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The History of Ready-To-Wear

Ruchika Tulshyan

Need a new outfit? You’re most likely to head in to a store and select, in your size, a dress that has been exactly replicated in a number of other measurements. Chances are it was mass-produced in a factory far away from where it was originally designed.

Today, hand-made clothing is an expensive luxury. Reserved only for special occasions; a bridal gown or a bespoke suit, we take for granted the ease of buying a piece of clothing in our size. Ready-to-wear fashion, a cornerstone of the industry, has actually evolved over the course of history, spurred by social changes, technology and innovation.

The earliest documented application of prêt-a-porter can be traced back to the War of 1812, where the military would hold stocks of ready-made uniforms based on a man’s chest size. While in other situations, men’s clothing was largely homemade or sewed to order by a tailor, Brooks Brothers started making ready-to-wear suits for men who worked on Wall Street as early as 1849.

Still, depending on your class and occupation, men and women would largely wear clothes that were hand-stitched individually. And for more than a century later, women’s clothing was made at home or on-demand by placing an order with a local tailor or seamstress.

Technological Advancements in Ready-to-Wear

Two major technological innovations can be credited with the rise of ready-to-wear garments: The invention of the power-loom and the sewing machine; both manual and electric. The power loom was introduced to America in 1813 and evolved to eventually replace the use of the handlooms of the past. Cotton could be produced quickly, and in a less-labor intensive way than before. Over time, clothes were being spun with wool, spun silk and other materials such as rayon. As more types and volume of textiles became available, the rise of the sewing machine also became an important addition.

While early iterations of the sewing machine were available around Europe, French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier patented the first manual sewing machine in 1830. From a ready-to-wear perspective, the machine was used solely to mass-produce uniforms for military use. In America, the sewing machine met with early resistance and took multiple versions before it caught on in the garment industry.

At the same time a separate innovation hit the market – graded paper pattern – which could be easily used as an inexpensive model to shape the same clothing styles to different sizes. Because the paper pattern inexpensive and easy to use it was quickly adopted by the ready-made clothing manufacturers as it also allowed for standardization of sizes and simplified the process of producing clothes.

Imagine your clothing sizes today were determined solely by your chest size? That’s actually the birth of standardized sizing – in the 1800s, the ready-to-wear military uniforms stocked for men were produced according to different chest sizes. The logic was that a man’s overall size could be determined once you knew the size of his chest. As a result, early standardized sizing for women was produced with the bust as a measurement. Fortunately, that didn’t last long!

Isaac Singer’s electric sewing machine, released in 1889, further galvanized the prêt-a-porter movement. The machine enabled people to sew clothing in a fraction of the time it would have taken by hand. Soon, clothing factories appeared all over the world and by utilizing electric machines in an assembly line, seamstresses could mass-produce clothing. Shirtwaists – long shirts women wore with flowing skirts – emerged as one of the first mass-produced items of clothing.

Social Changes

Even then, ready-to-wear clothing was by no means, easy to acquire. Nor was clothing expenditure considered necessary, especially among middle- and lower-income families.

The demand for ready-to-wear women’s clothing was precipitated by the changing role of women within society. Until the 19th century, women’s fashion was ornate and had to be customized. Those who had the means, would buy tailored clothes that reflected the day’s fashion. Women who couldn’t afford new wardrobes, would alter the clothes they had to keep up-to-date. This was true even for wedding dresses, which were usually the woman’s best “Sunday” outfit. In general, most people couldn’t spend money on bespoke creations made by seamstresses or tailors.

This changed considerably once more women started leaving their homes to work in offices or factories. During World War 1 women in Europe and the U.S. were required to work outside of the home while men fought in the war. Women’s clothes had to evolve to become practical – hoops and corsets were ditched in favor for simpler clothing that could be worn in an office or factory. As fashions changed, the time was ripe for mass production of garments. As more women experienced economic freedom and worked outside the home, the need for more clothes coupled with less time to actually make them, accelerated the development of ready-to-wear as we know it today.

Arguably, the most important development in the ready-to-wear movement came down to department stores mushrooming all over America, complimented by the increasing demand for affordable bulk women’s clothing. A small number of department stores had existed in the 19th century such as Paris-based Le Bon Marche, opened in 1838, and in New York, AT Stewart, also called The Marble Palace became a department store by 1958. Names we recognize today followed soon after – Bloomingdale’s opened in 1872 and Bergdorf-Goodman in 1906. These places sold ready-made garments, according to some reports, by the 1870s, but the widespread demand for quick and fashionable clothing, across income groups, gave the ready-to-wear garment industry a boost.

America faced multiple depressions in the early 20th century and the demand for affordable women’s clothing meant a surge in manufacturing in bulk quantities, particularly as fewer women had the time to make their clothes by hand. These garments soon became accessible to women of all classes and incomes. Clothing catalogs took off as a way to sell clothes and mail-order catalogs produced by Sears made these clothes accessible beyond the fashion core of Manhattan. By now, New York had become a fashion capital and people from all over the country flocked in to work in the ready-to-wear garment industry in some way.

As a result, American fashion was moving steadily away from European fashion, that was still ornate and largely bespoke. The U.S. fashion market turned way from Parisian styles and began to develop its own apparel industry. Advertisements and fashion articles began to appear in American magazine like Women’s Wear Daily and Harper’s Bazaar (still around) and Ladies Home Journal. Pret-a-porter became so profitable for businesses that after World War II, even haute couture ready-to-wear began to appear from designers like Chanel, Dior and Givenchy. The desire to keep up with the latest fashion, coupled with growing purchasing power among Americans, ensured the ready-to-wear industry became a ubiquitous way of life, one that democratized fashion so men and women from all income brackets could afford new clothes.

Ready to Wear

Today, prêt-a-porter has evolved into fast fashion – designs that move quickly from catwalk to shops so that clothes always reflect the most current fashion trends. We now have the technology to mass-produce clothing for cheap, with the digital connectedness to share, in real-time, the latest trends on the runway and opportunities to create consumer desire. Fast fashion allows people to purchase current designs at a lower price. Some of the most globally-recognized brands such as H&M and Zara, have become synonymous with the fast fashion revolution.

In a response to protect classic style (as opposed to brief trends), the slow fashion movement has been taking root among the fashion-conscious globally. Fast fashion has contributed to pollution through high levels of mass-production and the decay of synthetic fabrics. We’ve also experienced a rise in poor working conditions in developing countries that are forced to produce these designs cheaply and quickly in high volume.

It’s remarkable how innovative ready-to-wear clothing was when it first emerged – now long forgotten as fashion constantly evolves with newer frontiers of technology. But as more people push for individuality and a unique sense of style now, we’re seeing more nostalgia for the days past, when clothing was bespoke. Custom-made couture is available only for those who can afford it and most people wouldn’t know how to sew their own clothes. The time is ripe for innovative ways to bring back the days when what made clothing so special was how it was tailored to fit our distinctive body and personality.