It seems as if “everyday clothing” is having a moment. Several weeks ago I posted a link to the New York Times article about the collection of everyday clothes at Smith College. Then last week there was a conference in the UK on the topic of everyday clothes. And the latest episode of the fashion podcast Bande à Part is also about everyday clothes.
One of the first questions that Rebecca and Beatrice of Bande à Part discuss is, just what is everyday clothing. It might be pretty obvious to some, but think of the population as a whole; one person’s everyday is another’s special occasion. For discussion here, I’d suggest that everyday clothing means the clothes the 99% of us wear everyday. It does not include couture garments and ballgowns. For the most part, it does not include the avant garde.
In short, everyday clothes are the things that one does not expect to see in a fashion exhibition at the Met, or any museum that is dedicated to the idea that fashion is art. On the other hand, you would expect to see everyday dress in a history museum. And many museums, such as dedicated fashion museums, will often have both couture and more commonly worn garments in their collections.
Personally, I prefer the historical and cultural (as opposed to artistic) approach. Not to say that I don’t appreciate a stunning Dior gown, because I do. It’s enlightening for an everyday clothing collector like me to occasionally see the work of an artist like Dior. The truth is there are plenty of topics about everyday dress that need to be explored, but do we really need another book on Coco Chanel?
I still find the study of what women wore – and why they wore it – to be the most fascinating part of fashion history. The choice of a couture ballgown is based on what one’s favorite designer has to offer combined with trying to stand out from the other couture-clad ball goers. But in 1922 the decision to wear a pair of knickerbockers to a fall picnic could be full of gender-bending anxiety.
I can vividly remember the first day I dared to wear jeans to school. It had been stressed to us in the sixties and seventies that young ladies wore dresses and skirts, and so it was hard to ignore the disapproving voices in my head. How much stronger must that message have been to girls in the early 1920s!
It doesn’t get much more “everyday” than the school girl’s middy. My matching set is linen and was worn by a college girl. But even families with few resources could buy cheap cotton middies or make them at home.
This knit sports dress was made by a moderately priced knitwear maker, Sacony. The silk blouse was most likely made at home, and the California Sports Hat was sold through the Montgomery Ward catalog. Even though this ensemble is far from couture, it is still important as it shows a step in the increasingly casual way people were dressing in the 1920s.
Bathing suits were becoming a necessity, and they were available at many price points, from less than a dollar to more than twenty dollars. A woman needed a cover-up. but that could be borrowed from her own boudoir.
These two garments were probably beyond the budget of many 1920s women, but this would have been everyday wear for a woman who had a bit more to spend on her clothes.
And here is an example of a more aspirational garment. This is from French fashion house Babani, and would have been priced at a level that most American women could only dreamof.
I think it is great that historians are giving everyday clothing a closer look. What people wore is important in understanding the times in which they lived. It’s interesting to think of clothes as artifacts, and not just what one wore each day.