From corsets to commerce: A two-part look at European and American fashion in the nineteenth century.

The extraordinary color and variety of textiles in this afternoon
dress, ca. 1872, attest of the refinement of the French textile
industry. Creator: Charles Frederick Worth. This image is posted
under terms of ARTstor.

Fashion, clothes, and culture

Professor of American Literature at the University of Rome Three

Habits of Being I dealt with the significance of clothing accessories on the construction of the modern body and Habits of Being II was concerned with the (literal and metaphorical) circulation of clothes in the modern system of fashion. Fashioning the Nineteenth Century: Habits of Being III concentrates on the significance of fashion and clothes in the nineteenth century, both in Europe and in the United States. Because with industrialization, fashion, the city, and the flaneur were born at that time, the authors of these thirteen essays—by scholars, artists and fashion designers—considered it crucial to analyze why and what this triad meant for Western society at large.

For the first time in the West, fashion and clothes were considered indexes of culture, not only of history (as Louis XIV had declared), by both great writers (such as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé) and early sociologists (such as Thorstein Veblen and Georg Simmel). Various epoch-breaking social changes characterized the long nineteenth century, and each of them can be traced through the styles of clothes that accompanied it: for women, from the neo-classical to the knickerbocker suit, passing through the bell-body, the bustle, and the hour-glass shape; for men, the three-piece suit was created, signalling bourgeois thriftiness, austerity, and self-control. The century ended, however, with the effeminacy of the dandy and the spectacularization of clothes and pose. And it is precisely the dandy who affords the link to the twentieth century, when women (thanks to Coco Chanel) started wearing white flannels as men had done till then. By dressing like them, women started challenging men’s social supremacy not by contrasting but by assimilating. Revealingly, an acute observer of fashion and manners like F. Scott Fitzgerald in Tender Is the Night muses: “They [the women] were all happy to exist in a man’s world—they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them.” But if much occurred in a century, so much more has happened through the course of the past one and into our days.

It is thus evident that anyone studying the nineteenth century would profit from reflecting on apparel, in all its social and cultural implications and from a wide variety of disciplines: history, literature, anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, pedagogy, fashion history, etc. Far from being trivial, the subject of clothes affords a unique (and pleasant, but not “light”) angle from which to look at the characteristics of a whole period.


An example of the beauty of printed and dyed fabrics
that were used in the 1840s. Image posted under
terms of ARTstor.

On industrialization and the fashion industry

Professor of English at the University of Minnesota

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With rooms devoted to corsets and fans, shoes and gloves, and a few men’s hats, as well as huge wall texts by Émile Zola, Mallarmé, and Baudelaire, this paean to the nineteenth-century European body armored in finery offered its viewers entry into a world of fashion that was then emerging into public spaces, even as its very presence on boulevards and on canvases hung in parlors hinted at its eventual demise. Once fashion hit the streets, it became fair game for all. Before dresses were worn and became visions for painters and poets, they were made, fabricated by skilled hands who worked materials that had been made by still others—usually far from Europe’s shores.

Fabric swatches that appear in The Repository of arts, literature,
commerce, manufacturing, fashion, and politics (1809),
Rudolph Ackermann.

While the dresses by Charles Frederick Worth on view in this exhibition (or in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum) were couture, styled and sewn for individual buyers, fashion was also a commercial venture. This woodcut from the 1840s by Utagawa Hiroshige, titled “Narumi Station: Shop Selling the Famous Product Tie-dyed Arimatsu Fabrics,” gives a view into the local commerce of silk in Japan as it was industrializing and opening to trade with the West.

Narumi Station: Shop Selling the Famous Product Tie-dyed
Arimatsu Fabrics, Utagawa Hiroshige, 1840s. Posted under
conditions of ARTstor.

Everyone wears clothes. And with industrialization, clothing, too, became an industry, as a number of the essays in this volume describe. Jacob Riis’s photographs of sweatshops in New York’s Lower East Side presented a dark contrast to the bright images of family picnics taken en pleine depicted by Renoir. Here the family is also together, but joined by scissors and threads and scraps from the dozens of trousers churned out daily by father, mother, and children. The brutal conditions Riis found among New York’s immigrants have been outsourced off shore.

“Knee-Pants” at Forty-Five Cents a Dozen—A Ludlow Street
Sweater’s Shop. By Jacob Riis.

Catastrophes like the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire that killed more than one hundred young women when they jumped to their deaths because exits were locked are now occurring in factories throughout Asia, mostly horrifically in last year’s collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. This contradiction emerged in the nineteenth century: On the one hand, a world of elegance and finery, this month captured by the newest Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute exhibition of another Charles (1950s designer Charles James), whose highly constructed gowns both look back to the nineteenth century and look forward with “an undeniable modernity,” according to Roberta Smith. And on the other, an industry mired in exploitation as most of us seek out cheap jeans and t-shirts for our daily wear.

Entranced by the past, as so many of us were as we marveled at the bustles and top hats which appear so distant from our lives, we are still its captives.


Cristina Giorcelli is professor of American literature at the University of Rome Three. Paula Rabinowitz is professor of English at the University of Minnesota. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz are co-editors of Fashioning the Nineteenth Century: Habits of Being 3, the third installment in the Press’s Habits of Being series.

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