American Fashions
By Michelle J. Hoppe

When America's history is considered comparatively with the rest of world, she is indeed a young country. Not only is she young, but by nature of her settlement, she is a diverse mixture of culture and customs. Fashion is no exception.

American fashion has always been influenced by European design, particularly Paris. Both the Empress Josephine and the Empress Eugenie were instrumental in establishing fashion trends. Their tastes spread to England then to the Eastern United States. From the fashionable cities of New York and Boston, fashion trends migrated to the Western coast and eventually to the less populated Western states, sometimes as much as five years after the style originated.

Fashionable American women did not wear their Paris creations right away, however. Instead, the practice was to pack those dresses away for two to three years before wearing them. It was considered tasteless to use them any earlier. Also, society women rarely wore the same dress twice.

As wealth spread and new families grew rich, they disregarded these old ways. As soon as they purchased a European creation, they wore it, much to the horror of the old, established families. But the nouveau riche wanted to flaunt their wealth. By the 1870s, women were paying as much as $300 for a walking dress, and up to $5000 for a wedding dress.

However much the Americans were influenced by European design though, they still preferred to make their own clothes. At the beginning of the 19th century, over 75 percent of all clothing was homemade. When Americans Elias Howe and Isaac Singer patented their sewing machines (in 1846 and 1850, respectively), clothing could be made in larger quantities and thus be bought as ready-made garments. Wealthy Americans, however, still preferred custom-made dresses.

But while Americans borrowed styles from Europe, one article of clothing remains truly American--blue jeans.

Bavarian born Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco in 1850 on the heels of the Gold Rush. He brought with him canvas, hoping to sell the fabric to tentmakers. When he arrived, however, he learned the need for sturdy pants was greater than that for shelter. Levi had a tailor fashion two pairs of pants. He wore one and gave the other pair to a friend who went through town talking about these new and fabulous pants of Levi's. Meantime, Levi sent word to his brothers back east to buy up all the canvas they could. He opened his California Street pants factory, Levi Strauss & Co., and hired seamstresses and tailors to work for him.

He experimented with different dyes and fabrics over the years, eventually replacing the canvas with denim by 1853. Then finding that light blue, brown and gray dyes never resulted in the same shade of pants, he switched to a deep indigo blue, assuring him the standard color of "blue jeans."

Levi's next innovation was to replace standard stitching with rivets, so as to wear better under the stress and strain of hard labor like mining and ranching. Copper rivets were added to his jeans in 1874. They sold for $13.50 per dozen. By 1937, teachers began complaining that the back-pocket rivets from their students' pants were ruining the desk seats. Levi responded by covering the rivets with thread.

Thus an American fashion was born, which has held out to this very day.


(Michelle J. Hoppe, 1997 Golden Heart Finalist, is webmaster and Treasurer for Chicago-North RWA, Secretary for The Golden Network, and President of Literary Liaisons, Ltd.)

--For more on American Fashion, I suggest the following reference:
The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s by Marc McCutcheon, 1993, Writer's Digest Books.

--For more on 19th Century Fashions, try:
English Women's Clothing in the 19th Century by C. Willett Cunnington

These books are available for purchase in our on-line bookstore in the non-fiction section.

Also see the Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons for more suggestions.

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Copyright 1999, M. Hoppe