in the "Empire style" of Josephine Bonaparte, French Emperor Napoleon's wife, become vogue in the United States. They remain in style throughout the nineteenth century.
Women Communicate Clothing Information
Throughout the 1790s, women relay cutting and styling information for clothing through fashion plates, miniature garments made for dressmaker's dolls, descriptive letters, and copies of other items of clothing.16
Godey's Lady's Book Praises French Fashion
The women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book launches in the U.S. and becomes a very popular periodical. It includes dress illustrations in each issue and defers to France as the center of fashion trends.
Mormons Denounce Fornication Pants
During the 1830s, men's pants are first tailored with buttons visible down the front of the fly. Mormon leader Brigham Young discourages people from wearing them, calling them "fornication pants."17
Charles Goodyear Discovers Rubber Vulcanization
While searching for a way to keep rubber from melting in hot weather, Charles Goodyear develops the vulcanization process. Vulcanization allows latex fibers to stretch and then contract; the new technique paves the way for not only tires but also prophylactic condoms, elastic fabrics, and more comfortable corsets.18
Petticoats Alarm Social Critics
A new petticoat style becomes vogue in the 1840s; women's skirts take on a bell shape with the addition of several heavy layers of petticoats extending from a tightly corseted waist. The new style sparks considerable controversy, as the extra skirt layers imply a degree of decadence and materialism that alarms many social critics who think that women should assume a simpler, more pious way of life.
Synthetic Polymers Developed
Synthetic polymers are developed as an alternative to cotton, linen, wool, and silk fibers. They will ultimately supplant all natural textile bases as a source for manufacturing underwear.19
First Department Stores
The era of the department store begins with the opening of Le Bon Marché in Paris. American versions soon follow in the 1860s, emerging out of the dry goods stores that sold fabric throughout the antebellum era. A. T. Stewart in New York and Jordan Marsh and Company in Boston are among the first department stores to open in the United States.
Bloomers Linked with Women’s Rights
The Bloomer (or "American") Costume first appears in Amelia Bloomer's newspaper, The Lily. Bloomers are ankle-length trousers—the large Turkish style or straight-legged "pantaloons"—worn with a midcalf-length dress. Few women actually adopt the costume, but it generates a disproportionate amount of public outrage and ridicule. Critics link the concept of female trousers to the women's rights movement, which they fear and despise. People write songs and poems mocking the bloomer style, and cartoonists suggest that women donning the American Costume will also commence smoking cigars and assuming a generally masculine demeanor.
Hoop Skirt Developed
In the mid-1850s, the fashion industry devises the cage crinoline or hoop skirt as a more lightweight alternative to the heavy layers of petticoats that women have been wearing in order to achieve the stylish bell-shaped-skirt. Cage crinoline employs a retractable metal frame that women can wear beneath their skirts, and its added mobility enables its widespread use by a larger cross-section of women, including those who labor in agriculture and factories.
First Synthetic Dye Invented
The first synthetic dye is invented.
Early Bra Invented
Luman Chapman, of Camden, New Jersey, patents a corset substitute: the "breast supporter." Designed with "breast puffs" and elastic shoulder straps to reduce friction against the breasts, Camden's invention—an early forerunner of the bra—provides a more comfortable and healthy alternative to the constricting Victorian corset.20
Harper's Bazar Highlights Parisian Fashion
The weekly fashion periodical Harper's Bazar (it will add the second "a," as in "Bazaar," in November 1929) prints its first issue, in which it assures readers that it will provide them with "the genuine Paris fashions simultaneously with Parisians themselves."21
Abba Gould Woolson Promotes Ready-to-Wear Clothing
Reformer Abba Gould Woolson presses for ready-to-wear fashions in place of custom-made clothing, which consumes women's time and labor in order to cut and sew.
First Paper Patterns Availiable
Full-size paper patterns for sewing clothing are made available for the first time.22
Olivia Flynt Patents Bust Supporter
Prominent Boston dressmaker Olivia Flynt patents and advertises a corsetless breast supporter in 1876, designed particularly for ladies with large busts. Flynt claims that her innovation enables "beauty of form to be preserved without lacing or otherwise injuriously pressing or binding the body."23 Flynt's is the first bust supporter known to be produced in the United States. She sells the breast supporters from her Boston workshop and offers custom-fitted pieces by mail order in 1881. Prices range from $2.50 to $7.18, which is fairly expensive in an age when the average skilled worker earns $10 to $20 a week.
Hourglass Silhouette in Fashion
Elongated female bodies come into fashion during the 1880s, and previous inventions like Olivia Flynt's breast supporter are rendered unfashionable because they do not reduce the waistline to produce an hourglass silhouette.
Black Laundresses Strike in Atlanta
Twenty black laundresses in Atlanta, Georgia form the Washing Society. They agree on a uniform rate of $1 per dozen pounds of wash, then employ local black ministers to help call a mass meeting in which they call for a strike in order to enforce the new pay rate. They canvass door-to-door to recruit new members, increasing the striking membership to 3,000 people. White laundresses in Atlanta compose only 2% of the entire trade, but they join up with their black colleagues in the strike. By the end of the month, the Atlanta City Council, hoping to break the strike, proposes that members of any washerwoman's organization must pay an annual fee of $25 and they offer nonprofit tax status to businesses that will start commercial laundries.
Atlanta Washing Society Retains Self-Regulation
The women of the Atlanta Washing Society write a defiant letter to Mayor Jim English regarding their month-long strike. They agree to pay the City Council's proposed $25 fee, which would amount to several months' worth of their wages, in order to maintain self-regulation over their trade. The City Council never actually passes the fee resolution.
Bloomingdale’s Mail-Order Catalogs
The New York department store Bloomingdale's begins to send out mail-order catalogs.
Sears Roebuck Begins Mail-Order
Sears, Roebuck & Co. begins a mail-order pocket watch business.
Levi Strauss Jeans Designs Logo
Denim manufacturer Levi Strauss devises its "Two Horse Brand" leather patch, showing the jean being pulled between two horses to indicate its strength.24
Sears Roebuck Begins Mail-Order
English inventors develop a new form of cellular cotton that can create "healthy underwear that could breathe."25
Breast Supporters Replace Corsets
As women's health care and work change with the turn of the twentieth century, the breast supporter gradually supplants the corset as the preferred undergarment. Regional firms begin selling breast supporters by mail order, usually for about $1. Breast supporters are sold by bust measurement, from 30 to 45.26
Levi 501 Jeans Born
Levi Strauss begins assigning lot-numbers to each of its products, and the number 501 is given to copper-riveted overalls, thus creating the iconic "Levi's 501 jean."27
Levi Strauss Adds Back Pockets
Levi Strauss adds two back pockets to its denim jeans.28
First Brassiere Sold
The American Charles R. De Bevoise Company selects "brassiere," a Norman French term, for its new product. Brassiere translates as a woman's bodice or a child's undervest. The product looks like a camisole with a few bones (or "stays") to maintain its shape.
René de Réaumur Invents Rayon
René de Réaumur uses synthetic resins to invent rayon. He dubs it "art silk."29
Brassieres Sold in Department Stores
Brassiere manufacturers begin distributing their goods through department stores, catalogs, shops, and retail chains.
Paul Poiret Designs Corsetless Dress
French couturier Paul Poiret furthers a growing public disenchantment with the corset by designing "corsetless" dresses. Feminists and proponents of health and hygiene have already been criticizing the corset for a number of years.
International Ladies Garment Workers Union Founded
The first undergarment local of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) is chartered in New York City.
Shirtwaist Makers Strike
More than 20,000 shirtwaist makers in New York walk out on strike, shutting down production of the industry. Local 25 of the Ladies Waist and Dress Makers Union of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union begins the strike with $10 in its treasury. The New York Call, a Socialist paper, donates a special issue on the strike to the union members, who sell it in order to raise money for strike expenses. The special issue relays the story of the strike in Italian, Yiddish, and English, a reflection of the diverse backgrounds and cultures of New York's inhabitants and of the striking workers themselves.
Women Workers Protest Police Brutality
ILGWU members hold a meeting in Carnegie Hall during their strike to protest police brutalities that have occurred during their marches and demonstrations. Twenty women who have been arrested and sent to the workhouse at Blackwell's Island sit near the front of the stage; they wear sashes that read "Arrested" or "Workhouse Prisoner."
Garment Strike Ends
RANGEEND_ILGWU_STRIKE After thirteen difficult weeks, the ILGWU strike comes to an end. The union calls off the strike and declares a victory; in reality, the strike has gradually lost steam in recent weeks. Still, the ILGWU has made substantial strides and won 320 signed contracts with employers. Yet there is no industry-wide agreement to enforce these individual shop contracts, and the 70 large manufacturers who dominate the garment industry—including Triangle Shirtwaist Factory—have not made any agreements at all.30
Natural Rayon Invented
Viscose rayon, made from cotton waste or wood pulp, is invented.31
Garment Workers Strike
Members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in New York vote to call a strike for fairer wages, safer working conditions, limited overtime pay, a 52-hour workweek, and elimination of the subcontracting system that has fostered worker exploitation.
New York Dominates Garment Industry
Undergarment shops in New York City account for about two-thirds of the $70 to $80 million value of all undergarment production in the United States. New York undergarment workers number 13,517, spread among some 375 shops across the city. When the ILGWU wages a general strike in 1913, over half of New York's undergarment workers become union members.
Brassiere Departments Grow
In the mid-1910s, department stores begin opening brassiere departments and the brassiere becomes more profitable than the corset.
Modern Bra Takes Shape
The brassiere assumes much of its modern-day form, with cups that have fixed or adjustable contours, hook-and-eye closures, flesh-toned material for wearing beneath revealing clothing, strapless and backless versions, and nursing brassieres for new mothers. But cups still do not come in standardized sizes and still do not have easily adjustable straps by the end of the 1920s.
US Navy Introduces T-shirt
The U.S. Navy introduces the precursor to the T-shirt, a "light undershirt" that includes an "elastic collarette on the neck opening."32
Cotton Crash Devastates Levi Strauss
A rapid post-World War I decline in the price of cotton—from 42 cents a pound to six cents—catches Levi Strauss Co. with heavy inventories in 1919-20, and the company suffers a serious loss.33
Breast Binding In Fashion
Breast binding becomes a popular trend during the 1920s, when thin, flat-chested female figures are in vogue.
Closed-Crotch Underwear in Fashion
Women have transitioned from the nineteenth-century standard of open-crotch underwear to the new closed-crotch style.
Union Musican Becomes Hit
The ILGWU stages Pins and Needles, a Broadway musical that becomes an unexpected hit.
USC and Jockey Popularize T-Shirt
The T-shirt is born: either USC football coach Howard Jones or the school's athletic director, Bill Hunter (stories differ) commissions Jockey International Inc. to develop an affordable undergarment that will absorb sweat and prevent a football player's shoulder pads from chafing his skin. The jocks' new shirts become a fashion craze, and other USC students begin stealing them. "Property of USC" is stenciled onto the shirts in order to prevent theft, but of course this soon sparks its own style trend.34
Manufacturers begin offering brassieres in standardized cup sizes, soon associated with letters A through D, after S. H. Camp and Company introduces this system. To explain the new system, the firms' advertisers devise print illustrations for customers that pair front anatomical sketches of women's breasts with their corresponding cup size. Standardized cup size becomes common industry practice by the end of the decade.
Brassieres Ship Internationally
Brassiere manufacturers such as Maidenform begin expanding their markets internationally, to countries less devastated by the Great Depression. Maidenform brassieres go on the market in Latin America, South Africa, and Thailand, among other places.
Bra and P.J. Coined
The word "bra" begins to appear as a cool new slang term among young women in the mid-1930s. It is a truncated version of the standard term, brassiere. At the same time, the initials "p.j." are substituted for the pajama.35
Underwire Debuts in Bra
Underwire first appears in a strapless bra design by André, a custom firm.
Levi Adds Rivets
Responding to customer complaints, Denim manufacturer Levi Strauss restitches the back pockets of its jeans so that the rivets are covered and will not scratch furniture or saddles. Suspender buttons are also removed, though all jeans still come with a snap-on set.36
Glamour Magazine Published
Glamour magazine prints its first issue, in which it defines glamour as "a quality each of us sees in some other human—and wishes she possessed." The editors assure their readers that all women possess "potential glamour," which can be achieved with the help of the right accessories, hairstyle, cosmetics, deportment, and of course clothing.37
Board Shorts Begin with Surfers
Board shorts are born, probably in Southern California, as a response to the increasingly skimpy cuts of men's bathing suits. Surfers need more protection on their legs (to guard against abrasion from the board and other elements like sea coral) and more room for movement, as well as a closure that would prevent them from winding up naked on shore in the event of a wipeout. Surfboard maker Dale Velzy and his friends at the Manhattan Beach Surf Club devise a prototype by cutting off their white sailor pants just above the knee, but it is difficult to determine a single origin for this long-evolving trend.38
Rosie the Riveter Debuts
Norman Rockwell's painting entitled "Rosie the Riveter" is featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, a popular magazine that has encouraged women to join the wartime work force.
Zoot Suit Riots
In Los Angeles, a group of United States Navy sailors, angered by a series of confrontations with local Mexican-American youths, take weapons into the nearby neighborhoods and target all those wearing zoot suits, an oversized outfit first popularized by African-American jazz musicians and later adopted by Mexican-American youths. The so-called "Zoot Suit Riots" will rage for days, demonstrating fashion's potential to function as a conflict-generating marker of difference between different segments of society.
Zoot Suits Banned
The Los Angeles City Council agrees to ban the wearing of zoot suits in public, resolving to institute a 50-day jail term for those who violate the new rule.
Pedal Pusher Created
"Shorter than a Capri and with a slightly wider leg," the "pedal pusher" is created by L.A. designer DeDe Johnson. She wants to create a garment that—unlike a lady's skirt—won't get caught in a bicycle chain. Teen idols Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, as well as by Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, soon adopt the look and make it into a 1950s fashion craze.39
Frederick’s of Hollywood Lingerie
Frederick Mellinger begins his risqué line of lingerie, Frederick's of Hollywood, with a racy catalog. Frederick's will eventually grow into a chain of over 175 stores.
Christian Dior’s New Look
One year after establishing his couturier headquarters in Paris, French fashion designer Christian Dior debuts the "the New Look," which showcases a cinched waist, rounded hips, and a long skirt. The couture innovation sparks the return of the corset as a fashion trend. Corsetry experiences a revival in the post-World War II period, particularly during the 1950s. The New Look is an utterly uncomfortable outfit and one hardly suited to any type of labor, but it is nonetheless wildly popular. This craze cements Dior's reputation, enshrines him as "the template for the designer as a celebrity," and places him on the cover of Time magazine.40
New York City Remains Undergarment Capitol
New York City remains the center of American undergarment production throughout the 1950s. During this decade, the ILGWU enjoys its greatest strength. But times are changing, and companies are maintaining corporate headquarters in New York while increasingly shifting their production facilities to the South (where workers are not as unionized and labor is therefore cheaper).
Merry Widow Corset Introduced
Warner's introduces the Merry Widow corset. Its debut coincides with a movie of the same name, starring Lana Turner, in which she is filmed in a white long-line corset and high heels.
Margit Fellegi’s Scandal Suit
The Scandal Suit is created by bathing suit designer Margit Fellegi for Cole of California, and instantly creates a sensation. The black nylon knit suit features stretch mesh at the midriff, connecting a bra top and wide panty bottom. It hints at nudity without actually revealing anything, and its suggestiveness is considered highly controversial. The black fishnet alone is unprecedented in mainstream fashion, as it connotes stripper and burlesque clubs. Two other Scandal Suit styles soon follow, each one exposing more skin.41
Academy Awards Bans Miniskirts
The legendary Hollywood designer Edith Head bans miniskirts from the Academy Awards because she feels that they lack elegance.42
Nixon Courts South with Textile Trade
During his re-election campaign, Richard Nixon creates the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA) in order to impose trade barriers on foreign goods. During this period, American textile manufacturers have been coming under threat from Japanese and Taiwanese competition. Nixon's protectionist turn is designed to court Southern textile barons in order to win votes in the South.
Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson
In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court rules that certain forms of sexual harassment are violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (writing for the majority) also asserts that "sexually provocative speech and dress" are relevant topics for admitting testimony to determine whether a hostile work environment exists.43 One reporter later characterizes Rehnquist's controversial opinion as arguing that "provocative dressing may lead to sexual harassment."44
Couture Grunge and Heroin Chic
During the spring fashion shows, designer Marc Jacobs debuts the seemingly oxymoronic "couture grunge" that emulates the loose flannel shirts, shabby cardigans, wrinkled and torn pants, and the notoriously thin body frames of grunge rock and its largely Seattle-based musicians. This look involves an element that some call "heroin chic," characterized by extremely thin models like Kate Moss, and controversially alluding to drug use as an element of the latest trend. No one wants to pay designer prices for flannel shirts, and Jacobs's collection (for the Perry Ellis label) is shut down, but not before making a profound effect on the fashion industry.
Bra and Push-up Sales Increase
Bra sales double over the previous year. Push-up styles account for an unprecedented 10% of the market. New brands like the Wonderbra and the Super-Uplift bolster the entire industry, racking up huge sales by promising to provide women with a cleavage boost akin to that of implants.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) goes into effect. The agreement creates a free-trade zone spanning Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
Early Nevada Jean Discovered
"The Nevada jean," a nineteenth-century pair of denim jeans, is found in a Nevada mining town. Denim manufacturer Levi Strauss & Co. purchases the Nevada jean for $46,532.45
Vietnam Trade Impacts Textiles
The United States and Vietnam sign a bilateral treaty, and annual trade between the two nations subsequently jumps from $1.5 billion to $7.8 billion. The biggest beneficiaries are Vietnamese textile and apparel makers, whose exports to the U.S. increase 6,000% after the treaty is signed, according to the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition.46
Levi Strauss Closes Domestic Plants
San Francisco-based denim manufacturer Levi Strauss closes six of its domestic plants, leaving the company with what reporter Fred Dickey describes as "just a tiny U.S. manufacturing presence—a plant in San Antonio, Texas, devoted to quick turn-around products that have deadlines overseas plants can't meet."47
Levi Strauss Rebounds
After downsizing its domestic operations and shifting more work overseas, denim manufacturer Levi Strauss posts a 3.5% increase in sales after the third quarter. This is the company’s first increase since 1996.48
American Textiles Protected
The five-member panel of the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA) unanimously agrees to issue twelve-month import limits on Chinese-made bras, dressing gowns and knit fabric, to protect the American textile industry.49
Virginia Underwear Bill Ridiculed
The Virginia House of Delegates votes 60-34 to forbid the intentional display of "below-waist undergarments, intended to cover a person's intimate parts, in a lewd or indecent manner." Violators would be subject to a $50 fine. The bill provokes widespread public ridicule, and it dies in the state senate committee a week later.50
Saggy Pants Outlawed
Sagging pants become an illegal offense in Delcambre, Louisiana, a town of 2,231 located 80 miles southwest of Baton Rouge. Violators are subject to a fine of as much as $500 or six months in jail.51
Hillary Clinton’s Cleavage Discussed
Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan devotes an entire article to the subject of presidential candidate and Senator Hillary Clinton and her cleavage. The article sparks an outcry from multiple critics.
Underwear Banned From Public Display
Lafourche Parish, Louisiana passes a ban on the public display of undergarments.52
Saggy Pants Illegal in Small Town
Mansfield, a town of 5,496 near Shreveport, Louisiana, makes the sagging pants style illegal in order to "set a good civic image." Offenders have to pay a fine (as much as $150 plus court costs) or serve jail time (up to fifteen days).53
Atlanta Schools Ban Baggy Clothes
The Board of Education in Atlanta, Georgia unanimously approves a ban on "baggy oversized clothing," including "sagging shorts or trousers." Principals in Atlanta's 96 public schools will determine when there is a violation of the ban and what the penalty will be.54
Lingerie Industry Grows
The lingerie business is now a $13 billion a year global industry.
Vogue Circulation 1.28 Million
American Vogue's circulation reaches a reported 1.28 million.