Story of a Cheap Dress (and an Economy, too)

I just found a site that should prove of particular interest to students of American economic and business history:  The Etsy Blog. They call themselves “anthropologists of commerce.”

The article I found tells of the century long evolution of a “cheap dress”.  Really it’s the evolution of women’s clothing from do-it-yourself to ready-to-wear knock-offs of Paris fashions to today’s high volume, high turnover fashion industry.  With it we get a glimpse of how life was really lived not so long ago.  For example, in 1950 the typical woman only owned nine outfits.  Compare that to today!  It’s no wonder my 1942-era house has such small closets!

The History of a Cheap Dress

ElizabethGoodClosetStory by ElizabethGoodCloset

Published on May 31, 2011 in Read

Elizabeth Cline is a Brooklyn-based writer and activist working on a book about responsible shopping in the age of cheap fashion, when low prices and rapid turnover of styles have ignited out-of-control clothing consumption. The book, calledThe Good Closet, will be published by Penguin Portfolio in spring 2012. You can follow the project at The Good Closet.

Everywhere American consumers shop — from outlet malls to department store sales racks —  deals flourish. But where can one find the cheapest dress? “Fast fashion” purveyors like Forever 21 and H&M are known for their low prices, high volume, and rapid turnover of styles. It’s amazing to think that a hundred years ago, at the birth of ready-made clothing as we know it, women would drop six hundred dollars for a Parisian knock-off. Today a fashionable dress is cheaper than a bag of dog food. How did we get here?

In the early 1900s, the sewing machine had only been around a half a century and the production quality and fit coming off the assembly lines needed some polishing. Decent menswear could be bought off the rack, and men were slowly warming up to ready-made duds. But for women there was a deep divide between high-end European fashions acquired by the wealthy and the flimsy, flashy, of-the-moment items available to everyone else. According to Jan Whitaker’s book Service and Style, a history of department stores, a ready-made knockoff of a French “lingerie style” dress started at $25 ($621.50 in today’s dollars) at Marshall Field’s in 1902. It was more feasible for the average girl to buy a ready-made women’s suit, which started at $7.95 ($190) or, better yet, the quintessential shirtwaist, which sold for just 39 cents ($9.34) at the turn-of-the-century. The fashion-hound of modest means was better off making her own dresses or ordering them from the local dressmaker.

dress6.jpgIllustration by Lena Corwin

Read the full story after the fold…. Continue reading