29 April 2009

Fashion: Ready-to-Wear

By Eliza Tucker

From shop to store: prêt-a-porter sales have been a long time coming. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, clothiers' guilds limited the mass production of clothes, but by the 1700s, the US, China, and Europe could all boast flourishing clothing industries.

In 1820, the measuring tape was invented, which helped make consistent sizing methods. And in 1846, Elias Howe's sewing machine further increased the availability of clothes made en masse.

During the American Civil War, the demand for mass-produced uniforms was high. Sizes became standardized so that soldiers order uniforms to fit without much, if any, tailoring. After the war, men's clothes retained the standard sizing, making it easy to buy ready-made clothes.

Department stores grew in popularity. The first of these stores, Le Bon Marche ("the good deal"), opened in Paris in 1838. In New York, Alexander Turney Stewart opened his own store, aptly named AT Stewart, also called The Marble Palace, on Broadway (pictured). The Marble Palace officially became a department store in 1858, and by 182, it was linked with Macy's, B. Altman, and Lord & Taylor to form "The Ladies' Mile" on Broadway. In 1869, Stewart became a millionaire.

Other stores followed. In 1872, Bloomingdale's opened, and Bergdorf-Goodman opened its swanky doors in 1906.

Isaac Singer's electric sewing machine, which had come out in 1889, was another catalyst for ready-made clothing. Clothing factories popped up all over the world, since garment making had never been easier. Using an electric machines in an assembly line, even the most unskilled seamstresses could be of use, as they only had to learn how to make a single piece of clothing. This also created a way for clothing manufacturers to branch out into women's clothing, starting with shirtwaists, which are long, tapered blouses worn with flowing skirts.

Sears, Roebuck & Co., which had begun as a mail-order service in 1839, took on clothing manufacturer Julius Rosenwald as part owner in 1895. With the addition of ready-to-wear clothing available in standard sizes, the catalog grew from 320 pages, to more than 530. In 1925, Sears opened its first retail store. By the end of 1929, 319 stores had popped across America.

Ready-to-wear clothing had found a place in the middle-class, where people were too busy to make their own clothes but not wealthy enough to hire someone to custom-sew them. After World War II, haute couture ready-to-wear began to pop up in Europe from designers like Dior and Givenchy, names still expensive today.