Currently Reading – Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America

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 slaves 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.


Filed under Currently Reading

Vintage Miscellany – November 1, 2015

No vintage photo this week so I could post this picture of the two loveliest house guides in Old Salem, NC.  Salem was a late colonial/early Federal era Moravian settlement that was saved from the wrecking ball much as Colonial Williamsburg had been.  When I first visited the restored/reconstructed in the early 1970s, all the interpreters were dressed like Pilgrims!  They come a long way in making the experience more authentic.

My symposium was held last week in Salem, a locale that added a lot to the trip.  The village (actually a smaller part of the city of Winston-Salem) is beautiful, especially in the fall.

I’m afraid I’m a bit short on links this week, due to being away and to spending so much time wringing my hands over my impending paper-reading.  But I did survive, and am here to post another day.


Filed under Vintage Miscellany

Knickerbockers for Women: From Under the Hiking Skirts to the Fad of the Hour – Part IV

By 1917 many women were also wearing some form of pants as needed for their work during World War One.  Mass market retail and sewing pattern catalogs offered a variety of overall and work pants for women.  But after the war ended, these patterns and garments quietly disappeared from catalogs.  The skirt convention seemed to have overruled practically in women’s work dress.

But in the woods, knickers and breeches had pretty much put the skirt issue to rest.  Most articles that I found on the subject between 1918 and 1930 mentioned an overskirt only as an afterthought, if it was mentioned at all.  In 1920 writer and outdoorswoman Nancy B. Katz wrote in Outers-Recreation magazine that the skirted woman in the woods was obsolete.

By 1921 some brave women were wearing knickers for other sports, especially golf.  The September 1, 1921 issue of Vogue showed a suit of knickers and matching long vest and declared, “This costume allows for greater freedom, whether for golfing or walking, than almost any other type of sports suit.”

The knicker suit was soon seen in stores ranging from Lord and Taylor to Sears Roebuck. There was even a popular brand of knickers called “The Fad of the Hour.”

So how did knickers for women leave the hiking trails to become a fad?  Many women had become somewhat accustomed to wearing some form of pants, whether in the woods, in the school gymnasium, on the job during the war, or even in the form of a bathing suit.  It may also have something to do with the 1920s idea of woman as garçonne, as dressing for women took on touches of the masculine.

In 1926 Vogue published a slightly tongue-in-cheek article titled, “They Are Stealing Our Stuff!” Author George S. Chappell lamented that feminine fashions were more masculine than not, and that “…hordes of khaki-clad [women]  hikers… throng our summer byways.”

His complaint was too little, too late.  Women were wearing knickers, not only for hiking, but for other casual occasions and for motor-car travel.

Here is a family group in front of the State Capitol in Augusta, Maine, circa 1925.  The young woman on the right is dressed more like her father than her mother.  If not for the cloche hat we might have mistaken her for a boy.

By the mid 1920s pants for women were here to stay, though it would be several more decades before women could freely wear pants on any occasion.  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 hope that everyone enjoyed my presentation.  I appreciate all your comments, and especially ant additional information that may add to this story.  The history of women wearing pants is a complicated one with many contributing factors to the end result.  I’ll be continuing to investigate this fascinating story.


Filed under Camping and Hiking, Proper Clothing, Sportswear

Knickerbockers for Women: From Under the Hiking Skirts to the Fad of the Hour – Part III

By the turn of the 20th century, knickers or breeches under a short, wide skirt became the hiking outfit most mentioned in magazine articles.  There were some exceptions, most notably an article written by outdoorswoman Annie Peck.  In 1895 Peck became the third woman to climb the Matterhorn, but she was the first to do so without wearing a skirt.  In her day Annie Peck was well-known, her adventures being widely reported.  In 1901 she wrote an article for Outing magazine detailing her climbing and hiking outfit and expressing strong views about the inappropriateness of skirts on mountains.

“…Men, we all know, climb in knickerbockers… Women, on the contrary, will declare that a skirt is no hindrance to their locomotion.  This is obviously absurd, and though a few ladies have climbed mountains like the Matterhorn in extremely scanty and abbreviated skirts, I dare assert that suitably-made knickerbockers… are not only more comfortable but more becoming… A scant skirt barely reaching the knee and showing the knickerbockers below, such as some ladies have worn, is as ungraceful a costume as could be devised; and for a woman in difficult mountaineering to waste her strength and endanger her life with a skirt is foolish in the extreme.”

But even the independent Ms. Peck had to concede to the skirt convention when on easier hikes.

“Among our own little mountains it is customary to wear a short skirt… If ladies were independent enough to adopt the plan, as some few have done, of leaving the skirt under a rock, they would generally be seen only by members of their own party… Of course in any case knickerbockers should be worn beneath.”

It seems as if women took Peck’s advice.  In a 1904 article in Outing, hiker Rena Phillips described how she had a big pocket put on the back of her jacket so when out of sight of civilization she could remove the skirt and place it in the pocket.  For the next ten years or so, the knickers and removable skirt seemed to be the most popular option, being mentioned in numerous articles and accounts.  One writer in 1913 claimed she rarely wore her hiking skirt but always carried it with her as it was useful as a rain cape.

As strong as the skirt convention was, it was being challenged by 1916.  In that year William J. Whiting wrote an article for Outing titled “Should the Woman in the Woods Wear Skirts, Bloomers, Riding Breeches, or Knickerbockers?” He argued that the wearing of skirts in the woods was a form of false modesty.

“The skirt is useless, is in fact a positive hindrance, and so by its very presence calls attention to the fact that she is a woman, and modest, or trying to be, thus defeating its object.  Anyone who has seen an emancipated woman dancing over rough trails in glee at her freedom… with no useless freak of costume to call attention to her femininity rejoices that so many now recognize that immodesty of attire is really unsuitability.”


Whiting went on to declare that only knickers were suitable for hiking.


Filed under Camping and Hiking, Proper Clothing, Sportswear

Knickerbockers for Women: From Under the Hiking Skirts to the Fad of the Hour – Part II

So with much encouragement, people across the US took up camping, hiking, and out-dooring, a general term of the time that encompassed many outdoor activities .  It became clear early on that some concessions concerning dress had to be made, especially for women.  One of the first American guides to outdooring was published in 1869.  Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp Life in the Adirondacks, by William Murray, gives a suggestion to women from the author’s wife.  Wear “a short walking dress, with Turkish drawers fastened with a band tightly at the ankle.”

These Turkish drawers were very much like the bloomers that had been advocated by women’s rights activists a few years prior and which had found a place as the bottom half of fashionable bathing costumes.  Mrs. Murray argued that the Turkish drawers were more practical than petticoats.

Despite the advice of Mrs. Murray, most sources of the 1860s through the 1880s don’t mention the wearing of bloomers in place of petticoats.  What was suggested was a light-weight flannel dress with a wide enough skirt hem to allow for a good stride.  In 1884 Harper’s Bazar suggested that “a flannel dress should be included, by all means and it should be made as short and as light in weight as possible, so that it will be suited for mountain climbing and walks through woods where there are more briers than paths.”

By short the writer meant just a few inches shorter than what was fashionable and accepted.  Even in the woods, style was important.  In 1885, Outing, a magazine devoted to the outdoor life, reminded their female readers that “A great deal of your pleasure depends on having comfortable and pretty clothes, nay, even stylish, for the camping-out dress has a style and grace that can be made very effective and becoming.”

The practice of wearing knickerbockers under the hiking skirt coincided with the bicycle craze of the 1890s.  The caricature of a woman in huge bloomers riding her wheel is well-known, but the wearing of exposed knickers on the street was just too extreme a style for most women.  The “skirt convention” as it is called by dress historian Patricia Campbell Warner, was not easily overcome, and despite all the articles and cartoons of the period, it appears that very few women actually wore bloomer bicycle suits.  This conclusion is based on the scarcity of surviving suits and the lack of photographic evidence.

Instead, women bicycle riders began wearing knickerbockers or breeches under a skirt that came to the wearer’s boot tops.  This mode of dress also appealed to women hikers.  Looking back in 1902, a writer for Good Housekeeping magazine stated, “One of the principal reasons camping and tramping are so popular to-day is because women are becoming more discriminating in the matter of dress.  The bicycle taught us the comforts of the short skirt, having cut off trains for one sport, the next step was to evolve fashions where in we might enjoy all of nature.”

In the mid 1890s many articles that addressed the question of what to wear in the woods actually recommended a biking ensemble.  From Harper’s Bazar: “For the [skirt] itself, nothing could be better than a bicycle suit of stout serviceable cloth, the skirt to reach no nearer the ground than the tops of ordinary walking boots.  Under this should be worn bloomers or knickerbockers, just as in bicycling.  Petticoats are as much to be avoided here as when on the wheel.”

Tomorrow:  The hiking skirt becomes obsolete.


Filed under Camping and Hiking, Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Uncategorized

Knickerbockers for Women: From Under the Hiking Skirts to the Fad of the Hour – Part I

I may have mentioned here that I talked myself into submitting a paper for possible presentation at my regional Costume Society of America symposium.  It sounded like a good idea at the time, though I wasn’t even sure the paper would be accepted.  Well, it was, and so I’ve spent way too much time over the past few months on the research and writing (and rewriting, and rewriting…) of it.  But the symposium is this weekend, and I think I’m all ready, with a fancy PowerPoint and a new skirt fresh off the sewing machine.

I wish I could take all of you with me, but since I can’t, I’m doing the next best thing.  I’ll be posting the paper here over the next four days, without the fancy PowerPoint, but with the same photos with annotations.  I hope you enjoy it.

Knickerbockers for Women: From Under the Hiking Skirts to the Fad of the Hour – Part I

By the mid 1920s women hikers were openly taking to the trails wearing their knickerbockers and breeches, while the first women hikers, just two generations before them had to make do in the woods wearing skirts that dragged the ground.

There are many factors that led to women wearing pants as a matter of course, and one of them is how the popularity of hiking and camping led women to adopt an increasingly practical way of dressing for the woods.

Hiking as a pastime began in Europe.  As early as the 18th century rich English travelers had been traveling to Switzerland for a bit of mountain rambling.  Hiking tourism really took off with the formation of the Alpine Club in England in 1857, and with the first Cook’s tour to the Alps in 1863.  By the 1880s walking, hiking, and rambling were common forms of exercise for both the men and women of Britain and the Continent.

In the US the situation was different, with hiking not really being an attractive activity until late in the 19th century.  As the US was settled westward, long distance walking accompanied by camping at night was not a choice, but a necessity.  The wilderness was to be conquered, not enjoyed.  In the mid 19th century many Americans were too close to the pioneer experience to have a positive view of the wilderness.

But even as American pioneers were continuing to move into wilderness areas, people in the settled East were taking a more romantic view of nature, perhaps being influenced by European writers and travelers.  At the same time improvements in transportation, especially the railroad, made getting to wilderness areas much easier.

As improved technology gave Americans more free time, the idea of vacations became popular with even the middle and working classes.  Magazine articles and books began recommending an outdoor vacation as a cheaper and healthier alternative to resorts and beach holidays.

The healthy effects of long walks out-of-doors were recommended by Harper’s Bazar magazine as early as 1867. Throughout the rest of the 19th century Harper’s Bazar was an advocate for outdoor walking and hiking.  An article in 1885 stated, “The more of out-door life we have, the better it is for us, morally, mentally, and physically.”

Tomorrow: What women hikers wore in the 19th century.



Filed under Camping and Hiking, Proper Clothing, Sportswear

Shopping with the Vintage Traveler: Hendersonville, NC

I recently had business in Hendersonville, but that suited me because there are lots of great vintage shops in that area.  I was on a tight schedule, and so I was only able to stop at two places, but there was a lot of great stuff to see and talk about.

One thing I can say for certain, in the first three decades of the twentieth century they really knew how to sell a book.  I’m talking about the fantastic covers.  Just look at Peg o’ My Heart above.  I’d have bought that book based on the little scruffy dog alone, not to mention Peg and her little bag.

Or what about Peacock Feathers, with that super Coles Phillips illustration?  I am always on the lookout for pictures of women wearing pants in the forest.  But it has been pretty much my experience that when it comes to mass market books of that era, you just can’t judge the book by its cover.  It leads to great disappointment.

Someone assembled a lovely scrapbook filled with illustrations like this farm girl.  Behind it you can see a wallpaper sample.  It was full of loveliness, but then when I turned to look at the cover I saw that the book was originally a 1910 tailoring book of wool fabric samples and drawings of the suggested suits.

My guess is that these are bicycling boots.  The heels are a bit high for hiking, though they could have served that purpose as well.

I don’t see a lot of these patio sets here in the East.  They were made to sell to tourists visiting the Southwest, but I have a feeling that the ones purchased didn’t get a lot of wear.   They border on costume, being based on the tightly pleated skirts of Navajo women.  They were even called squaw dresses during the time, though that term is not used much these days due to the idea that some consider the word to be offensive.

Here’s the label, with a great thunderbird motif.

Of course I had to photograph these Scottie twins.

Here’s a wooden handbag that was trying to cash in on the popularity of the Enid Collins bags.  This one is not signed in any way.  I love the 1960s version of nostalgia, with all its quaintness.  Make sure you note the doggie in the basket.

I do not need to take up another craft, but I’d almost learn to knit in order to have a pair of those beer socks.

There are quilt historians who claim that quilt makers invented modern art.  This quilt is an excellent argument in their favor.

Here’s proof that there are still bargains to be found in antique stores.  This silk teddy from the 1920s was unworn and perfect, and only twelve dollars.

I’m sorry about the quality of this photo, but look carefully to see how this velveteen handbag is shaped using folds.  And what about that clasp?  It almost looks like a pair of lips.

And finally, a 1940s photographer gets all artsy.


Filed under North Carolina, Shopping