History Hoydens

Example

Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

15 June 2009

The Democratization of Fashion

Yes that’s a pretentious title, for a post that is uneducated speculation. I borrowed the phrase from the book COSTUME by Rachel Kemper. For her fashion became available to the general populace (aka the masses) with the introduction of mail order catalogs.

I don’t agree with her. I think fashionable styles for everyone began with the invention of the sewing machine and even before that with the use of machine produced cloth. Elias Howe patented his machine that used “thread from two sources” in a lockstitch design. That was in 1846, though there had been attempts at developing a sewing machine as early as 1755. (As an aside the patent wars surrounding the sewing machine are worth a blog if you’re interested in patent law (I’m not).)

Today Vera Wang, of the uber expensive wedding dresses, has designed a line of clothes for Kohl’s, just one of a number of designers to make stylish cloths and an affordable price.

Shopping is my great escape (note: shopping, not buying). One of my favorite things to do is check out the designer salons at Saks and Neimans and then follow the styles down the economic scale to Kohls and Target. The brilliant monologue on how color makes it way to the masses by Meryl Streep in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is one of the best illustrations of the “democratization of fashion."

Wearing clothes with a sense of style transcends economic status as the blogger TheSartorialist.blogspot.com illustrates. But in order to do that the clothes have to be available. The sewing machine made that possible as did the mail order catalog.

After the printing press I think that sewing machine was one of the great social equalizers of all time.

Your thoughts?

13 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This is such a rich topic, Mary. Thanks for beginning it, and I can't wait to read what Kalen has to say.

I think I've always tried to weave this theme into my romances -- the dandyism in Almost a Gentleman depends upon my understanding that Beau Brummell (whose origins were highly undistinguished) based his fragile ascendancy on the "cold, unerring sense of style" I give my dandy "hero," Phizz Marston.

While in The Bookseller's Daughter and in The Slightest Provocation, I loved to show servants vamping it up in their masters' and mistresses' cast-offs .

And (did I make this one up or is it true? -- that in pre-revolutionary France you could buy fashionable knock-offs from Paris ateliers that were off the beaten path?

12:35 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes, Pam, this is very much a jumping off point for the more educated in the field but a subject that has been rolling around in my mind for years.

In my August book, STRANGER'S KISS, the hero does care at all about clothes but realizes other people do so he relies on his valet and his tailor to make sure he looks the way he should.

We will have to hope that Kalen checks in because I do not know the answer to your question about pre-revolutionary France

2:19 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

After the printing press I think that sewing machine was one of the great social equalizers of all time.


Sort of . . . when the sewing machine begins to allow common women to ape the rich, the rich respond with an orgy of trimming (all those yards of trim that did still have to be hand applied jet beads, fringe, real gold gimp, etc.). So the silhouette could suddenly be copied, but the devil—and the middle finger—really was in the details . . . as well as the fit. The biggest problem I see in the re-enacting community is that a lot of people just don’t know how to fit their garments correctly.

And (did I make this one up or is it true? -- that in pre-revolutionary France you could buy fashionable knock-offs from Paris ateliers that were off the beaten path?


I’m not sure about this, but I know there was a very hot rivalry in Parisian fashion, with all kinds of people putting out imitations of the clothing and accessories created for the queen. But this was true all over. The images in period fashion magazines were copied everywhere. I do remember reading something like this about the woman who designed all the accessories for Marie Antoinette’s wigs being hotly copied by her competition.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

One of the things the sewing machine did was pave the way for mass-produced clothing. I'm not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Society went from an era when garments were tailored and created for individuals to garments being produced on a much larger scale with little individuality. Just a thought.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Mary, I think that the fashion magazines and fashion prints had the effect of showing people of all social classes what the wealthy wore. But anyone who was clever with a needle could recreate the "look."
Certainly the sewing machine made it easier to make clothing. Clothes could be made faster and cheaper and that must have freed up lots of time.

My husband's great grandfather was a tailor and all his daughters were seamstresses. He brought his daughters over from Italy and all of them sewed. One did beadwork. My husband's grandmother eventually made the manufacturer's samples for the dress company Sue Brett, still in existence. She used to copy the patterns and make the same dresses for her daughter, my mother in law, who still loves clothes and fashion. I also came from a family of women who sew. I remember my aunt buying this great portable Singer sewing machine that sewed forward and backwards and went over pins!! That machine worked for decades!!

6:34 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

My grandmother and my great aunt taught me to sew, tat, embroider, quilt and do all sorts of needlework. My great aunt used to say 'The girl who sews, has more clothes.' True now as then. My brother bought my latest sewing machine so I could finish piecing the quilt I was making for him. I was piecing it by hand and he said it was taking too long!

6:56 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful topic, Mary! I too love shopping (and buying, I confess, though most of my buying is at 70% off sales). I think changes in the manufacture of fabric started to democratize fashion even before the sewing machine, as far back as the Regency.

I love dressing my characters and thinking about what their clothes say about them. I also love thinking about what type of clothes they'd wear if they lived in contemporary times.

11:15 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I also love thinking about what type of clothes they'd wear if they lived in contemporary times.

Oooo, Tracy! This is a wonderful idea. It really gives a great insight into their character. I love this!

5:43 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I love this topic, Mary, because shopping (and buying) are close to my heart. In fact I've been deliberating with myself for the past few days over whether to even try on a beautiful silk tunic with a handkerchief hem and beading, because it costs what my husband would call "stupid money." And it only costs that much because of the level of the trim and the high-endedness of the silk. I think it's a one-off, as well, or else that very few in that particular textile pattern have been stitched up.

All of that goes to Kalen's point regarding the way wealthy people were able to one-up the masses even after the so-called "democratization" of fashion with the addition of costly trim. Sure, I could find a similar silk tunic at a place like H&M or Zara (knockoff land) or even Loehmans or Filenes where deptartment store "buyers' mistakes" of higher end garments have been dumped -- but the assumption is that the tunic that captured my attention is better made (faceted glass beading instead of plastic, perhaps?) and rarer because it wasn't mass produced, which is probably why it's priced at nearly 10x the cost of a knockoff.

5:58 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks everyone for adding the kind of detail that make this a topic worth discsussing.

Kalen, I had a originally written a paragraph about the incredible fussiness (my word) of late Victorian dress and that I thought it came from the perceived need to show off wealth. So thanks for verifying something that I deleted because it was uneducated speculation.

My favorite story of creative sewing is a friend who made her daughters prom dress (and wedding dress!). She and her daughter picked out the material and then decided they liked the "wrong side" better. No one had a dress anything like it!

My favorite in "high end" fashion will always be the exquisite hand detail of 18th century fashion.

Amanda I think that the "stupid money" is not gender specific. I hope you get to use it too.

Tracy, like Diane, I'm going to use your idea of dressing characters in contemp clothes. Fun and insightful.

Louisa, where do you find the time?

6:17 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

One of the things the sewing machine did was pave the way for mass-produced clothing. I'm not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Society went from an era when garments were tailored and created for individuals to garments being produced on a much larger scale with little individuality. Just a thought.

It was certainly a good thing for the masses who could ill afford the time to sew their own, and certainly couldn't afford to pay someone else to make them. The rich continued to have bespoke clothing made, and still do today.

It was a bad thing (sometimes I think a truly horrible thing) once factories were devoted to creating clothing. I've been in a lot of factories around the world now, and it never fails to depress me . . .

7:10 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

We tend to forget, I think, that the huge increase in factory employment, beginning in the early 19th century, was in the brutal textile mills. The Luddites were stockingers. And then, of course, one of the only lower-genteel occupations for women was as a mantua-maker (translated into Heyerspeak as modiste) or milliner -- neither trade earning quite enough to keep body and soul together. All of that difficult to bring into romance fiction without prettying it up.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks Pam -- I had the same thought and it is one of the elements in my WIP -- set in not-so-beautiful Manchester -- I'm not sure how pretty I am going to make it. It was employment after all, and so many needed work. Even the high minded would, I think, have put employment first.

Kalen, does that same apply to the places you've seen? I think of it every time I buy an article of clothing made outside the US. Am I helping or prolonging the problem?

8:39 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Site Counter
Kennedy Western University Online