Mechanization of Production

Although production of ready-to-wear clothing began before sewing machines existed, an English clergyman had invented a hand-operated knitting frame near the end of the sixteenth century. Queen Elizabeth I refused to grant him a patent because she feared it would put English hand-knitters, using knitting needles and mostly working at home for contractors, out of work. But by the eighteenth century, England led the industrial revolution with a stream of inventions that eventually reduced prices of many goods and improved their quality so that ordinary people could afford them. By the later 1700s, English factories were turning out fabric on water- or steam-powered spinning and weaving equipment. Demand for inexpensive clothing gradually increased in England as lower-class people, some of them employed in the new factories, began to have a bit more money to spend, as well as a growing interest in fashionable clothing. London stores began to display appealing merchandise in lighted shop windows and encouraged shopping as recreation. Even low-income people could buy small ribbon ornaments and other accessories (See McK-endrick, Brewer, and Plumb).

Meanwhile, clothing styles of English noblemen became simpler and more functional as they supervised agricultural activities on their estates rather than hanging around the royal court, as was the case in France. French noblemen copied English styles when the French Revolution made it dangerous to be seen in public wearing silks and laces.

By the early nineteenth century, workingmen's clothing was being cut and hand-sewn by workers who specialized in specific tasks rather than each making a garment from start to finish. In American coastal cities, workers constructed garments for sailors in lofts where sails were made, from the same sturdy materials. Inventors designed the first sewing machines, but handworkers, who feared losing their jobs, broke up the machines, which didn't work very well anyway. Improved versions soon followed; the 1800s brought numerous apparel-related inventions and discoveries, including shoemaking machinery, vulcanized rubber, artificial cellulosic fibers, and synthetic coal-tar dyes.

Wars such as the American Civil War created demand for large quantities of uniforms. Based on measurements of servicemen, standardized sizing of men's clothing evolved. By the later 1800s, men's factory-made clothing of reasonably good quality and fit was being produced in quantity. Although wealthy men still wore custom-made clothing, moderate-income men could dress better than ever before.

The situation for women's clothing differed from that for men's clothing. Styles were relatively simple in the later 1700s and early 1800s, but then outfits became increasingly ornate and complex and remained so for the rest of the nineteenth century. This complexity, plus lack of measurement data for women, delayed large-scale factory production of women's clothing. Late in the century, when separates—shirtwaist and skirt styles and tailored women's suits—became fashionable, it was easier for women to find ready-made clothing to fit. By the end of the 1800s, output of women's factory-made clothing was growing rapidly.

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