The nineteenth century and modern luxury fashion

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The nineteenth century marked the beginning of the modern luxury goods sector and the launch of many of the highly valuable luxury brands that we know today. The rapid development of the fashion industry during this period was made possible by the bolstering of social and economic conditions and rising prosperity. The demand for luxury goods remained high and extremely talented and entrepreneurial designers emerged and grasped business opportunities made possible by their predecessors.

In following with the tradition of the previous historical periods, outward appearance remained an indicator of wealth and social status. In addition, fashion became more than a vocation for knowledgeable people, and was recognized as an important contributor of economic growth. The French and most of continental Europe saw fashion as an intricate part of their societies and a necessary subject of discussion alongside literature, arts and history among intellectuals. The French government reinforced its support for the textile and fashion sectors through creating incentives and favourable policies. In England, however, fashion and luxury were perceived as frivolous and irrelevant subjects, especially among scholars.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the fashion industry in Paris had become an established world leader and was mainly segmented into two parts: dressmaking which was mostly controlled by highly influential women, and textile merchandizing and professional tailoring which was mostly controlled by men.

The buoyancy of this period gave rise to the launch of some of the luxury brands still in existence, including Guerlain by Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain in 1828 and Cartier by Louis-François Cartier in 1847, both in Paris. Also a young and gifted Louis Vuitton created the Louis Vuitton brand in 1854 as a leather luggage goods company in Paris while in Hampshire, England, 21-year-old Thomas Burberry founded the Burberry brand in 1856.

One man, however, was to change the face of luxury fashion and its marketing and management style forever. He was the Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth, who invented haute couture in Paris in 1858. During this period, when dressmaking was the sole domain of women, he became the first prominent male couturier and the private designer of the wife of Napoleon, Empress Eugenie, and other high-society women. His talent didn't rest solely in the design and construction of garments, he was also a marketing genius. He changed the way fashion was retailed by introducing models and the 'defilé' (private fashion shows), and publicizing his creations through the 'celebrities' and influential women of the day. He also cut the production time of dressmaking by more than 50 per cent, taking only one fitting to make a dress instead of the usual six fittings. His fashion empire was so successful and vast that at the peak of his career he employed more than 1,000 seamstresses.

The rapid development and transformation of the fashion environment was boosted by Europe's fast industrialization and improvement of manufacturing techniques. As a result the following important changes took place and became visible towards the end of the century:

1 Fashion, both for men and women became simple, understated, unadorned and classic as a result of the mind progressiveness of the people.

2 The simple and functional English fashion style for women emerged as a complement to the French elaborate and elegant style. Men were also influenced by the English country style.

3 The French revolution acted as a catalyst for the move towards the adoption of simplicity and more democracy in fashion as a sign of modernity, especially in the 1780s.

4 The rise of the Victorian era from the 1820s to the middle of the century also heralded the commencement of ready-to-wear as sewing machines were introduced to everyday women.

At the same time, America, the New World, was on the rise in both economic and cultural influence. Although Americans widely adopted fashion from Europe, their own tastes began to emerge especially during and after the French revolution years, which led to less imports of French fashion into America. Fashion for the masses also developed rapidly in America during this period, especially after the emergence of the cowboys and their dress style towards the end of the century. At the same time Americans embraced jeans, introduced in 1850 by Levi Strauss, a Bulgarian immigrant. Although jeans were originally a coverall made for California gold-rush miners from sturdy tent material and were made popular a century later in the 1960s, their foundation was laid during this period. The casual dressing of Native American Indian women also influenced the fashion simplicity of this period. Thus by the late 1800s a new kind of fashion freedom had been ushered in, both in Europe and in America.

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