Study Guide

History of American Fashion Introduction

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History of American Fashion Introduction

Fleeting styles come rapidly into vogue, then disappear as quickly as they came. Like saggy pants, plaid suits, or Jeff Goldblum t-shirts. 

Uh, we take back that last one. Still in our weekly wardrobe rotation.

And the clothes we wear and the trends we follow are often associated with superficiality and materialism. (Talkin' to you, Kanye.) But fashion has always been intrinsically connected to deeper elements of the American experience, from the economy and labor system to culture, religion, and class. From our underwear to our Levi's to our sneakers, what we wear has, for centuries, spoken volumes about who we are, what we do, and what we want.

Whether Americans have dressed to make a political statement, to assert their class status, or simply to be irreverent, every style has carried a certain social meaning. This is in part because our culture has long ascribed great significance to individuals' public image, and because image has long been intertwined with the American capitalist economy.

As Mark Twain once wrote, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."blank">Playboy. Clothes—or the lack thereof—remain central to contemporary American culture and integral to our national history.

What is History of American Fashion About and Why Should I Care?

Whether you've argued with your parents or friends about what you wear, or cringed as you gaze at old pictures of yourself in once-trendy styles, or judged another person by their choice of clothes, you know that fashion matters in our day-to-day lives. 

Terms like "white collar" and "blue collar" connote not just a line of work but a person's class status, and remind us that we tend to make assumptions about a person's income, line of work, and social position based on the way they dress.

Fashion history also extends beyond the economics of designer profits and class systems, obviously. Issues of gender, power, and sexuality all intersect with the clothes we wear. Many people judge a woman's sexuality and values by the way that she dresses—if her clothes are deemed too revealing or flashy, she might be called a "hoe."

Regardless of how exaggerated or contrived these presumptions might be, they continue to pervade our popular culture and influence the way that we present ourselves in public and even in private. Even society's mavericks—the goths garbed in black, the hippies with long hair and natural clothing, or even the nudists—all indicate the importance of appearances and perceptions by dressing (or not dressing) in order to make a point about who they are and what they think of social conventions.

Whether you're a slave to fashion trends or proud to flout them, you're about to embark upon a history that's about much more than evanescent vogues and high-priced brand names. This is the story of class, race, sex, politics, big business, and popular culture, a story spun through the clothes we wear.

History of American Fashion Resources


Linda Baumgarten, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America (2002)
A very large and impressively illustrated book, rich with detail and thorough research on the intersection between colonial fashion and society.

Charlotte Brunel, The T-Shirt Book (2002)
An interesting pop culture history, filled with illuminating illustrations.

Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau, Uplift: The Bra in America (2002)
This well-researched and detailed history goes beyond the style to the actual manufacturing process and the labor and gender politics behind the most intimate of apparel pieces.

Jill Fields, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality (2007)
A very well researched history that goes back to the 1920s to explore the rich history of clothes and their deeper meaning, particularly where gender and sexuality are concerned.

Nancy E. Rexford, Women's Shoes in America, 1795-1930 (2000)
This illustrated history of a widespread female obsession—the shoe—offers some valuable insight and analysis on its earlier years, pre-Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo.

Merideth Wright, Everyday Dress of Rural America: 1783-1800, With Instructions and Patterns (1992)
This concise book offers a brief background on the history and context of fashion, along with patterns for those who might want to try and re-create some of the historic designs.


ZZ Top, Rancho Texicano: The Very Best of ZZ Top (2004)
With their dime-store sunglasses and signature chest-length beards, ZZ Top wasn't exactly known for being fashion forward. Still, the group's gritty style fit perfectly with its bold, bluesy, and fantastically vulgar tunes.

The Kinks, Kinks (2002)
Like David Bowie below, the Kinks penned their 1966 single, "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," to poke fun at those who insisted on following the latest trends.

Run D.M.C., Raising Hell (1986)
Pioneering hip-hop trio Run D.M.C. wore Adidas brand sneakers religiously, and in 1986, they 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.

David Bowie, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
Bowie's hit single "Fashion," which appeared on this 1980 rock album, has been interpreted as a subtle commentary on the ways in which the public can be bullied into conformity. Interestingly, a decade after the release of this somewhat cynical tribute to fashion, Bowie married world-renowned supermodel Iman.

Nancy Sinatra, Boots (1966)
Watch out for Ms. Sinatra's white, patent leather, knee-high footwear. This singer's 1960s hit single, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin,'" was the "Independent Woman" (you know, Destiny's Child) of its day.


The Seeming Androgyny of the 18th Century
In 18th-century portraits, it's often difficult for modern viewers to distinguish between children's genders, because the boys appear to be wearing the same dresses as the girls. The child at the left in this painting is a boy, and the one on the right is probably a girl. (Portrait of Two Children, attributed to Joseph Badger, probably Boston, Massachusetts, 1755–1760, oil on canvas.)

An example of the "saggin'" style, with boxers fully exposed, in the East Village of New York City.

Zoot Suiters
Black men modeling yet another controversial trend, the zoot suits of the 1940s.

Sunday Best in the Early Midwest
A Custer County, Nebraska family in 1886, in a photograph entitled "Our Sunday Best."

The Cleavage Controversy
Hillary Clinton's outfit—worn in July 2007, while she delivered a speech on the Senate floor about the cost of higher education—received national headlines and attention when a Washington Post writer characterized it as "cleavage on display."

Movies & TV

The Merry Widow (1952)
In this adaptation of a turn-of-the-century operetta, actress Lana Turner is a wealthy, young widow. In the film, a voluptuous Turner dons a strapless black corselette with attached garters. Her seductive attire sparked a fashion craze that held strong throughout the 1950s (and, in fact, reemerged in the 1980s with the help of a new icon of sensuality—Madonna).

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
James Dean and Natalie Wood star in this blockbuster hit about teen angst and rebellion. Dean’s casual attire in the film—blue jeans and a cotton t-shirt—had previously been a hallmark of the uniform of the working class, but the tremendous success of the movie helped redefine this garb as sexy and entirely cool.

The Seven-Year Itch (1955)
Blonde Hollywood bombshell and fashion icon Marilyn Monroe plays a young model, both innocent and alluring, in this 1955 box-office hit about a married man with an over-active imagination. In perhaps Monroe's most memorable on-screen moment, she stands over a subway grate as a sudden burst of air blows her white dress skyward.

Some Like It Hot (1959)
After inadvertently witnessing the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre, two young men go incognito as members of a traveling, all-girl band. Dressed in drag and unable to reveal their true identities, one must mask his feelings for a lovely bandmate while the other must fend off an aggressive male suitor.

Annie Hall (1977)
When Diane Keaton donned the layered and androgynous looks of her title character in this 1977 classic film directed by Woody Allen, she sparked a new fashion trend among women who were living through the Second Wave of the Feminist Movement.


The Triangle Fire
Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations hosts a fantastic web exhibit on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, complete with pictures, primary sources, and background information on urban sweatshops during the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Washington's World
Objects discovered during archaeological excavations at Mt. Vernon provide us with some idea of the tools used in colonial clothing manufacture and in the ways in which slave clothing differed from George Washington's garb.

Women and Their Clothing
The Middle Tennessee State University Library offers a number of sites pertaining to clothing and fashion in American women's history.

Historical Documents

The Workings of a Dress Shop
All correspondence, transactions, measurements, and objects discovered in 1989 at the A. & L. Tirocchi dress shop in Providence, Rhode Island (in business from 1915 to 1947).

Innovation Protection
Statement concerning a proposed bill on protection for fashion design, which the House of Representatives considered during the summer of 2006 (referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary).

An Early Fashion Mag
A fashion magazine from Maryland, printed in January 1886.

Tailors Advertise
An advertising leaflet for "Young, the Tailor," 1898.

The Business of Kid's Clothing
A page out of The Advertising Handbook (1921) on marketing children's clothing.

Hats, Anyone?
A business card for the "Fashionable Milliner" (a hat store) in Raleigh, North Carolina, circa 19th century.

$2 Pants?
A letter from Uriah W. Oblinger in Gove City, Kansas, to his family on May 10th, 1887, in which he discusses purchasing a pair of jeans for $2.00 and two flannel shirts for $2.75 each.

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