Fashion functions as a means of social communication, a way of telling other people something important about you: what your job is (as the old song goes, “I see by your outfi t that you are a cowboy”), how rich you are, whether you’re married or single, gay or straight, and what your interests are. As British designer Katharine Hamnett says, “Clothes create a wordless means of communication that we all understand.” Whether you’re aware of it or not, you constantly judge other people by what they’re wearing; you “size them up”: Cool or uncool? Nerd or jock? Trendy or Goth? What you wear is influenced by your own tastes but also by where you live and go to school, your age, your religious beliefs, and many other factors.
Early humans began making and wearing clothing for a very practical reason: They were cold! But fashion today is both an elaborate system of communication and an art form that developed as human cultures evolved and grew more sophisticated.
During the Elizabethan Age (1558–1603), when Queen Elizabeth I was on the British throne, regulations called Sumptuary Laws provided strict guidelines for what people could and could not wear. Individuals belonging to the lower classes were not allowed to wear certain colors such as purple, crimson (a rich red), deep black, and pure white, because the dyes used to create them were very expensive. Working people could wear yellow, green, or pink garments, but never gold or silver. Only members of royalty could wear clothing trimmed with ermine fur. Punishments for violating these laws could be harsh: You might be put to death for wearing the wrong clothing—talk about a fashion victim.
Do It Yourself
When you need a new pair of pants, you just drag your mom or dad to the mall and flip through the racks until you find a pair you like. But before the 1850s, people either made their own clothing or paid a seamstress or tailor to make them. And remember, people wore more undergarments in those days, which also had to be handmade. Before crinoline or hoop skirts were invented in1856, a woman might wear six different petticoats under her dress to give it the proper fullness.
A STITCH IN TIME
“Fashion designer” is a relatively recent job description that did not even exist before 1858. Fashion design is closely related to the development of the garment industry or “rag trade” and the mechanical inventions that made that industry possible. In 1846 Elias Howe patented the fi rst sewing machine. Howe’s machine was powered by a hand crank, which meant that the operator had to stop work at intervals to crank it up. Isaac Singer improved upon Howe’s design when he devised, in the 1850s, a machine powered with a foot treadle, leaving the worker’s hands free to feed the fabric toward the mechanized needle as it moved up and down. Thanks to this laborsaving device, a shirt that might have taken 14 hours to sew by hand could be made in less than an hour and a half.
Around this time a dressmaker named Ellen Demorest invented tissue-paper patterns. Customers who bought Madame Demorest’s patterns could reproduce at home the same fashionable designs they admired in illustrated fashion magazines. (If you’ve done any sewing, you know that paper patterns are still used today.) Soon after, clothing sizes became standardized for the first time. All these improvements made it possible to produce factory-made garments in different sizes that people could purchase at a store or through a catalog. Now, rather than having to construct your own clothes or hire someone to make them for you, you could fl ip through the Sears Roebuck catalog, find a garment you liked, and order one in your size. People who lived out in the country could dress in the same styles and fashions that their city cousins were wearing.
The most successful fashion designers were those who responded to or anticipated the changing times. During World War I (1914–1918), many women went to work in weapons factories and other industries.
They needed clothing that was comfortable, functional, and suited to their new lifestyles and responsibilities. Women, who finally won the right to vote in 1922, wanted clothing that expressed their new freedoms and rights as citizens.
The house of Worth
The fi rst real fashion designer was Charles Frederick Worth (1826–1895), “the father of haute couture,” who established the House of Worth in 1858. Worth was born in England but moved to Paris when he was 19. He decided to open his own couture house when dresses he had designed for his fiancée attracted attention among upper-class women. Worth made dresses for royalty, such as the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, as well as for the Rothschilds and the Vanderbilts—the 19th-century equivalents of today’s Trump or Hilton families. Worth was the first person to sew his own label into the garments that he designed. Worth also invented the fashion show, since before that designs were shown on dolls (these might be small or life-sized) rather than on live models.
Paris, the Capital of style
In the early 20th century, Paris was the fashion capital of the world. Another important French designer from this time was Paul Poiret (1879–1944), an apprentice of Worth. Poiret favored a long, straight silhouette with no corset underneath. He also introduced the “hobble skirt,” which was full at the hips and extremely narrow at the ankles, requiring women to walk with tiny steps. Discussing his designs, Poiret declared, “I freed the bust but I shackled the legs.”
Madame Jeanne Paquin (1869–1936) was the first woman to become a leading fashion designer. She opened her own maison de couture in 1890 next to the House of Worth. In the 1920s a French designer named Madeleine Vionnet introduced the “bias cut”: the practice of cutting diagonally across the weave of the fabric. This makes the material cling to the body. As a result of Vionnet’s innovation, certain styles of that period were very slender and form-fitting.
Chanel: a Paris original
The French fashion scene produced one of the most influential and original designers of all time: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971). Chanel began as a hat designer and then turned her talents to apparel. Her strategy was to borrow styles, fabrics, and articles of clothing from menswear and to adapt these for women. Chanel once observed that “Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions,” and the proportions she favored were long and lean. Her trademark look, in the 1920s and 1930s, was an easy-to-wear women’s suit that became a wardrobe classic. Chanel’s designs have inspired countless “knock-offs,” or cheap imitations, a practice that Chanel actually encouraged: “I want my dresses to go out on the street,” she declared. Chanel introduced the “little black dress” as well as the first perfume to bear a designer’s name: Chanel No. 5. This timeless couturier was still working on a collection when she died at age 87; oddly enough, at the time of her death she had a Paris wardrobe consisting of just three outfits.
Great designers like Chanel establish design empires, or fashion houses, and then pass their unique vision on to the designers that follow in their fashionable footsteps. The current head designer at the House of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, must maintain the classic Chanel brand while making sure the company’s designs are stylish and up-to-date.
Most countries around the world have their own fashion industries, but only five have won international recognition: France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, and Japan. In addition to Chanel, another important French designer was Christian Dior, who introduced a style in 1947 that came to be called “the New Look.” Dior’s tiny-waisted dresses with full skirts weren’t really a new style at all, but they became very popular. During the 1960s, British designers such as Mary Quant and Vivienne Westwood put “Swinging London” on the fashion map with a youthful look that featured miniskirts and ankle boots as well as geometric shapes and wildly colorful prints. Today, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, and John Galliano are among the most influential British designers. Some of the best known American designers include Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Anna Sui, and Donna Karan, the designer behind the DKNY label. Top-tier Italian designers include Valentino, Giorgio Armani, and Prada. The first Japanese designer to achieve international recognition was Hanae Mori, who artfully blended Eastern and Western influences in her styles. Other important Japanese designers include Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo, the designing woman behind the Comme des Garcons label.
The height of Fashion
Haute couture (pronounced oat-cooTOUR) is French for “high sewing” and represents the highest expression of fashion as an art form. Haute couture is the finest clothing sewed by hand to the exact measurements of the wealthiest clientele. A haute couture garment is custom-made and requires an average of three fittings with the client. An evening gown with embroidery might require several thousand hours of work. Owning such a garment might cost anywhere from $26,000 to $100,000—but you’ll never have to show up at a party and see someone else wearing the same dress! To earn the distinction of a “haute couture” label, a designer must belong to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, an organization founded in 1868 by Charles Frederick Worth and his sons to prevent couture designs from being copied. Today, members of this incredibly elite group include designers Chanel, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Hanae Mori, among others.
The Evolution of Gothic Fashion
Sources of style
Besides haute couture, there are two main categories of fashion design: ready to wear and mass market. Designs in ready-to-wear collections are presented during Fashion Week in fashion capitals such as New York City; Milan, Italy; and Madrid, Spain. Ready to- wear designs are produced in limited numbers from high quality fabrics. These styles influence the mass-market category, which consists of clothing produced quickly and cheaply: your Gap cargo pants, for instance. Fashion for the masses trickles down from what shows on the runways. An exaggerated feature, such as one season’s multiple layering pieces, may show up in a scaled-down version (layered T-shirts, perhaps) on the headless mannequins at Kohl’s.
But “the street” is also an important source of fashion trends. Since the late 1960s, the latest new styles and trends have tended to bubble up from looks first seen on the street—fashions teens invent and adopt that express the mood, tastes, and interests of youth culture. You and your friends have an influence on what types of fashions appear on the runways next season, and industry trend watchers pay close attention. (Whoa, check out the camospats and silver mini-poncho on that guy!)
Movie stars and the Mass Market
Movies are seen by millions of people, and over the years Hollywood has exerted a powerful influence over fashion. Blue jeans, the article of clothing most associated with American culture (we challenge you to find someone who doesn’t own at least one pair), were considered just work clothes until James Dean wore them in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Back in the 1970s, Diane Keaton’s character in the Woody Allen film Annie Hall (1977) spurred a generation of young women to copy her kooky take on menswear. Madonna’s punk-inspired miniskirts, torn fishnets, lacy gloves, and underwear worn as outerwear—featured in her music videos and the film Desperately Seeking Susan—inspired many imitators during the 1980s. The accessories business gets a big boost from Hollywood, too. The hip look of stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the 1997 movie Men in Black made Ray- Ban sunglasses hip again. Costume designer Edith Head, who won eight Academy Awards for her fashions, once said that “A designer is only as good as the star who wears her clothes.” And the star who had the greatest impact on fashion design was the actress Audrey Hepburn (1929–1993). With her willowy silhouette and dancer’s posture, her natural style and elegance, Hepburn was the perfect person to showcase the fashions of French designer Hubert de Givenchy. No other actress before or since has had such a profound and long-lasting infl uence on fashion.
Rocking’ the Runway
Since Elvis hit the music charts in 1956 and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show before a TV audience of 60 million viewers, the performances of pop stars and rock musicians have also driven fashion trends. The beehive hairdos and shimmery dresses of Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Beatles’ ankle boots and haircuts, Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic style, and David Bowie’s space fantasy mix of male and female were all seen and imitated by countless fans.
More recently, hip-hop music has had the greatest impact on fashion. Labels such as Phat Farm, Tommy Hilfi ger, and FUBU have turned hip-hop’s urban street style into a massive business. The rapper and music producer Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, always known as a snappy dresser, launched a very successful line of sportswear in 1998 under the Sean John brand. Combs’s fashion empire has since branched out to include more upscale men’s suits and women’s wear, once again getting a warm welcome from fashion buyers. In 2004, Combs was named CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year (that’s the Oscar of fashion), beating out Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors.
Every fashion designer needs to know about the history of fashion since styles and silhouettes from the past are constantly being recycled with a brand-new spin. (Just when we thought we were safe, here come those leg warmers again!) Finally, every successful designer knows that the fashion industry is fueled not by need (nobody “needs” a $2,000 handbag) but by desire. As American designer Ralph Lauren once said, “I don’t design clothes, I design dreams.”