Ready-to-Wear Clothes = Opportunity

By the 1890s both men and women were able to buy off-the-rack clothing in department stores and mail-order catalogs that was mass-produced in the same styles at different price levels. Americans began to dress more alike, obscuring the differences between them.

Take a closer look at three of the innovative things on view in this section.

Industrial Production

Sewing machine and tools for cutting stacks of fabric.

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Cutting stacks of fabric, 1920s

Mass production was key to affordable ready-to- wear clothing. Multiple copies of each piece of a garment were cut to patterns from stacks of fabric. As early as the 1890s, electric saws replaced long cutting knives (which had replaced scissors in the 1870s).

Because lighter-weight fabrics were easier to cut, the clothing industry abandoned heavier fabrics and fashion designers reconsidered traditional styles.

Garment workers in Chicago, 1922

Sewing machine operators stitched together the cut pieces of fabric. In a division of labor, each worker assembled only a specific portion of a garment.

Department Store Shopping

Cash register, 1919

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Marshall Field, Chicago, 1910s

Department stores from large urban palaces to small-town emporiums offered clothes at a variety of fixed, no-haggle prices—often on multiple floors. Many also had bargain basements selling marked-down or overstocked garments.

The higher the floor, the higher the price. Bargains were in the basement!

T. W. Marse Department Store, Taylor, Texas, about 1925

By the 1920s sales of ready-to-wear clothing had reached unprecedented levels—spurred by rising incomes, easy credit, and the increasing social acceptability of spending money (and accumulating debt) on consumer goods that were not absolute necessities.

Anyone Can Dress Like a Movie Star

Paper dolls, 1920s–1940s

Hollywood star Jean Harlow, 1930

Beginning in the 1930s, ready-to-wear began to take fashion cues from Hollywood. Anyone could dress like a movie star!

Catalog, 1930

Stars helped to popularize form-fitting styles with broad shoulders and narrow waists.

Ad, 1930s

New undergarments made the new look possible: Form-shaping bras with alphabet cups replaced camisoles and bandeaux, and sleek panties and slips replaced bloomers.

Hangtag, 1930s

One of Hollywood’s most influential fashion trendsetters was Shirley Temple, who had her own line of clothing.