Mary T. & Lizzy K.
written and directed by Tazewell Thompson
Fashionable Practices: Clothing styles
in Mid-19th Century America
The Civil War and the Reconstruction Era thereafter proved to be a magnificent time in America’s fashion realm. Urbanization diversified the fashion landscape as more stores were being incorporated into major metropolitan areas. In 1860, 10.5% of the U.S. population lived in urban areas, however this percentage steadily grew to approximately 19.7% by 1880. As the influx of people increased within cities, so did the diversity of the clothing shops. At any given point, one could witness a woman in expensive red silk strolling down a typical urban setting at the same time as a woman dressed in pure cotton at little cost to her. These clothing shops tended to be separate, however, based on how expensive the fabric they sold was. Higher end shops were typically clustered together, while cheap, less fashionable shops were self-segregated based on property costs. Fashion trends often strayed toward the higher end shops. When hoops became popular, the people in urbanized areas were quick to follow, as they had a steady means of gaining materials and monopolizing trends due to the availability of these expensive shops.
While all of this was going on in developing urban areas, the rural townships had a much different story. Since faster means of travel had not yet been developed, fashion was often subject to a singular store within any given township in a rural area. Considering that between 1860-1875, 85% of the U.S. population resided in rural areas, conformity was almost a given fact to Americans in regard to fashion. The availability of materials was often limited to one central, general store, so women were forced to buy the same fabric as their neighbors if they were in a 50-100 mile radius. Trends were often dismissed within these townships because work was blue-collar based. Men, and even women, usually disregarded high fashion due to the implications of their labor. While urbanized women were trying to catch up with hoops, bustles, and the next latest fashion, rural women were reconstructing men’s pants to fit underneath their dresses in wintertime to keep warm while they worked in the fields.
While the rural and urban areas of America varied greatly in their pursuit of fashion, there was a common thread that bound them together: a sense of community. General stores, whether in dense or sparse populations, only sold fabric—never clothing. Women often constructed clothes in the home, where they usually followed fashion magazines or gossip from other women as a means of design. Fashion was a highly sociable event, as women often held parties for dressmaking. Most even kept a diary of their process and at such social events, would share their secrets and methods of creating the perfect piece of clothing. These social events were popular throughout the early and mid-19th century, but they died out around 1860, when what was commonly known as the “consumer revolution” began. As a result of the war, social events became scarce and women often shopped independently. That being said, consumerism was at its highest during this time, and the more women spent, the more businessmen recognized that new products had to be established to keep up with buyer needs. Instead of buying fabrics and constructing clothes from the home, the need for “ready-made” clothes in general stores became ideal, and thus the dressmaking profession was born.