A history of fabrics, colors, and trims reflecting a century of women's interpretations of style.
Affordability and Availability
Fashion magazines, catalogs, and department stores brought fashion awareness in the 19th century to increasingly larger audiences up and down the economic ladder. Innovations like the sewing machine, paper patterns, and factory-produced textiles made fashion ever more affordable. By the turn of the 20th century, fashion as a lifestyle choice permeated American culture. Technology democratized fashion.
The emerging paraprofessional workforce of clerks and office assistants often found themselves clothing poor. Like the department store clerks below, their jobs required a professional wardrobe. But many lacked time to sew their own. Meager wages left them chronically short on cash to invest in high quality, ready-made garments. Consequently, they cycled through disposable, fast fashion.
The predominantly Jewish garment workers of New York's Lower East Side developed a reputation for flashy interpretations of current styles. The "wide sidewalks show[ed] more fashion to the square foot on Sunday than any other part of the city," according to the New York Tribune. Skilled professional sewers, they collected scraps, purchased cheap fabric from pushcart vendors, and "Americanized" themselves through fashion.
Upwardly mobile African American women girded themselves with fashion. Spelman College's dress code required that skirts not "be too short or too narrow, and necks to be high enough to avoid any appearance of immodesty." Dress expressed character. Home sewing skills produced eminently respectable wardrobes.
The simplified silhouettes of the 1920s reduced the cost of manufactured clothing. An increasing number of women in the workforce decided that purchasing ready-made was easier than making at home. Marketing changed to emphasize the non-economic benefits of sewing at home, especially the higher quality and better fit of home sewn clothes.
A post-war shift towards conformity emphasized the importance for women to socialize and fit in. Popular media further encouraged a vision of the American woman's ideal lifestyle characterized by the need for an extensive wardrobe. The right kinds of clothing were critical to social acceptance.
Sewing marketing in the 40s and 50s identified a new consumer: the American teenage girl. Starting in 1946, Singer—the country's largest sewing machine manufacturer—ran a 20-year campaign offering the Singer Teen-Age Sewing course to girls aged 12 to 17. Advertising sold home sewing as the creative, cost-effective pathway to a wardrobe sure to ensure a busy social calendar and snag the ideal boyfriend.
National Women's History Museum
Director of Program - Elizabeth L. Maurer
Program Manager - Jeanette Patrick