Suiting Everyone was published in 1974 as a work to go with an exhibition of the same name at the Smithsonian. Written by curators Claudia Kidwell and Margaret Christman, the book is about the history of ready-to-wear clothing, and how it changed from being cheaply made garments for the poor to being available at all prices and to suit all Americans.
I found the subtitle to be especially interesting. Today fashion people are always talking about how designer collaborations with stores like Target and H&M have led to the democratization of fashion. What they don’t seem to realize, and something that the book does an excellent job of explaining, is that fashion became “democratized” over one hundred years ago with the rise of the ready-to-wear industry. Fashionable clothing has been available for most Americans for over a century.
It’s not a process that happened over night. There were a lot of things that had to fall into place to make the mass production of clothing possible. A big factor was, of course, the Industrial Revolution with inventions ranging from the cotton gin to the sewing machine. But there were other, more obscure players in this story, such as how the War of 1812 led to the idea of the standardization of sizes, at least for men’s clothing.
Partly because of fit issues, and the problems solved by the US Army in making uniforms, ready-to-wear for men came about much earlier than that for women. The earliest ready-mades for women were items that did not require a close fit, like these loose-fitting tea gowns of 1898. Blouses, or waists as they were referred to then, underwear, and skirts were also early ready-made products for women.
Other early ready-mades for women included outerwear like capes and mantles. This is a golf cape from 1899. This garment was called a golf cape because they were made from plaids which come from Scotland which is where golf originated. It was a bit of a reach!
Sporting attire, especially bathing suits, were another category of ready-mades. The examples on the above left are from 1898. On the right you can see some cycling suits from 1897.
And while the catalog does show one knicker suit, there are seven suits that are short skirts. Note the knickers peeking out from under the skirt in the middle outfit.
The survey of ready-to-wear goes up to the present day, or at least at the time of the writing. Things have changed so much in the clothing manufacturing that it would be easy to double the size of the book just from the events of the past forty years.
In the preface to the book Claudia Kidwell tells how when planning the exhibition the Smithsonian staff realized they did not have the variety of garments necessary to represent all the ideas they wanted to illustrate. To get the needed clothing they announced to the public that they were in need of clothing from the 1920s through the 1970s. The internet did not invent crowd-sourcing.
This book was a gift from reader and friend Lynn Mally who writes the AmericanAgeFashion blog. We have this transcontinental book exchange going that just happened naturally when we realized we have shared interests. It makes me see just how important it is to me to be able to connect with so many fashion history lovers. The internet is a true miracle.
From going to the Costume Society symposium last week, I also realized that gatherings like that one are also very important in the sharing and exchange of ideas. One of the papers that was presented was about how clothing for enslaved people in America was some of the very first ready-to-wear, with there being ads for this clothing being placed in Charleston newspapers as early as the mid eighteenth century. The book touched on this very briefly, and so the paper tied in perfectly with what I’d just been reading. This research adds a great deal to the story of ready-made clothing.
Another of the presenters and I found that our research had over-lapped somewhat. As a graduate student some years ago she had interviewed twelve women who came of age in the same small town during the 1920s. Her questions centered on their dress during a time when hemlines got very short and which is today described as being “scandalous.” When she asked each if they ever wore any “scandalous” garment, several laughed and replied that yes, they had been very bad and had worn knickers. One even went so far as to put on her brother’s knickers and walk with friends to the next town, just to show off.
I want to thank all who read and commented, and all those who emailed saying that you liked my “Knickerbockers” paper. The best comments have to be from Karen of SmallEarthVintage, who read my description of the 1920s knickers-wearing girl, and knew I was talking about her grandmother. Karen is lucky to have a full range of photos of her grandmother wearing pants, starting with her as a teen in the 1920s wearing her knickers, to her as a grandmother in the 1970s, still wearing her pants.
As I concluded in my paper, “The knickers-wearing girls of the 1920s became the pantsuit–wearing grandmothers of the 1970s, who had learned years earlier the comfort and practicality of pants.” I could not have found a better example than Karen’s Grandmother Edna.