Fashion Mechanics

An exhibition on the Rise of Ready-To-Wear Clothing in Europe and North America, 1840-1940, curated by Zoe Grayer ’25, Blick-Harris Study Collection Curatorial Intern, Spring 2023.

On view now through November 2023

Department of Art History Lobby

For far too long, the history of middle-class fashion has been marginalized within history and art history. Fashion histoires have primarily examined the dress of the elites. Yet studying changes in style across time and social class is a way to look at history. This exhibition, “Fashion Mechanics: The Rise of Ready-To-Wear Clothing in Europe and North America, 1840-1940,” works to fill that scholarly void by studying prints and photographs that chronologically show the development of women’s ready-to-wear fashion from the 1840s through the 1940s. This exhibition begins in 1847, before the widespread mechanization of the fashion industry. At this time, popular fashion required women to hand-sew their garments, meticulously attaching all their ruffles in the right places. With increased mechanization in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ready-to-wear garments came to dominate women’s popular fashions. These new technologies were a mix of innovations directly affecting the fashion industry, namely the invention of the sewing machine and the rise of clothing catalogs. Moreover, the popularization of cars and the advent of World War I also promoted and popularized what we now call “fast fashion”. All these elements of mechanization informed the development of the modern commercialized fashion industry as we know it today.

Everyday fashion has long been in conversation with the art world, but these connections were amplified by the development of the department store. Department store managers, much like curators, attempted to create a multi-sensory experience for patrons buying new clothes. The relationship between department stores and museums is visible in the similarities between exhibition catalogs and department store catalogs and how works were displayed, such as clothing on a mannequin. This exhibition therefore shows the importance of prints and photography in understanding the history of fashion.

I would like to thank Professor Calvin for serving as my internship advisor, as well as Professors Ozerkevich and Porter and the rest of the Art History faculty for advising my work this semester. I would also like to thank my fellow intern Willow Baker.

Fashions for March 1847, 1847
Colored Engraving
24.1 × 15.2 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2015.226

Fashions for May 1847, 1847
Colored Engraving
24.1 × 15.1 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2015.224

Fashions for September 1847, 1847
Colored Engraving
24.1 × 15.3 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2015.225

Fashion plates have been popular among the stylish since the eighteenth century. Before 1800, however, these prints would often only depict one aspect of a garment, like a hat without showing how to style it into an outfit. Yet, in the nineteenth century, affordable fashion plates gained increasing popularity when lifestyle publications, such as The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, made plates and patterns more accessible for middle-class women, many of whom sought to emulate the finery of the elite. The authors of these magazines would describe the depicted styles, the French inspiration, and the materials one should use to create the garments. Often, the descriptions of the fabrics were ads for specific fabric stores.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the fashion industry was rapidly commercializing. With the help of these prints, the divide between the clothing of the elite and that of the middle class started to lessen. Fashions of May 1847, the plate seen here, appears to be advertising changes in patterns and sleeve types, specifically, since the silhouettes of the five garments are all corseted tops with princess-cut skirts. It is unclear if these prints would have had patterns attached to them, but they nonetheless provided women with information on how to dress stylishly. In the mid-nineteenth century, these patterns were still largely handsewn by women, even though the sewing machine was invented and patented for commercial use in the 1830s. Trends in women’s dress, specifically the ruffles, were too complicated for sewing machines, which required straight lines. Ready-to-wear manufacturers thus mass-produced women’s clothing later than men and children’s because of the complicated form-fitting silhouettes seen in the 1847 fashion prints.

Photograph of a Family, ca 1870
25.5 × 30.6 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2015.133

Family Portrait, ca 1890
10.9 × 13.1 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2015.546

Group Portrait in the Woods, ca 1890
15.8 × 21.3 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2015.534

Portrait of a Young Man, ca 1890
16.5 × 10.9 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2015.543

W.O. Miley (American)

Standing Portrait of a Young Man, ca 1890
16.6 × 10.9 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2015.567

After Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) invented the daguerreotype in the 1830s, photography allowed for a level of realism that prints could not achieve. Photography studios quickly became popular in Europe with clients willing to pay high prices to have their portraits taken, often in their most stylish clothes. Soon studios with similar layouts appeared across the United States, as seen in Portrait of a Young Man and Standing Portrait of a Young Man. As photos became cheaper to develop throughout the nineteenth century, the middle class could afford them. This increased accessibility to photography led to a wide variety of clothing depicted in images like Family Portrait and Photograph of a Family, which now provide insight into the style of middle-class families in this period.

Photograph of a Family depicts an upper-middle-class family in their finest clothes. Their garments represent the height of luxury with the tight corset and the voluptuous ruffles handsewn onto their dresses. A sewing machine could not handle those ruffles, which were still in demand in women’s clothing in the 1870s. One can place them in the upper middle class because they could afford a photograph in 1870, and their clothing is stylish and extravagant. The lack of personalization places this family in the middle class because an elite family would pay a photographer to personalize the studio.

In contrast, the Family Portrait from 1890 depicts a lower-middle-class family in their garden. The lack of shoes for the children suggests their lower class status. Yet they were wealthy enough to purchase this photo. The women’s blouses and men’s and children’s garments may have been ready-to-wear. Ready-to-wear fashion was popular among the lower classes, specifically men and children because it was an affordable way to get practical clothing. However, they are photographed in a rural setting, probably not near a department store, since cars were not popular among the masses yet. Thus, it is just as likely their garments were handsewn.

“Womens Work In War-Time: Glimpses of Versatility,” August 4, 1917
The Illustrated London News, Newspaper
40.8 × 29 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2022.64

The invention of the car and the start of World War I pushed women to buy ready-to-wear clothing. Sewing machines allowed for mass-produced clothing, but external factors made ready-to-wear clothing a necessity. Henry Ford invented his Model T automobile in 1908, and cars became more common for people to own. Many people in the middle class slowly began to travel more, which meant they needed to dress up for new social occasions. They could drive to their local department stores and buy the newest Parisian fashion trend of the 1910s: a dress with a straight hem and no ruffles.

The start of World War I propelled women into the labor force because many men were going into battle. Women were working wartime jobs, as seen in “Women’s Work at War-Time: Glimpses of Versatility” from The Illustrated London News. This article includes seven photographs of women working in jobs ranging from carpenters to nurses, in countries from England to Italy. These new labor conditions transformed women’s fashion. Instead of embellishments like ruffles, streamlined a-line dresses became popular. Moreover, the similarity of clothing worn across Europe highlights their garments; ready-to-wear natures since fashion was rapidly becoming more standardized and increasingly available at local department stores.

And He’d Say “OO-LA-LA-WEE-WEE,” 1919
Sheet music
31 × 23 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2021.24

Fashion lifestyle magazines and catalogs in the late nineteenth century slowly became more popular than the fashion plates and magazines from the mid-nineteenth century. Vogue magazine’s first edition was published in December of 1892, and it was marketed to upper-class women to keep them updated on the newest fashion trends, specifically from France. Mail-order department store catalogs soon followed. Sears published their first catalog in 1894, which enabled rural Americans to order their clothes by mail, and therefore to dress more similarly to people in cities.

Contemporary fashion became pervasive in popular culture, from film to newspapers to sheet music. The inescapability of fashion is made clear in And He’d Say “OO-LA-LA-WEE-WEE”, a sheet music cover published in 1919. The print depicts a man flirting with a woman dressed in a stylish black, white, and orange wrap-around blouse and a pleated midi skirt. Her garment is more practical than the ones from the 1847 fashion plates since streamlined fashion became popular after World War I. These styles did not require hand sewing since they only had straight-line seams. Her clothes may have been expensive, however, because adding texture, like pleating, was more complicated. Depictions of clothing were everywhere, and the prevalence of fashion encouraged the constant buying of new clothing to remain on trend and to remain on trend meant to stay youthful in the eyes of society.

Glenn Miller at a Record Player, 1940
20.4 × 25.4 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2015.553

Glenn Miller and Backup Singers, 1940
20.4 × 25.4 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2015.555

Glenn Miller and Photographers, 1940
25.4 × 20.4 cm
Blick Harris Study Collection, 2015.556

Celebrity and fashion trends have been connected since the popularization of the carte-de-visite in the 1800s as a way to see what celebrities were wearing. After the cinema gained popularity in the 1890s, local department stores quickly produced and sold knockoffs of the most fashionable attire in the films. By the 1920s, newspapers had started to release press photos of local celebrities, which operated as precursors to today’s paparazzi photos.

In the press photos, Glenn Miller and Backup Singers, Glenn Miller at a Record Player, and Glenn Miller and Photographers, women in their best ready-to-wear clothing surround Glenn Miller, a famous American conductor. The garments have straight-lined seams without complex stitch patterns, which implies that these clothes were bought ready-to-wear, the fashion industry standard by the 1940s. In Glenn Miller and Photographers, the women wear dress suits that mirror Miller’s own suit. Their clothing exemplified that of the working American, highlighting women’s continued presence in the workforce. These press photos elevate the two women and their clothing because they stand next to a celebrity, which tells the viewer that these dress suits are what working women wear. This photo subtly sells suits to American women, emphasizing a new market in women’s fashion: business attire.

About the Curator: Zoe Grayer ’25 is an Art History major minoring in Italian and History from New Jersey. In addition to her work in curation, she has presented at The Richard Macksey National Undergraduate Humanities Research Symposium on Early Modern Italy’s makeup culture. Focusing on fashion and makeup culture in her studies, Zoe hopes to pursue academia in the future.