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.
In the ensuing decades, clothing became simpler still, with separates replacing one-piece dresses and suits and casual cotton clothing known as “sportswear” taking off in the post-World War II years. Whitaker says the increasing influence of youth culture, the acceptance of cotton (a cheaper fabric than wool), and the development of sportswear all contributed to the simplification of fashion during this time, as did the women’s movement and the emergence of ready-to-wear fashion designers.
But it wasn’t until the garment industry moved offshore in the 1980s and 1990s that true mass-manufactured clothing as we understand it today occurred, with single styles produced in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions of pieces. It’s no coincidence that this is when Americans became truly wed to their jeans and T-shirts. Ilse Metchek, the president of the California Fashion Association, affirms that fit once again played a role in the explosion of casual dressing. “If you’re making large quantities,” she says, “you make a T-shirt or jeans because they fit the largest number of people.” Other factors were at play: with clothes being made on the other side of the world and planned a year in advance, only the safest and most profitable styles won out. Clothing companies also became more corporate and consolidated, and dumbing down fashion was a way to mitigate the risky business of fashion.
What seemed like a consumer-driven trend — the extreme minimalism of the 1990s — was in many ways created by huge, mass-market clothing corporations like Gap, The Limited, and J. Crew. Producing clothing that virtually anyone will wear from Florida to Oregon means producing styles at the lowest common denominator — more T-shirts, jeans, basics, and “classic” sportswear. As Teri Agins writes in her book The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever, “Such mainstream styles are far easier for designers to execute on a commercial scale, in that they are cheaper and safer to produce, with less margin for error in the far-flung factories…where much of today’s apparel is made.” Even high-end designers made a killing off minimalistic fashion in the 1990s, with Ralph Lauren popularizing a sleeveless, shapeless shift with an American flag on the front, for example.
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.
Elizabeth Cline is a Brooklyn-based writer working on a book about responsible shopping in the age of cheap fashion, when low prices and rapid turnover of styles have ignited out-of-control clothing consumption. The book, called Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, will be published by Penguin Portfolio in June 2012. You can follow the project at The Good Closet.