Democratization of Fashion

Yes, that’s a pretentious title, a phrase I borrowed from the book COSTUME by Rachel Kemper for a blog I first wrote on the subject years ago. For Kemper fashion became available to the general populace, the masses, with the introduction of mail order catalogs. (Kemper’s book was first published in 1977 so Internet shopping had not yet become a factor in the retail world)

I don’t agree that fashion became available with the intro of catalogs. I think fashionable styles for everyone began with the invention of the sewing machine and, to some extent, before that with the use of machine produced cloth. Since the sewing machine did not come into common industrial usage until after 1850 be advised that this is a departure from my usual Regency based blogs.

Elias-Howe-sewing-machineElias Howe patented his machine in 1846. Despite the difficulties of securing financial backing and suits for infringement of his patents, the sewing machine eventually became a significant element in the production of clothes. The sewing machine remains an easily recognized staple of fashion and craft work. I would not say “every home has one” but I think most who have easy access to the Internet would recognize one.thWV93C6MO

Shopping is my great escape (note: shopping, not buying). One of my favorite things to do is check out designer items at Saks and Neiman Marcus and then follow the styles down the economic scale to Kohls and Target. The phrase “knock off” is the current inelegant description of this process.

Picture%201_25 (2)The dress with pink trim is by Missoni and cost more than $1,000. The Dress with the navy bodice is a “knock off” that costs $98. The difference, which is not apparent in the photos, is the quality of the product. The $98 dress will probably not last more than one season while the true Missoni can be worn for years, a veritable collector’s item.

Making that trend their own, designers like Vera Wang, of the fabulous (and expensive) wedding dresses, have designed clothes for Target, making stylish clothes available at an affordable price.B000IPFALG.01-A2FMOXN01TSNYY._SCLZZZZZZZ_V44216869_

Here’s a look at this from a different perspective. The brilliant monologue on how a specific color made its way to the masses in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA delivered by Meryl Streep is one of my favorite  illustrations of the “democratization of fashion.”

Wearing clothes with a sense of style transcends economic status as the blogger illustrates. But the clothes have to be available. The sewing machine made that possible over one hundred years ago as has the mail order catalog and now the Internet.

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

Your thoughts?

About Mary Blayney

I have been writing both contemporary and regency romances since 1986, first with contemporary romances for Silhouette and later with historicals set in the Regency period. Family will always play a strong part in my books since, for me, family relationships are as fundamental as the love between a man and a woman.
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21 Responses to Democratization of Fashion

  1. Kathryn Anderson says:

    Thank you for this interesting post on the historical underpinnings of modern fashion. I love fashion and the idea that we can all have a fashionable wardrobe without cleaning out our bank accounts. It just takes a little time and thought. The Sartorialist is also one of my favorite bloggers because of how he captures street fashion and shares it with all of us.


  2. Wonderful blog, Mary. I’m sharing to Emelle Gamble’s author page, as I am sure any reader will be interested. I can’t imagine an upcoming invention that will take a craft from the individual’s hands into the mass production mode…although maybe texting has replaced well-practiced penmanship – technology now doing what the human eye-hand coordination did until now? Thanks for the great piece.

  3. Marcy Tripp says:

    Wait long enough and things filter down….I finally get used to seeing outrageous styles and it’s on to another look…just cant keep up!

  4. Elena Greene says:

    Interesting post, Mary! The topic of sewing machines has been on my mind since I recently gifted one, a Singer, to my daughter for her birthday, and around the same time I saw an old Singer at a museum that was just like one my grandmother owned.

    I am wondering if there was a bit of temporary democritization during the earlier period of the Regency, when simpler gowns were in style. Of course, later in the Regency and into Victorian times things got fancy again and would have required both more time and fabric to create.

  5. diane says:

    I still have the Singer my aunt bought in 1954. I still remember the salesman coming to our house to sell it to her. It’s big innovation? It sewed over straight pins. Later in 1968, I bought one almost exactly like it for myself. I’ve no doubt both could be put in working order with a good cleaning.

    Elena, I, too, was thinking about the democratization of fashion in the Regency. I’ll bet it happened, because ladies in the fashionable world often gave their old gowns to their maids, who sold them at old clothes shops like the ones on Petticoat Lane in London. The fashionable dresses would then be seen and worn by more people and, I suspect, some would work their way down the socioeconomic scale. As well, when poorer women would make their own dresses, they would make them in the more fashionable styles that they’ve seen on the street. Of course, those styles might be a few years out of date, but, even now, it takes time for high fashion to filter down to stores like Target and Kohls. Just not as long as in past years!

  6. Mary Blayney says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting! As for the democratization during the Regency, the question for me centers around what women did who could not afford a maid to help them in and out of stays. Did they dress differently? If so the need for a properly fitting undergarment would hamper the adoption of Regency style dress wouldn’t it?

    • Elena Greene says:

      I suspect that most women did not live alone, so in a poorer family they’d help each other and in wealthier homes, I would guess the female servants could do the same.

  7. Mary Blayney says:

    Emelle, the idea that texting has replaced penmanship is a great comparison. The other thing I see happening with texting is that spelling is reverting to an earlier style (pre 1850) when there was no right or wrong way to spell a word as long as U understood it.

  8. Mary Blayney says:

    Thanks Kathryn. You and I have established that The Sartorialist is great but tell me, what other fashion blogs do you follow? And do you, like me, use Pinterest (sp?) to collect your favorites?

    • Kathryn Anderson says:

      I love Pinterest! I collect favorite fashions, from the realistic to the fantastic, as well as ideas for hairstyles, decorating, and other things that I might have collected in a scrapbook when I was a teenager. I’ve assembled a good collection of costume ideas for that next fun dress-up event, too.

    • Kathryn Anderson says:

      By the way, I also still have the sewing machine my parents gave me for my 20th birthday. I use it to make costumes sometimes, which is fun.

  9. Fascinating post, Mary, and some thoughtful insights into the democratization of clothes. The more machinery and mass production crept into the world of clothing the more available clothing became to those who could not hire a modiste. My mother still has my grandmother’s old pedal Singer sewing machine. I have a much more modern version courtesy of my brother who bought it so I could finish a quilt I was piecing for him. That machine has pieced many a quilt since then. I still quilt them by hand and so some of my sewing by hand. Old habits.

    • Mary Blayney says:

      Hi Louisa — I too have an pedal sewing machine but,, sad to say, I only use it as a place to fold clothes. I have a much newer Singer which is barely out of the box — sigh — time management is not one of my skills. Do you have photos of your quilts anywhere?

  10. Deborah Barnhart says:

    Always love blogs around women’s fashion and always fascinated by how women of every age creates their own style. The sewing machine has frightenswd me since my first Home Ec class, so I have little to say about it in the particular, but I do believe that its creation made fashionable clothes more accessible to all women of every rank in society. Thank you for another fascinating blog, Mary.

    • Mary Blayney says:

      Thaks Deb, Sewing machines do not scare me but the annoy the heck out of me. They are always tangling or breaking or etc etc. I generally let someone else do the sewing now

  11. Sally Douglass says:

    Would you enjoy perusing my two antique (Peterson’s magazine, 1865, and Frank Leslie’s Lady’s MGazine, 1879) bound copies? Realize they are post-Regency, but what beautiful gowns. No patterns. Were the seamstresses supposed to be able to copy these very ornate dresses sans pattern?

    I had some antique clothes that were pretty fancy and sewn by hand- totally. I’m sure the sewing machine was very instrumental in the democratization of women’s clothes. Also commercial patterns.

  12. Contemporary fashion has always been my bane, even as–especially as–a teen.

    My mother would take me clothes shopping, pick something off the rack and say, “This would look so cute on you.”

    Uh, no. Nothing off the rack ever looked cute on me. I have always been cursed with a nasty little pot belly which ruined my otherwise hourglass figure. Everything in fashion was designed for flat-bellied girls. I was never one of those, so nothing hung right on my figure, or made me look pudgier than I was.

    I honestly don’t know what my mother was thinking. Commercial clothes never looked right. What is cute on the rack will NOT look cute on me. Ever.

    Then I learned to tailor. In the beginning it was to make costumes. Oh, glorious costumes, which allowed me to hide my flaws!

    Then I discovered I could re-tailor or even redesign contemporary clothes to better suit my figure. Nip in the waist of a shirt so I didn’t look like an apple pudding. Take in the waistband and ease out the pleats so my belly didn’t pootch out.

    The sewing machine was my liberation. To this day I never buy clothes off-the-rack. Never. I can’t justify $40+ for something that’s not high-quality and doesn’t fit me.

    I raid second-hand shops in prestigious neighborhoods for the high-quality $1000 items (for ten bucks), tailor them to fit my figure, and strut down the street a fashion icon. Otherwise, most of my trousers are completely made from scratch to disguise my belly, sit well on my hips and to include *pockets*.

    Thank goodness for sewing machines.

  13. Mary Blayney says:

    Heidi — that is a fabulous account of the your experience with sewing. I made all my maternity clothes . We were living in Kodiak Alaska — not much shopping available and mail order took forever. I loved sewing but after Michael was born I found having to FIT the clothes was asking too much of my impatient brain. Kudos to you for making it work!

  14. Mary Blayney says:

    Thanks Sally, I would love to see the books you mentioned — not that we need a reason to get together — just time!

  15. Mary Blayney says:

    Sally, I never thought of commercial patterns, but you are right another big step in making fashion available to everyone. I wonder what their history is. The subject for another post. Thanks!

    • Mary, first of all thanks for this great post!

      Clothes patterns also became more common in women’s magazines once those started to target a middle class audience (around the mid-century). Earlier magazines had all been targeted at upper class women, and hence the patterns that were included there were typically decorative patterns, e.g. embroidery patterns for cushions, etc.

      I have never looked into the history of tailoring during the Regency, but I suppose there might have been a chance that at least some seamstresses didn’t work with patterns but draped the fabric. And of course, quite a bit of sewing would have been done at home, especially in families that weren’t quite so well off. One of the things I love about Gaskell’s CRANFORD is how the stories give us glimpses into the everyday world of women – something that you don’t really find in many other novels. Take this bit for example, but swapping patterns:

      “[Miss Betty Barker] and her sister had had pretty good situations as ladies’ maids, and had saved money enough to set up a milliner’s shop, which had been patronised by the ladies in the neighbourhood. Lady Arley, for instance, would occasionally give Miss Barkers the pattern of an old cap of hers, which they immediately copied and circulated among the élite of Cranford.”

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