(6) Haute Couture & Fashion
The 1954 British short film Birth of a Dress, directed by Dennis Shand, begins with a shot of London store windows filled with fashionable ready-to-wear dresses. As the camera pans across the shiny surface of the windows, a voiceover comments on the diversity of fashions available to British women, and the role of haute couture as inspiration for readymade designs. The frame then closes in on a specific cocktail dress; fitted close to the figure with a deep flounce down one side, it expresses the verve of 1950s eveningwear.
The dress, we are told, was designed by noted London couturier Michael Sherard, and then adapted to become a mass-produced garment, available to ‘the ordinary woman on the street’. The film then details this process. The fashion media usually work to cover up the industrial background from which clothing emerges, but Birth of a Dress positively celebrates the wonders of British manufacturing and design, which have gone into the dress’s production. Sponsored by the Gas Council and Cepea Fabrics, it unmasks the series of factories where the cotton for the dress is bleached and prepared.
The viewer is taken inside the textile mills’ artists’ offices, where the fabric print is designed, in this case a typically British floral of a rose sketched in charcoal. The etching process that transfers the print to a roller, the science laboratory that develops the aniline dyes (a by-product of the gas industry), and the factory printing mile after mile of the fabric are all proudly displayed as evidence of the North of England’s expertise and invention.
The focus then shifts to Michael Sherard’s refined Mayfair salon, where, inspired by the fabric, he fashions an original evening dress. From there, a Northampton factory’s ready-to-wear designers reinterpret the dress for the mass-production process. Simplifying the design, they produce a stylish gown in three colour ways that is presented in a fashion show to international buyers. Thus, the viewer is reminded of the varied stages necessary in the production of the fashionable clothes she wears. The design is connected to British success in couture and mass fashion, and the viewer is prompted to see these clothes as ‘allied to all that is newest in industrial research and scientific development’. The film is a post-war promotion of industry, Britishness, and burgeoning consumerism. Its focus on the process that goes into fashion’s creation was unusual, since it connected all aspects of an industry which is normally presented only in fragments: as a complete garment, a designer’s idea, or an object to aspire to.
As Birth of a Dress shows, the fashion business comprises a series of interconnecting industries. At one end of the spectrum these focus on manufacturing, and at the other on the promotion and dissemination of the latest trends. While producers contend with technology, labour, and managing the commerce of design, journalists, catwalk show producers, marketers, and stylists turn fashion into spectacle and make trends comprehensible to the consumer. Clothing is transformed by these industries, literally through the manufacturing process, and metaphorically through magazines and photographs.
The fashion industry therefore produces not just garments, but also a rich visual and material culture that creates meaning, pleasure, and desire. In their article on the industry’s development, Andrew Godley, Anne Kershen, and Raphael Schapiro have shown that fashion is predicated on change. It is inherently unstable and seasonal, and each facet of the industry therefore searches for ways to temper this unpredictability. Forecasting trade shows project several years ahead to set trends in textiles, and themes that can guide and inspire fashion producers. Brands employ experienced designers, whose instinct for evolving trends is balanced with signature pieces to create successful collections.
Fashion show producers and stylists then present collections in the most enticing way to develop the label’s image, gain press coverage, and encourage stores to place orders. Store buyers rely on their awareness of their customer profile and retail image to purchase the outfits most likely to sell well, and reinforce the fashion credibility of the retailer they represent. Finally, the fashion media from style magazines to high-fashion titles advertise and editorialize fashion to seduce and entice their readers.
Fashion’s development since the mid-14th century has been based upon technical and industrial breakthroughs, tempered by reliance on long-standing traditions of small-scale, labor-intensive methods that retain the flexibility necessary to meet the challenges of seasonal demands. Importantly, the fashion industry is also driven by consumer demand. During the 18th century, there was a shift from annual changes in textile designs and fashion styles to seasonal changes. Wearers would adapt their clothing in line with seasonal trends, to create new effects through trimmings and accessories. While the wealthy could afford expensive bespoke fashions, as Beverley Lemire has noted, those lower down the social scale could combine second-hand and, from the 17th century, readymade garments.
Clearly, fashion went beyond a process of simple emulation, either of aristocrats, or later of French couture styles. While it should not be assumed that everyone did, or for that matter could, follow fashion, consumer demand is a significant factor in its advance as an industry. Since the Renaissance, aspirations to individuality, aesthetic sensibilities, and the pleasure taken in clothing, whether tactile or visual, all played a part.
The industry therefore generates local, national, and international fashions, with makers and promoters catering to diverse desires and needs. From the regional fashions of young, 18th-century English apprentices, eager to distinguish themselves through the trimmings on their clothes, or the elaborate velvets of 16th-century Florentine dignitaries, fashion involved a complex chain of traders, distributors, and promoters.
The evolution of the fashion industry The Renaissance industry thrived on a global trade in fabrics, with free cross-pollination from East and West. Garments were made up using gradually more sophisticated methods, improved in the 16th century by Spanish tailoring books that enabled better fit. Wars and trade led to styles spreading across the Western world in the later 15th century, the Burgundian court’s etiolated styles dominated, while dark Spanish fashions spread in the following century.
Such fashions were part of consumers’ desire for luxury and display, which was formalized in the 17th century by Louis XIV’s regulation of the French textile trade. While this consolidated a centuries-old textile manufacturing and global trading network, the French monarch’s efforts also recognized fashion’s role in shaping not just a nation’s identity, but also its economic wealth. This imperative later saw the formation in 1868 of what would become the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, to police the haute couture industry in Paris. At the other end of the scale, newly industrializing countries continue to build up their own fashion and clothing industries, as witnessed by Mexico’s upgrading of its production capacity during the 1990s.
The 17th century saw growing recognition and consolidation of rich fabrics in Lyons, luxury trades in Paris, and tailoring in London, based on small-scale making-up of garments, frequently carried out in little workshops or households that focused on traditional craft skills. While this encouraged wealthy locals’ and tourists’ consumption of fashions, it was the early attempts to make readymade clothes that would lead to the fashion industry’s wider impact, in terms of dressing more people, increasing financial gains, and, ultimately, in its status as a major international economic and cultural force.
Military needs drove significant advances in the readymade industry. The Thirty Years War (1618–1648) saw the development of a large standing army, uniformed by both military and contracted-out workshops, a process that increased during the 18th century and later Napoleonic Wars. Early readymade garments focused on nondescript dress, clothing sailors in ‘slops’, the wide-legged breeches they commonly wore, and basic garments for slaves. While this was not part of the fashion industry per se, it set the necessary prerequisites for the ready-to-wear industry which was subsequently to emerge.
America’s development as a nation played a crucial role. In 1812, the United States Army Clothing Establishment opened in Philadelphia, one of the earliest readymade manufacturers. Along with the huge demand for uniforms during the Civil War, and Levi Strauss’ Gold Rush-driven denim business, an industry was emerging based upon greater standardization of methods and garment sizing. Claudia Kidwell identifies a parallel change in attitude towards readymade clothing in the later 19th century. It was no longer seen as denoting lack of money and status.
As urbanization increased, city workers and dwellers wanted affordable clothing, ‘which looked in no way appreciably different from the mainstream fashion’. The greater visibility of fashions in the city, and people’s corresponding desire for individuality amidst the crowds, was another motivating force for the industry.
Demand was interconnected with innovations. The spinning jenny (c. 1764) speeded up textile production, and the jacquard loom (1801) increased the complexity of fabric designs. However, it was the development of a rational sizing system that allowed effective mass clothing production, and the growth of the broader fashion industry from the mid-19th century. By 1847, for example, Philippe Perrot states that there were 233 ready-to-wear manufacturers in Paris, employing 7,000 people, while in Britain; the 1851 census showed that the clothing trade was second only to domestic service as the largest employer of women. By this point, readymade women swear was also developing and, as with early menswear examples, it focused on easy-fitting garments such as mantles.
Singer’s introduction of the sewing machine in 1851 is sometimes credited with revolutionizing ready-to-wear. However, it was not until the 1879 invention of an oscillating shuttle running on steam or gas that a marked difference was made in the speed and ease of manufacturing. Andrew Godley has written that a skilled tailor could make 35 stitches per minute. However, by 1880 powered sewing machines could produce 2,000 stitches, and in 1900 this figure had increased to 4,000 stitches per minute.
Further innovations, in cutting and pressing techniques, for example, reduced costs to manufacturer and consumer, as well as production times. Immigrants fleeing the pogroms in Russia in the 1880s added further impetus to the British and American readymade industries, and Jewish tailors and entrepreneurs played a fundamental role in the fashion industry’s development. Elias Moses, for example, staked his claim in advertising as ‘the first House in London . . . that established the system of NEW CLOTHING READY-MADE’, further asserting that ‘tailoring is as rapid in these days as railway travelling’. Moses’ association of his own trade’s speeded-up methods with faster modes of travel is apposite. Not only did the train system quicken trade and distribution, it opened up the potential for travel, spreading fashions across and between classes as well as countries.
Travel and holiday clothes, sports and leisure fashions, from black veil ‘uglies’ to shield women from seaside sunshine in the midcentury to the steady rise of the more relaxed lounge suit for men, powered the growth of readymade fashion. In the last quarter of the 19th century, women’s entry into white-collar work necessitated new styles appropriate to the public sphere.
‘Tailor-mades’, the prototype of women’s suits, developed in the 1880s. Worn with blouses, they represented yet another option in the burgeoning array of fashions opening up to both sexes at the end of the 19th century. Indeed, the American ‘shirtwaist’ blouse became a huge craze in the early 1890s, and showed the close alliance between consumer demand and supplier innovation that motored the fashion industry.
If the 18th century had witnessed a growth in Western consumer culture that sparked people’s desire for fashion, then the 19th century turned this love of novelty and sensuality into a frenzy of spectacle and commerce that spread across the globe. Inventors patented a quick succession of mass-produced crinolines, corsets, and bustles to reshape women’s bodies using the latest technologies; rubber and celluloid provided collars and cuffs to young men eager to adopt the white-linen elegance of a gentleman cheaply and easily, and aniline dyes meant fabrics brazenly combined fashion with scientific innovation.
At the same time as this acceleration within the readymade industry, couture was adopting increasingly astute business methods. Promotional techniques, especially fashion shows, employed to great effect by, for example, Lucile and Worth, as well as leading department stores, disseminated elite visions of fashion style. These generated publicity at all levels of the market, and provided templates for manufacturers eager to adapt the latest trends to their own price point. American buyers were particularly keen to take advantage of the commercial potential of couture’s aura of authenticity.
They paid to attend shows, purchasing a pre-agreed number of garments, from which they could produce a limited number of copies. As in the 17th century, Paris was a synonym for luxury, the city’s name exploited in advertising and editorial copy, and attached to shop and brand names internationally as a marker of fashion credibility. Paris embodied elegance and Old World luxury, and it also provided a model for other cities’ clothing industries, as each sought to formulate its own saleable signature for the domestic and international market.
By the end of the 19th century, fashion’s growth as a driving force within the clothing industry brought stylish clothes to a wider cross-section of people. While fashion enabled people to construct new identities, its under-side was the exploitation of workers, usually female and frequently immigrant. The sweatshop was a dark shadow haunting the industry’s burgeoning modernity. From the 1860s onwards, reports shocked both governments and public with tales of the cramped conditions, long hours, and poor wages that kept retail prices down and enabled deadlines to be met. Debate over the ethics of production led to greater unionization and, in the early 20th century, laws concerning minimum wages. While it is the clothing industry, with its focus on mass-produced, standardized garments, which has been guiltiest in its exploitation of labour, fashion continues to cause controversy. The Victorian image of emaciated young women sewing couture gowns has been replaced by expose´s of brands using child labour in Asia and South America.
While fashion manufacturers had traditionally needed to be close to the market, to respond quickly to consumer demand for particular trends, better information systems meant making up could be subcontracted to increasingly far-flung sites. As the 20th century wore on, technology enabled sales figures for each garment style to be collated from shops’ individual cash registers to enable orders to be made rapidly. Improved travel and distribution speeded up this process further, aiding internationally successful brands such as Sweden’s H&M, and Spain’s Zara. Such companies could reproduce, and in some instances pre-empt, high-fashion trends by responding both to designer collections and close observation of emerging trends on the street. It also meant that it was harder to ensure working conditions, leading to accusations against high-street brands such as Gap.
By the 1930s, the structure for the contemporary fashion industry had already been established. As the century wore on, it would become known as ‘Fast Fashion’, as it came to supersede the industry’s previous seasonal timetable with regular supplies of new garments sent out to high-street retailers. The boom years of the 1920s were pivotal to establishing the foundations of this system. The decade saw greater investment and international communication, as well as increasing evidence that fashion, rather than quality or function, could be used to sell products from clothing to cars. As the Depression set in, cutbacks led to a focus on streamlining industrial practices, building domestic markets, and seeking out new global regions to target, with Parisian couturiers and American ready-to-wear manufacturers both identifying South America as an important potential source of new customers.
The post-war period saw further consolidation of markets as well as domestic industries. American backing and business know-how aided the Italians and Japanese to develop their industries with a balance between fashion-led garments and wardrobe basics. Indeed, so important is this combination that Teri Agins identified it as crucial to a label’s business survival. She asserted that American designer Isaac Mizrahi had to close his eponymous business in 1998, because he had focused entirely on fashion garments and ignored the need for classics.
Once again, this demonstrates the fashion industry’s volatility, and designers’ and manufacturers’ need to factor in ways to increase and stabilize their market share. This can be seen in couturiers’ establishment of licensing deals and ready-to-wear lines, and in the late 20th century, ready-to-wear label diffusion lines, such as Junior Gaultier and DKNY. These collections play upon the designer’s aura, already established in their main lines, to widen their customer base with more affordable and usually more basic garments.
The need for outside investment and other means to financial assurance were tackled over the course of the 20th century. Burton’s menswear manufactured and retailed its own designs, allowing a close relationship between demand and supply to be nurtured, and enabling the company to go public in 1929.
From the late 1950s, french fashion labels were floated on the stock exchange. Since the 1980s, luxury giants, such as Louis Vuitton Mo¨et Hennessey, whose portfolio includes Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Kenzo, and Emilio Pucci, ensured fashion credibility by grouping together younger labels with established houses, while protecting against losses by spreading profits across a wide range of wine, perfume, watches, and fashion brands.
However, there is still a significant segment of the fashion industry that continues to work on the same small-scale, labour-intensive model which has survived for centuries. This is epitomized by the studio-workshops mainly focused in London’s East End, where young designers such as Gareth Pugh, Christopher Kane, and Marios Schwab employ a tiny number of assistants to enable them to produce their collections. In a tradition set by British designers since the 1960s, the strong fashion content of their work attracts press interest and spreads their influence globally.