French haute couture designers, and before them dressmakers and tailors, made clothing for the wealthy upper classes. The scope of fashion did not reach much beyond this level. The working classes, and those unable to afford dressmakers who could copy or adapt couture styles, wore industrial “off the peg” clothing or second hand clothing (Baudot 1999: 11-12). Mila Contini states that clothes “fi ltered down,” passing from hand to hand until they eventually reached the rag merchants (1965: 310).
Well into the seventeenth century the tailoring of clothing for both men and women was considered a male enterprise. By the eighteenth century this would shift. Millinery and dressmaking became a “female pursuit,” while tailoring remained in male hands.
This development opened up many career opportunities for women (Gamber 1997: 10). Ready-to-wear clothing began in Europe but its manufacture was perfected in the U.S.
The U.S. becomes the world leader by the beginning of the twentieth century (Milbank 1989: 18). In the middle of the eighteenth century, textile production was the fi rst sector to undergo industrialization which began in England. France would follow; then in the early part of the nineteenth century, the U.S. would adopt British textile technology and begin to invent its own (Dickerson 1995: 23, 26, 28). In the eighteenth century, special orders from Europe could be made by American merchants or individuals of means.
However, European fashions were mostly inappropriate for the more relaxed American lifestyle. Alice Morse Earle (1903/1970) describes the American context: “masked balls and fancy dress parties, which were the chief and most constant of London pleasures, were not an American resource; they were frowned upon” (1903/1970: 396).
Though some sought out European fashion, she goes on to say that American “amusements” were simple affairs requiring comparatively simple clothing: “spinning matches, at singing schools, and various gatherings of women alone in country towns—and of men alone;