Who Put Americans in Jeans and T-Shirts?
Women’s clothing once looked like an elaborate layered cake. Floor-length dresses were made of reams of fabric, often covered in trims and details like lace and embroidery, and supported by chemises, bustles, crinolines, corsets, and petticoats. Over the last 150 years, fashionable dress has shed layers and complexity to the point where many Americans spend their lives on the other denim-clad end of the spectrum. Modern, on-the-go lifestyles and women’s increasing freedoms are often cited for today’s laid-back modes of dress. We just like what’s comfortable, right? But what’s often overlooked is how mass manufacturing and the imperatives of what is easiest and cheapest to mass-produce simplify and ultimately dumb down what we wear.
Clothing was once entirely handsewn and custom made, either in the home or by a dressmaker or tailor. All of that began to change in the early 1900s, as America and particularly New York’s Seventh Avenue established itself as a sophisticated ready-to-wear manufacturer, capable of producing large volumes of readymade clothes. The iconic flapper styles of the 1920s with their shorter hemlines and lack of underthings embodied women’s more liberated roles, but the flapper dresses’ straight, unfitted waists were also easy for primitive mass manufactures to handle. This was at a time when factories were struggling with standardizing sizes. Consumer historian Jan Whitaker says, “The fact that these dresses didn’t have to be fitted was not insignificant at a time when the industry was incapable of producing a fitted dress for the whole population.” Coco Chanel’s “little black dress” was also a ’20s creation. Because it has a fitted waist, the LDB was trickier to mass-manufacture, but as early as 1926, American Vogue likened the LBD to the Ford, alluding not only to its universal appeal but to its uniformity and utter simplicity that seemed made for the factory line.
Today, fast fashion chains like H&M and Forever 21 order styles in smaller numbers than a basics company like UNIQLO or Gap, and have the flexibility to be more fashionable as a result. H&M is currently selling a pretty cute Goth-inspired “short, fitted dress in glossy velour,” for example. It can be yours for a jaw-dropping $9.95, a price achieved both by its cheap materials (polyester and elastane) but also by its simple construction and lack of detail — it’s little more than a few yards of stretchy, forgiving fabric slapped together.
Few would prefer we go back to wearing a corset or a petticoat every time we step out the door — but we underestimate the power of what’s put in front of us and the limited looks available in our consolidated fashion landscape. “People tend to like what’s available and the choices given to them,” agrees Whitaker. Casual and simple clothing’s complete dominance is not a foregone conclusion. I think our adoration of red carpet couture gowns, Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, and even Lada Gaga’s costumes are evidence enough that consumers aren’t satisfied with the fashion zeitgeist. Corporate retailers will always sell what’s safe and factories will prefer unfussy styles that don’t require a lot of set-up and training, but that’s where the handmade, custom-made and slow clothing have their edge. Jeans and T-shirts have their place, but they should be balanced out by a national wardrobe that includes more craftsmanship, detail and personal expression.