By Maria Guzman
The period from the turn of the twentieth century to the end of World War I (1914–18) was one of great transition in the world of fashion. Not only did styles for women undergo a dramatic shift in their basic silhouette, or shape, but the very system through which new styles were introduced and popularized also changed.
Paris, France, was the center of the world of fashion, but more and more people got their fashion ideas from magazines and their fashionable clothes, ready-to-wear, from department stores close to home. Social changes, especially the increasing liberation of women and the coming of war, also had a dramatic impact on fashion.
These and other changes made this the period in which the fashion system, or the way that new styles were created and adopted by people, truly began to resemble what we know today.
The wealthy were concerned with fashion: following the latest clothing styles, usually those set by royals or their families, and wearing the richest and most luxurious garments available. Everyone else simply wore costume, everyday apparel that was chosen for its durability and its utility. Over time, as incomes increased, more and more people became concerned with fashion, but true fashion, with frequent changes and expensive and luxurious fabrics, remained only for the very wealthy. In the first years of the twentieth century, however, the system began to change.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Paris was the center of the fashion world.
Dressmakers outside of Paris might buy an expensive gown, take it apart, and make a pattern, or design to make a dress, which they sold, allowing the dress to be reproduced. Publishers began to sell pattern books of fashionable clothes that allowed people to make the clothes at home if they were good sewers. Soon, department stores, which were becoming popular throughout the West, also began to sew and sell dresses modeled on the latest Paris fashions.
These changes were small compared to the introduction of ready-to-wear clothing. In the past all clothing had been made by hand in the home. But the introduction of the sewing machine combined with the factory system allowed for the mass production of clothing in the nineteenth century.
Men’s clothing was the first to be mass-produced in a variety of different sizes.
This form of clothing was called ready-to-wear. By the end of the nineteenth century men could go into a store and buy ready-to-wear trousers, shirts, or jackets, but women still had to buy cloth and sew the clothes themselves. By the first years of the twentieth century, ready-to-wear clothing was available to women, too.
The first widely available ready-to-wear garment for women was the shirtwaist, a blouse that was worn with a long, flowing skirt.
Men’s clothing in general changed much less frequently and less dramatically than women’s clothing.
Standard wear for men in nonmanual work was the sack suit, or three-piece suit, usually worn with a shirt with a detachable collar, while working-class men generally wore trousers and a button-down shirt.
These outfits didn’t change on a seasonal basis like women’s, though men’s suits did see a slimming in profile that came in about 1908, around the same time as changes in the women’s silhouette. Men took advantage of the greater availability of ready-to-wear clothing, especially the newer, less restrictive forms of underwear that replaced the union suit, an undergarment that was shirt and drawers in one. They also enjoyed the looser, more casual clothes created for use while playing sports or motoring. While Paris was the center of women’s fashion, London, England, was the center for men.
The years from 1900 to 1918 were filled with many more important influences on clothing customs, including the growing popularity of fashion magazines, the importance of advertising in shaping people’s ideas about clothing, the rise in the status of the fashion designer as a trendsetter, and the influence of trends in art and dance.