Fashion Transition – The View From The 1890s

It’s a commonly accepted part of today’s fashion wisdom that specific fashions are introduced on a seasonal basis (or faster) by armies of designers attempting to come up  with the next best thing. However, this connection between designer and customer hasn’t always been the case and in fact, throughout history, fashions have been introduced “from above” by people of higher social status, often a monarch and their inner circle. From there, the specific fashion moves downward through the social strata, adopted by an ever-widening group of people until it reaches the lower class where the fashion eventually becomes extinct.

Charles II

Charles II Presented With A Pineapple. c. 1675 – 1680

Probably one of the most specific examples of a fashion trend starting at the top was when October 7, 1666 King Charles II decreed that a new fashion was to be worn at Court consisting of a vet, waistcoat, and breeches, an outfit that ultimately evolved into the modern three-piece suit. While older fashions lingered on, the nobility and anyone else with pretensions of social standing were quick to adopt the new fashion.

1660, King of England, Charles II (1630 – 1685) with English statesman and writer William Temple (1628 – 1699). Original Artwork: Engraved by J Parker after a painting by T Stothard.

The traditional idea of fashion trends starting at the top of society has been largely replaced by the idea that fashion trends can start from a multitude of sources ranging from “street fashion” originating with the lower classes, political leaders, the military, and high-profile media figures. Central to the concept of fashion diffusion, whether it starts at the top, the bottom or somewhere in between, is the idea that most people are passive when it comes to fashion, only adopting what’s put in front of them to wear, a phenomenon that was noted during the 19th Century, usually in a negative fashion, by a host of commentators. Here is just one example from the March 10, 1896 edition of the Los Angeles Herald:

The Paris leaders in dress are neither women in private life nor in public life, as one so often reads, but the inventors of toilets in the swell dressmaking establishments, who succeed in interesting their patrons in their creations. Not one woman in 500, or in 5,000, knows what she wants to wear, and not one in 25,000 what she should wear. The designers who make up designs for the dress goods manufacturers have more to do with the fashions in vogue, from season to season, than any queen on any throne.

No longer are fashions being disseminated by those of a particular social class (i.e., a king or queen) but rather it’s being driven by fashion designers. The author goes on to note that:

The loom owners come next, staking much upon their belief that a certain design will sell. Then the dress designers, who do nothing but make pen and ink and colored chalk pictures of fashion figures that they think will show off to advantage the goods in the market, come in for an important place in the line of fashion creators. The “big” dressmakers buy the designs of these artists, and employ other artists of their own to invent fashions, and only then does the woman who buys and wears the clothes come in for any place in the procession of those who are responsible for the modes of the times.

What is interesting here is that the author is describing the fashion industry (of the time)- essentially, the industry itself has created a self-sustaining structure, something that comes as no surprise today. Finally, the author somewhat cynically concludes by stating:

Do heather mixtures and chameleon mohairs, colored damasks and taconnes with filete effects, moiré velour and wool and mohair jacquards, Mozambique checks and two-toned silk construction crepons, grenadines and et avimes, and so on and so forth—do any of these become the fashion because a duchess, wears them, or is It because Worth or somebody else coaxes her into having gowns made from them? The great popular demand for anything does not spring out of the fact that real queens wear certain things; too few people ever see them to know what they wear. It is because some of the people in the popular eye like stage queens exhibit taking toilets.

And here we finally hit at one of the major foundations of fashion trend-setting: the role of popular figures (“fashion influencers” as they are termed today). While the author only touches on this before concluding, it explains much of what we see today. The concept of fashion trends is not as modern as we would think and it’s always fascinating to see people’s reactions in earlier times.

Become a Patron!

Leave a Reply