Fashion & The Modern World

Kristina Akhrarova

The world was forever transformed by the events of the French Revolution. The common man rose up to rebel against, challenge, and overthrow centuries of monarchical rule, attempting to undermine France's sovereignty and thereby causing many other countries to question the structure of their own governing systems.

Anything identified with the now-defunct ancient régime, including clothing, was considered passé in France's post-Revolutionary period. Women's fashions migrated toward a simplified silhouette in the years leading up to the Revolution, now took on an overtly political (i.e., democratic) tone in their references to ancient Greek and Roman dress. Menswear underwent a revolution of its own, the "great masculine renunciation" excluded lace, jewels, floral patterns, and bold colors now seen as "feminine."

The nineteenth-century would witness numerous revolutions of its own, which vary from country to country. There was one that was truly global in its impact: the Industrial Revolution. It triggered an outbreak of interest in science including chemistry, biology, botany, metallurgy, geology, and architecture. In addition, an artisanal studio model became a factory model, which made mass production a permanent possibility for the first time.

The middle class expanded rapidly and, with it, the market for fashion magazines catered to those with newly disposable incomes. Among the most important periodicals containing fashion were the Italian Corriere delle dame (1804), the London-based La Belle Assemblée (1806), and the French La mode (1829). In America, it was the Godey’s Lady's Book, one of the first important publications to cover fashion (1830).

A fashion plate is an illustration (a plate) demonstrating the latest styles of clothing. Fashion plates do not depict specific people. Instead, they take the form of generalized portraits, which dictate the style of clothes that a tailor, dressmaker, or store could make or sell. The fashion plates are often used as the main source for studying historical fashion and is used as a reference by modern high-end fashion magazines. Fashion plates continued to be colored by hand up until the 1880s.

From the second half of the century, London’s La mode pratique (1891) was one of the first magazines, if not the first, to incorporate fashion photography.

With the expansion of the market for ladies' magazines, some catered to the über-wealthy members of society, with their lingering aristocratic principles and dispositions. Others were created for the middle-class housewife, with their content that would reflect their life around domestic issues, including the texts of sewing and needlework patterns, etiquette, childrearing tips, recipes, and sheet music for the piano. Most of the fashion plates depict women's fashions. Magazines dedicated solely to men's fashion did but they were few and far between, as the nineteenth century saw a marked shift in the conceptualization of women as consumers.

Incorporating sewing machines into the fashion industry has greatly accelerated production time and promoted the rise of ready-to-wear. The first ready-to-wear garments available were ones that did not require a precise fit, such as undergarments, shawls, and outerwear. This kind of clothing offered in department stores meant instant gratification, giving rise to the phenomenon of impulse shopping. A woman no longer had to wait days or weeks for her dressmaker or tailor to craft a custom-made garment.

At the time, haute couture was also coming into being. Unlike the custom, couture à façon work done by dressmakers and tailors, where the client managed the design process. The haute couturier assumed the role of artist and tastemaker. Such unique, sometimes dictatorial, the vision became the couturier's official calling card. It is a common misconception that haute couture means "one-of-a-kind," when, instead, most couturiers design a collection from which a client will select a design, known as a "model."

The Aesthetic movement adherents advocated for dress reform. The case for dress reform centered around health concerns, and specifically on the abolition of the woman's corset. Aesthetic dress for both men and women embraced a looser fit that often referenced ancient, medieval, and Renaissance silhouettes.

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Dress is a fundamental element of social evolution. It comprises one of the most basic building blocks of inequality. Fashion, likewise, is neither frivolous nor trivial. It matters, has consequences. Dress and fashion have a significant impact on the way people live, define themselves, and operate within their own habitats. It is a game of differentiation, the means by which one ethnic group distinguishes itself from another, one social status and religious affiliation from another. Dress and fashion help identify the foreign, the minority, and the marginal, and can emerge as an influential means by which people challenge their status and reshape their identity within their own societies or on the global stage. In order to understand the complexities of what people wear and why, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, philosophers, semiologists, linguists and many others input their immense expertise. The study of modern civilization fashion along with mass production can derive no assistance from world history before comparatively modern times. In human history fashion is new and its future path is unknown.

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