Study Guide

History of American Fashion Analysis

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  • War

    Zoot Suits: The Trend That Sparked a Riot

    The zoot suit, a flamboyant and controversial style of the 1930s and '40s, was characterized by a long coat, a large hat, and baggy pants tightly cuffed at the ankle. It emerged in part from the jazz music scene, in which Black and white musicians mingled in defiance of segregation laws and minorities found a venue for self-expression. 

    During World War II—when citizens were forced to ration clothing in order to preserve scarce materials for the war effort—the expensive zoot suit, made from yards and yards of material that might otherwise have been used for military uniforms, seemed extravagant in every way. 

    Some Black men in Harlem, New York—among other cities—and Hispanics in Los Angeles wore the zoot suit as a banner of style and wealth. But the suit also served as an emblem of minority defiance amidst a racist society. 

    Meanwhile, other Blacks and Hispanics donned military uniforms to prove their own sense of patriotism. And the suits weren't just controversial among whites in Los Angeles and New York. Many conservative Hispanic parents disapproved of their children's flashy fashion statements. This was partly because the zoot suit was considered neither Mexican nor American but something in-between, and because many parents feared that children who dressed in zoot suits were also running with pachuco gangs. A pachuco was an adolescent Mexican-American person from the streets. 

    Parents, understanding the prevalence of white racism in American society at the time, would've known that such attention-getting and defiant garb might attract negative and even violent attention from self-styled patriotic vigilantes looking to start a fight. At the time, minorities were expected to assume a passive, even submissive guise in every aspect of their behavior and appearance. 

    The zoot suit embodied the very opposite: it was bold, noticeable, and worn with a confidence and swagger that whites seldom permitted or tolerated in minorities.

    Just as those parents had feared, violence soon erupted between zoot-suited Hispanics and whites in the "City of Angels," Los Angeles, California. 

    Los Angeles felt the social impacts of World War II as powerfully as any American city. By the summer of 1943, more than 50,000 sailors were stationed in Los Angeles awaiting deployment for combat. Often made edgy by their impending fight, many got liquored up to kill time during shore leave. These Navy men often found themselves in close proximity to the Mexican-American barrios of Los Angeles, regularly traversing these neighborhoods on nights out. 

    They arrived amidst a climate of racial tension, as local whites expressed concern over the recent surge in Mexican immigration. Many whites had themselves just migrated to Southern California from the South and the desperately poor Midwestern "Dust Bowl" during the recent Depression. They feared the job competition that Mexican Americans represented, and they still associated American citizenship and loyalty with racial identity. 

    Suspicious of their Hispanic neighbors' national loyalty, many whites were already on edge about a possible Japanese attack on the West Coast. California was in the midst of forcibly interning its Japanese-American citizens, a practice that only reinforced public notions that racial and cultural differences could be equated with betrayal or treason. Mexican Americans were the largest minority group in Los Angeles, and they quickly drew considerable attention and animosity.

    Barrios were ghettoized ethnic neighborhoods established by the native Hispanic population of California, but expanded during World War II after tens of thousands of contract laborers from Mexico came to the state as part of the government's bracero program in 1942. Braceros were imported to alleviate labor shortages in agriculture and domestic industries, but they couldn't become citizens and could be deported without warning. 

    Clearly the opportunities created by wartime came with their own limitations. Mexican-American youths growing up in these conditions had to forge a new identity. Many had never lived in Mexico at all, yet they were discriminated against in American society, cut off from the prosperity of wartime America, and confined to ethnic ghettoes plagued with poverty. 

    Plus, not all Mexican-American men who found a sense of pride and expression through the zoot suit were gang members. Some Mexican Americans who were in gangs, like the violent Chicano brotherhood La Purissima, or White Fence, actually ridiculed the zoot suiters as juvenile dandies. 

    At the same time, the Los Angeles City Council removed the proximate cause of the rioting by banning the wearing of zoot suits in public, instituting a 30-day jail term for anyone who violated the new rule.

    In the aftermath of the Zoot Suit Riots, an investigatory committee created by California Governor Earl Warren subsequently concluded that the press and the Los Angeles Police Department fueled the violence in Los Angeles through race-baiting headlines and police brutality, although juvenile delinquency among Hispanic youth was also pinpointed as a major causal factor. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron agreed that juvenile delinquents and white Southerners were the major causes for the violence, but unconvincingly denied that racial prejudice was a factor.

    The zoot suit itself didn't truly cause the riots that rocked Los Angeles in the summer of 1943. That violence exploded out of deep-seated conflicts over race, class, culture, patriotism, conformity, dissidence, and deference. But the zoot suit served as a powerful marker of difference, an aggressive sartorial challenge to the drab military uniforms that signified a supposedly unified national war effort.

    The Zoot Suit Riots proved that fashion can reveal deep cracks in American society, sometimes with violent and devastating results.

  • Race

    Slavery and Self Expression

    Some of the first field slaves in North America wore very little in the way of clothing. Newspaper notices in Charleston, South Carolina, described runaways dressed in mere scraps of clothing, sometimes no more than an "Arse-cloth." 

    They had to make their own soap from lye, starch from wheat bran, and washtubs from beer barrels that they cut in half. They'd cook dinner for their families while ironing. Without running water in their homes, the washerwomen had to carry gallons of water from local pumps, hydrants, or wells in order to wash, boil, and rinse customers' clothes. 

    It was backbreaking work. So, don't even complain when Mom tells you it's time to learn how to fold clothes.

    Because they largely monopolized the industry, Black women soon began forming trade organizations based on laundry work in Atlanta and other cities like Jackson, Mississippi, and Galveston, Texas. In each of these cities, the laundresses also took advantage of their domination in the industry and organized mass labor protests in order to define the terms under which they'd work. These acts were truly revolutionary, since there was no precedent for African-American workers or women in the South to organize into trade unions to take united political or economic action.

    In the late-19th century, Black laundresses organized in order to demand a fixed rate of pay for their work, which would provide them with security, independence, and stability for their labor value. Laundresses would still only get paid if they worked, but if they could rely on a steady and fair pay rate, they might maintain more control over their working hours and their savings. 

    Under the existing system, whites had sometimes refused Black workers their wages, arguing that they would make up for it later, or they would sometimes force their Black employees to accept cheap goods like food—rather than currency—in exchange for services. Cash payment would afford washerwomen some mobility. That is, the ability to quit, leave labor contracts, work one week and not the next, or move out of the city, and such mobility was—as Frederick Douglass pointed out—a primary facet of freedom. 

    Of course, white families wanted just the opposite from Black workers, including laundresses. They wanted to maintain a disciplined, submissive, reliable workforce with no means or ability to act on its own accord.

    In response to these injustices, 20 laundresses in Atlanta, Georgia formed the Washing Society in July 1881. They agreed on a uniform rate of $1 per dozen pounds of wash, then employed local Black ministers to help them call a mass meeting in which they called for a strike in order to enforce the new pay rate. 

    Throughout July, these women canvassed door-to-door across the city in order to recruit new members, and they increased the striking membership to 3,000 people, while critics ridiculed them as "Washing Amazons." 

    White laundresses in Atlanta composed only 2% of the entire trade, but they did join up with their Black colleagues in the strike. City officials soon began arresting the strikers, fining them, and visiting them at their homes. The Atlanta City Council proposed that members of any washerwoman's organization pay an annual fee of $25 and then offered nonprofit tax status to businesses that wanted to start commercial laundries. 

    The women agreed to pay the fee, which would amount to several months' worth of their wages, in order to maintain self-regulation over their trade (thus turning a business tax into a protective fee). It's not entirely clear how this struggle was actually resolved, since the newspaper stories began to fizzle out after about a month, but it doesn't appear that the City Council actually passed the fee. 

    Nonetheless, the washerwomen's political consciousness spoke volumes in and of itself. The laundresses were well aware of their value and importance in Southern society. Whites prized their clothes, and relied upon Black people to perform the necessary labor required to keep those clothes well maintained. So, the laundresses successfully used clothing as a means of putting pressure on the entire system, to better their jobs. Their example inspired local nurses, maids, and cooks to demand their own pay increases, too.

  • Labor

    Women Workers

    During the American Revolution, white women—and, in the case of slaveowning families, Black female slaves—wove homespun clothing in order to sustain colonial boycotts on manufactured English goods. Female slaves were an integral part of the cotton cultivation and harvesting that produced the raw materials for textile production during the antebellum period. 

    After emancipation, Black women continued their integral role in cotton production as sharecroppers, either working the fields alongside their husbands or providing the childcare and cooking that sustained their husbands and children in the fields. Black women also worked as laundresses throughout the South and in other areas, since it was one of the few paid occupations considered "low" enough for Black women. In 1840, lower and middle-class women made up almost half of manufacturing workers in the nation, and two-thirds of those in New England.

    New Yorkers and Americans across the country were shocked by the tragedy. Only a handful of the Triangle workers were ILGWU members, and Triangle Shirtwaist was a non-union shop. Unions capitalized on this fact, using the disaster to illustrate their contention that an organized workforce could demand safer working conditions. Several unions, including the ILGWU, the WTUL, and the United Hebrew Trades formed the Joint Relief Committee, which raised relief money—some $30,000—for fire survivors and their families. 

    The ILGWU organized a rally to protest the unsafe working conditions that created the disaster, and the Women's Trade Union League collected testimonies and campaigned for an investigation of the working conditions at Triangle. 

    Within a month, New York's governor appointed the Factory Investigating Commission, which held a series of hearings over five years and helped to pass groundbreaking factory safety legislation. Eight months after the fire, a jury acquitted building owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris of any wrongdoing.

    Exploitation Amidst an Industry of Glamour

    Despite subsequent gains in workplace safety legislation, sweatshops continue to plague the garment and textile manufacturing industries, both at home and abroad. 

    The U.S. Department of Labor has conducted several studies in the 21st century, finding that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. In Los Angeles, 98% of garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death. 

    Abroad, the situation is even worse. Workers in northern Mexico have seen manufacturers migrate even farther south, where wages are lower and labor protections often go unenforced. One 2002 Los Angeles Times article profiled a mother of five in a Mexican border town two hours southwest of San Antonio, a woman who earned about $55 a week sewing cloth bags at a local factory. Just two years earlier, the same woman had been able to earn twice that amount sewing jeans in a Levi's' factory, but that plant had shut down and moved its jobs to Central America and Asia. 

    The same article profiled Lisa Rahman, a 19-year-old garment factory worker in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who made 15 cents an hour in 2002. She could only afford to eat chicken along with her usual meal of rice about once every two months, had never gone to school, ridden a bicycle or seen a movie, and lived with her parents and two young relatives in one room amid the slums. She often worked from 8:00AM until 10:00PM, seven days a week, and had done so since she was ten years old. 

    One of Lisa's most recent jobs had been making a Winnie the Pooh shirt that the Walt Disney Company sold in the United States for $17.99. 

    In the wake of the negative publicity generated by the article, Disney's licensee subsequently suspended its work at that factory. Licensees in today's globalized garment industry work much the same way as subcontractors did in Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Disney remains at least partially removed from the manufacturing process—and such scandals—if the responsibility for working conditions and wages is passed onto their licensees. Constant pressure from investors to maximize profits, and from consumers to find good bargains, is likely to ensure that sweatshops will not go away any time soon.

  • Gender

    The Gender Politics of Fashion

    It's always been socially hazardous for the few brave souls willing to don a radically new style. 

    Because of the social and political meanings often associated with traditional styles, and the ever-present popular pressure to conform to dominant trends, mavericks flouting convention have long been targeted as objects of public ridicule for their public displays of unorthodoxy. 

    In 1851, the Bloomer—or "American"—Costume first appeared in Amelia Bloomer's newspaper, The Lily. Bloomer was a reformer who ran her paper out of Syracuse, New York, where women had recently gathered for the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention in 1848. Another woman named Elizabeth Smith Miller first donned the costume, but Bloomers came to be known for the woman who most publicly promoted and adopted this potentially liberating style. 

    The Bloomer Costume consisted of ankle-length trousers—either large Turkish style or straight-legged "pantaloons"—worn with a mid-calf-length dress. Few women actually adopted the costume, but it generated a disproportionate amount of public outrage and ridicule. Critics linked the concept of female trousers to the Women's Rights Movement, which they feared and despised. People wrote songs and poems mocking the Bloomer style, and cartoonists suggested that women donning the American Costume would also commence smoking cigars and assuming a generally masculine demeanor.

    Apparently, most Americans felt that bloomers went "too far," thereby demonstrating the potential power conveyed by fashion statements and the extent to which American patriarchy continued to reign supreme. Even a seemingly superficial clothing trend that offered more comfort but less gender distinction was deemed unacceptable, perhaps because of the bloomers' feminist implications. 

    But the unusual level of public contempt also indicated a widespread understanding that fashion statements like the bloomer—if allowed to continue unchecked—might lead to demands for more substantive gender equality, like equal pay and equal rights. To avoid this immediately hostile reaction, some activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton avoided the style entirely. Many suffragettes didn't want to alienate conservative women and undecided men. Clearly if peer pressure didn't succeed, such pragmatic calculations did, and bloomers remained a phenomenon much talked about but very rarely displayed.

    Suffocating Style

    Trends have sometimes demonstrated a deep public ambivalence over changing social mores and gender roles. According to historian Jill Fields, the corset revival of the post-World War II era "manifested nostalgia for an imagined prewar past of more starkly defined gender differentiation when women were more clearly subordinated, while also providing a means for modern middle-class women to embody the twentieth-century ideal [...] of being both respectably nice and desirably naughty."

As styles become increasingly revealing, more cultural emphasis is placed on the female body, and women become objectified as purely sexual playthings, rather than human beings. 

Women sidle up to rap stars and gyrate against them in music videos, while being referred to as derogatory terms in the song lyrics. Beauty pageant contestants demonstrate their talents and their public speaking abilities before the judges, but they also have to compete in "swimwear" competitions during which they wear nothing but bikinis and parade around the stage, often having covered their rears in hairspray or other adhesive to keep the bikini line from shifting. 

If such "fashions" teach us anything, they reveal that while styles may have changed, the popular preoccupation with the female body remains a central—and still problematic—facet of American culture.

  • Culture

    Film and Fashion

    In the 20th century, the fashion and entertainment industries became deeply interconnected. Once clothing trends were broadcast across the country in motion pictures and, later, in television shows, fashion took on a new meaning in America. 

    Lana Turner became famous for the bombshell "sweater look," in which her clingy tops revealed every curve of her busty figure beneath—Turner's bra was composed of two cones that were stitched in concentric circles. When Turner starred in The Merry Widow in 1952, her strapless black corselette with attached garters sparked a fashion craze that was named after the movie. 

    Alfred Hitchcock channeled the symbolic paradox of female purity and seductiveness when, in his 1960 film Psycho, he initially dressed star Janet Leigh in a white bra and slip before showing her in black underwear after she'd committed embezzlement and moved into the motel where the murderer lived. 

    Marilyn Monroe had already combined the concepts of innocence and allure in her iconic white dress in the 1955 movie, The Seven-Year Itch, in which she stood over a subway grate that blew her clothing skyward, revealing her legs and white panties beneath. 

    When Diane Keaton donned the layered and androgynous looks of her title character in the 1977 classic Annie Hall, she sparked a major fad among women who were living through the Second Wave of the Feminist Movement. Keaton, who was styled by costume designer Ruth Morley and a team of five others, seemed to hit on an irreverent, bohemian combination of style elements—from vintage men's bowler hats and vests to oversized jackets and equally baggy pants—that spoke to women of the period.

    And male stars were equally capable of sparking trends and gaining notoriety from their fashion firsts on film. 

    In It Happened One Night (1934), Clark Gable took off his shirt and revealed a bare chest in place of the traditional undershirt. The entire undershirt industry suffered as a result. 

    Then the white cotton T-shirt, previously a hallmark of working-class garb, became the uniform of the male sex symbol after Marlon Brando donned one in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and James Dean embodied the look for teens in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). 

    This trend has continued through successive generations, from the tattered garb of the counterculture heroes in Easy Rider to the flashy suits and open-collared shirts of John Travolta's Italian-American character in Saturday Night Fever and the pastel collarless shirts and sport jackets of the detectives in Miami Vice. 

    Both reflecting and sparking fashion trends, these cultural icons are remembered as iconic because they seem to have captured the look of their generation. Subsequent generations of moviegoers are usually able to place those films within the decade of their creation, just by observing their outfits. It's perhaps a testament to the power of generational trends that few individuals realize how period-specific their clothing actually is, until they look back on old photographs of themselves after several years have elapsed.

  • Economy

    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."blank">Rosie the Riveter" worksuits or military uniforms could earn a decent wage while taking pride in their patriotic service.

    Whether in wartime, at peace, or 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 for class status, but at the same time, non-elites have always managed to co-opt popular trends and make them their own.

  • Society

    Native American Garb

    Whites and Native Americans 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 17th and 18th centuries would've 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 Native Americans 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. 

    And the market for women's undergarments alone is now valued at some $13 billion. So, as certain styles have proliferated among Americans, and as the capitalist marketplace expanded in the 19th and 20th 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've 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.

  • Politics

    The Fashion of Politics

    The symbolism of fashion has often intersected with the closely-watched actions of public figures in politics. So, a candidate's choice of clothes has not been a mere matter of aesthetics, but of strategy. 

    At America's first presidential inauguration, George Washington wore a suit of "citizen's dress, the cloth of American manufacture, of a dark brown color." 

    Clearly American society, Black and white, young and old, remains plagued by myriad divisions that not only encompass fashion trends but also intertwine with them.

  • Religion


    When most people think of the famous Pilgrims of the Mayflower and Plymouth Colony, they imagine a somber and conservative people dressed in somber and conservative hues of black and white. 

    In fact, black cloth was actually quite expensive and difficult to obtain. It was typically worn only for Sunday church services or other special occasions. For everyday wear, Pilgrims dressed in hues from red to yellow to green to purple to—most commonly—russet, an orangey shade of brown. 

    These were more subtle colors than we might imagine today, because vegetable dyes were used in the centuries before the invention of modern chemical dyes. 17th-century colonists had literally dozens of names for the materials that they used to make their clothing. Most of those materials were subtle varieties of wool, leather, and linen: they were known as serge, baize, Holland, darnacle, kersey, lockram, linsey wooley, and calico, to name a few. 

    So, Puritans exhibited a range of clothing styles based on social rank and profession, and they employed a wider variety of hues than they are typically given credit for wearing. Early New England settlers may have lived according to principles of piety and simplicity, but they weren't all black-and-white.

  • Diplomacy

    Globalization and Fashion

    After World War II, the United States expanded its economic and political ties to foreign nations in order to secure a vital role for capitalism in the radically altered international climate of the Cold War

    As nations like Japan arose as manufacturing competitors in the late-20th century, American corporations began to look abroad for cheaper labor and materials in order to stay competitive at home. Economic theorists propounded a free trade theory that would undo tariffs and other barriers to competition and exchange with foreign nations. 

    Throughout the postwar period, free trade enjoyed a rare amount of bipartisan support among American leaders. When Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, free trade was one of the few positions he held in common with his Republican predecessor, George H.W. Bush. 

    Despite the vehement opposition of many other Democrats, American unions (concerned about job outsourcing), and environmental groups (worried about lax governmental standards with increased trade), Clinton pushed hard and received congressional approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The agreement created a free-trade zone spanning Canada, the United States, and Mexico. 

    After NAFTA went into effect in 1994, Mexico became the largest exporter of apparel to the U.S. market.

    The benefits and advantages of free trade have produced mixed results on both sides. There were clear advantages for the impoverished manufacturing sector in Mexico, which could compete more effectively after NAFTA by shipping goods duty-free into the U.S. 

    And so the delicate trade dance will continue, so long as there are bargain-hungry shoppers, foreign manufacturers with cheap labor, environmentalists protesting loose standards, nervous American factories and employees, and politicians from both sides of the aisle clamoring to solve the trade crises.

  • Sexuality

    Crime and Punishment

    In colonial America, clothing could be utilized as an outward badge of inner sin and shame for misdeeds. In New England's Plymouth Colony, throughout the 17th century, people found guilty of adultery were publicly whipped and forced to wear an "AD" badge. 

    Much like Hester's "A" in The Scarlet Letter.

    If they were discovered in public without the badge, they were to be branded on the forehead or publicly whipped again.

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