Long to Short and Back Again: Department Stores and Class in Nineteenth Century Fashion

Diving into Philippe Perrot’s Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century was kind of like eating candy.  It was just fun.  Besides that, it was useful in that Perrot’s analysis of fashion is, as Richard Bienvenu puts in the introduction, a retrospective cultural anthropology.  Bienvenu’s desciption of the work as an anthropolgical piece seems accurate because much of Perrot’s overlying ideas of fashion patterns remain in our current culture.

Perrot’s discussion of department stores forced me to reminisce of my days living in New York City when passing by a window display at Bergdorf Goodman during holiday season was a must for its simple aesthetic appeal (and because my NYC partner-in-crime was my sister, a graduate of the textiles and fashion styling program at the Fashion Institute of Technology).  I find it important not to mistake Emile Zola’s depiction of nineteenth century department stores in Paris within Au Bonheur de Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) for what we imagine today’s Lord & Taylor in a suburban mall.  I think Zola’s department stores were much more, for the day, like something we would find on 5th Avenue… more Henri Bendel than Kohl’s.

Perrot has a lovely explanation of why fashion changes, and I can’t help agreeing with him.  On page 23, he states, “Skirts became short because they had been long; hair grew long because it had been short.  Fashion’s distinguishing values arise from this short-lived rejection of the past and those who stagnate in it.”  As I was contemplating this “long because short” idea, I started perusing the Henri Bendel online catalog to compare items I remembered from the shelves of 2008, and I found exactly what I should have.

The headband below is much like the ones seen on the shelves of Henri Bendel in 2008.

“Blair Waldorf” of the CW’s Gossip Girl, a show about Upper East Side elite drama, donning an over-sized headband in a Fall 2008 episode.

What was once over-sized is now quite tiny:

Henri Bendel Pave Bow Leather Headband, Available Fall 2012

Perrot would say bows grow tiny because they were once over-sized.

Also interesting is Perrot’s notion that mass-produced clothes were a means of liberating the lower classes from buying second hand clothing, essentially that ready-made clothes were to be by the lower classes for the lower classes.  And yet somehow, the mass production of clothes which became a large part of the industrial revolution absolutely imprisoned workers of scarily young ages to dangerous working conditions, ridiculous production expectations, and incredulously exhausting hours.  Free to wear, but chained to produce it.  I find myself wondering, maybe partly in reaction to our readings and partly due to current political events, “Can the lower classes ever really win?”

I can’t help but mention how funny (and interesting) it was to read the chapter on Invisible Clothing.  I guess I’ll just say I am glad I get to wear a shirt and jeans instead of a corset and pantaloons and chemise and petticoat…

In terms of my research on the dolman, Perrot’s book and the Oxford Art Online’s section on “Dress” are both excellent resources on nineteenth century fashion.  I need them.  Secondly, these readings bring up one of my pervasive questions about the production of the dolman: Was it factory made and sold in a department store?  While Miss Hassler had access to New York fashion (she is referenced in New York Times articles attending events and fundraisers for charities) and possibly European, too, it seems possible that she made this purchase at Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia (now Macy’s between 12th-13th Streets on Chestnut Street.).

Finally, Perrot also mentions that fashion in the nineteenth century for a woman was partly an expression of her husband’s social status.  Miss Hassler was firstly, as far as I can tell, single at this time at least.  She was wearing this dolman to an event where her brother was reportedly a music director.  Was the dolman a statement about her family’s status or about her?  I want to argue the dolman is her admission ticket to society, but was her dress choice a piece of her family’s admission ticket as a whole?  Is this also true now?  What factors are at play in this discussion?

Resources

Philippe Perrot, translated by Richard Bienvenu. “Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

“Who made America? John Wanamaker.” (Accessed October 14, 2012). http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/wanamaker_hi.html

“Close of the Hebrew Fair.”  New York Times. December 22, 1895. (Accessed September 18, 2012). http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F10A17FA355911738DDDAB0A94DA415B8585F0D3

Oxford Art Online. http://www.oxfordartonline.com.libproxy.temple.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T023637pg8#T023683

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