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History of American Fashion Summary & Analysis

The Long Road to the Closet

Fashion does not simply consist of the clothes we pick out of our closets in the morning. That daily decision only constitutes the last step of a much larger process, one that involves federal trade agreements, foreign sweatshops, multi-billion-dollar businesses, celebrities on red carpets, and sophisticated advertising campaigns. Fashion emerges out of pattern-making and design, the cultivation and production of raw materials, the manufacturing process, and the distribution of the finished product. Along the way, fashion generates a publicity blitz that inundates men and women of all ages, constantly conveying cultural standards of beauty and generating new trends—or old trends re-worked and recycled to become new again—that become the popularly coveted "look" of a decade or a generation.

How did all of this begin? Apparel manufacturing and trendsetting long predated the European colonization of North America. When English settlers came to American shores, they brought their fashions with them, and continued to import manufactured textiles for several generations. At the same time, many settlers adapted elements of Native American dress, including moccasins, deerskin, and leather leggings. Among the settlers a nascent domestic textile eventually industry emerged, incorporating the labor of southern slaves (who cultivated cotton and sewed linen shirts) and northern white women (who made garments for their families and neighbors). This domestic industry rapidly expanded before and during the Revolutionary War, as the American colonists mounted boycotts of all British imports—including clothing—to protest Parliamentary policy. After the Americans achieved their independence, European imports resumed and countries like France remained the epicenter of fashion trends well into the twentieth century.

Trendsetting and Apparel Manufacture in an Industrial Age

Yet with all of the European couturiers' trendsetting history, the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century revolutionized the apparel business, made mass manufacturing possible, and centered much of that manufacturing in the United States. In fields ranging from steel to oil to textiles and department stores, industrial barons made such profits that America became one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world by the early twentieth century. Cotton picked by millions of slaves became the South's greatest export, providing the indispensable raw material for the textile industries of the American North and the English Midlands. Earlier, in the seventeenth century, cotton had been too expensive to use regularly, but the invention of the cotton gin enabled cheap mass cultivation and production, fueling a market boom. The Civil War rocked the cotton industry but did not destroy it; even after emancipation, poor black and white families in the South continued to cultivate cotton as sharecroppers. Once the clothes were made, they needed to be cleaned; so black women in the South and Chinese families in the West laundered clothes for a living. In urban centers like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago, immigrants toiled through twelve-hour days in sweatshops, or sewed piecework at home in crowded tenements. Manufacturers transported the finished products to department stores, which revolutionized the American retail scene in the late nineteenth century. These stores hired attractive white sales clerks to stand at immaculate glass display cases to help sell their products to customers. For those Americans who did not live in or near cities, the stores devised mail-order catalogs as a means of showcasing their wares to customers and facilitating the purchasing process. Women's fashion magazines published the latest dress patterns and styles from Europe, and began to create a niche for themselves by marketing cosmetics and accessories that claimed to offer subscribers allure, sophistication, and youthfulness.

Radio, print, and billboard advertisements showcased the newest fashion trends and textile innovations to customers during the roaring 1920s. By that time, for the first time, most Americans lived in cities, exposing them to an ever-widening array of marketing schemes and public displays of fashion in crowded urban streets. The glamour of fashion in film provided a fantasy world for cinema audiences enduring the Great Depression of the 1930s, and celebrities quickly became trendsetters on and off the screen. The union movements of that era also galvanized garment workers to band together, and the textile industry began to shift to the South, where workers were less organized and therefore cheaper. During World War II, Americans were asked to sacrifice certain luxuries like silk stockings when raw materials were needed elsewhere (such as for parachute manufacture). Despite the hardships of wartime, swing music, U.S.O. dances, and military uniforms combined to create a style evocative of the era. Meanwhile, underlying racial tensions in American life manifested themselves in the rebellious fashions of minority groups like the zoot-suited black and Latino men of Harlem and Los Angeles. Other minorities asserted their identity as American citizens and patriots by donning military uniforms and fighting for their country.

Cold War Consumerism

After the war, veterans retained their medals and insignias as records of their service, but most American men quickly exchanged their khaki uniforms for either the white-collar suits of the middle class or the blue-collar uniforms of the working class. The Cold War against international communism only escalated the promotional efforts of the advertising industry, which trumpeted American prosperity and consumerism as a glorious counterpoint to the spartan existence of the Soviet economy. Housewives were pressured to appear like the perfect women who populated the advertisements; alluring for their husbands, always wearing makeup and pretty dresses, even wearing pearls while cleaning the house. Husbands were advised to "keep up with the Joneses" by conforming to the clean-cut, clean-shaven corporate ideal if they ever hoped to fit in and do well. The beatniks of the 1950s rebelled against this conformity and materialism by writing and reading poetry, seeking out an existence beyond the corporate cubicle, and dressing in black (or otherwise looking unorthodox and apart from the mainstream style). Teenagers also followed the latest trends, but if they rebelled they could also help to create rebellious fashions, like the simple white T-shirt of James Dean and Marlon Brando that had previously been equated with the working class. Or they tried to tear the clothing off of music stars like Elvis Presley, whose blue jeans and black leather jackets came to embody the youthfulness, restlessness, and sex appeal of a generation.

At the same time, commercials and fads began to be beamed across the country and into people's living rooms through the new and wildly popular medium of television. Subcultures embraced specific fashions as markers of identity. Civil rights protestors in the 1950s and 60s used TV to communicate their demands and their struggle to the nation and the world. They dressed in the most respectable attire possible: men in full suits with ties, women in Sunday dresses and heels, showcasing their dignity while exposing the savagery of racism in the faces of white foes who attacked them with dogs and fire hoses. As the 1960s wore on, a new generation of young people began to flout convention, questioning every aspect of social tradition and conformity, including its notions of clean-shaven respectability for men and prim dresses with heels for women. Suddenly women wore their hair long, rejected makeup, and walked around barefoot; men also grew their hair long, sometimes donned beards and mustaches, wore casual blue jeans and buttons featuring the peace sign. Their appearance alone identified them as "hippies" to older, more conservative Americans, who sometimes felt threatened by the new generation and all it represented. Some minorities who had once conformed to mainstream standards of dress suddenly made a dramatic departure; their movements for Black Power and La Raza Unida called for separate and proud racial solidarities that would celebrate their own history and culture, including new fashions. Rather than buying products to lighten their skin color and straighten their hair, blacks donned the natural afro style and embraced styles ranging from the traditional African kente cloth to the iconic black leather jacket.103 Women of all races who protested for equal rights and equal treatment condemned the fashion and advertising industries for objectifying them as sexual objects in order to sell them expensive anti-aging creams and constricting girdles to shape their figures and conform them to an artificial standard of beauty.

The Popular Culture of Fashion

Music continued to inspire new styles, such as the disco era's notoriously flamboyant men's pantsuits and women's shiny metallic dresses and glitter. Trends became less racially specific, although certain stereotypes—like the black urban pimp or the white punk rocker—remained in vogue, perhaps as much for their infamy as their unapologetic edge and flashiness. Lifestyle trends also affected the fashion industry, as when fitness celebrities like Jane Fonda popularized the women's workout leotard in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, throughout the second half of the twentieth century, American apparel and textile manufacturers continued to expand their industries overseas to cut costs and compete effectively with foreign businesses. Meanwhile, upscale couturiers developed into corporate brand names throughout the twentieth century. Their logos became status symbols, frequently pirated on the black market and coveted by increasingly younger customers, especially as rap and hip hop stars began wearing those labels in music videos and magazine photo spreads. Pioneering hip-hop trio Run-D.M.C. all wore Adidas sneakers almost religiously, and in 1986 they actually wrote a song about "My Adidas" (Adidas returned the favor in 2005 by designing a Run D.M.C. sneaker that was just like the original, but without the laces).104 More recently, music stars have also moved from fashion partnerships to fashion moguls; rapper Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and two his partners launched the Rocawear clothing company in 1995, and its current annual retail sales surpass $700 million. In 1999, the rapper/producer/restaurateur/actor Sean John "Puffy" or "P Diddy" or "Diddy" Combs launched the Sean John clothing line for men. Popular celebrities were increasingly photographed on the red carpet and in tabloid magazines, donning the latest styles that consumers sought to emulate.

Clothing continues to occupy a central role in our national economy, our popular culture, even our ideologies of politics and sexuality. The history of fashion is intertwined with almost every major development in American life since the first European settlement in the early seventeenth century. From the materials employed in clothing manufacture to the process by which our garments are made to the social values that dictate what we "should" look like, fashion has surrounded us and consumed us for generations.

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