A History of Ready to Wear Clothing

The phrase ‘ready to wear’ is a translation from the French term ‘pre-a-porter’ and can also be known as ‘off-the-peg’ or ‘off-the-rack’. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, there are two things that make a clothing item a ready-to-wear item – standard sizing and finished to be worn. Some definitions differ in their specifics. The definition from the Random House Word Menu mentions mass manufactured means applied to fashion designs. Mass market seems to be the term for clothes that are not considered to have come from a high fashion designer. Both definitions have a root in the same history and we will start here. Then, we will look at the development of ready to wear in the high-fashion market and talk about some recent history events that have helped shape what we have today.

When did it  really start?

Since people have had the ability to create clothing in quantity, measure and communicate through standard written symbols, it was possible that some scale of manufactured clothing could have been made with a simple production line. In addition to that, a designer may already have invented ready to wear clothing during that time but was never recorded. Like many things in history, we simply have to look at what we do know. This brings our attention to manufacturing from recent times because the phrase “ready to wear” is used to describe the fashion industry in Europe and the U.S. These two markets and the inventions of mass manufacturing machines and practices effected the whole modern fashion market.

Ready-made fashion resulted from the industrial revolution and technology, material and innovations. An example of this was seen with Levi jeans. The material was from France, Levi (the man) started to experiment with it for tents and then found the material suitable for work clothing. The work clothing then worked its way to become popular clothing for millions of people which led it to becoming a fashion item too. Sewing machines led to price cuts, the quality of the articles increased and the cost between more traditional fine clothes and the mass manufactured was starting to be less marked. And the time savings made it a good option to simply buy rather than make.

By the 1850 Census in the US, there were thousands of clothiers making clothes. Some of them were already making ready-made items and others were just starting to know the ready-to-wear clothing. In 1845, there were ready-to-wear suits offered for the first time in America by Brooks Brothers. Fashionable clothes were becoming popular to own even if it was only a dress to wear on Sunday to Church. Fine clothes or fashion clothing were accessible to larger markets. As the income levels increased and coincided with lower manufacturing costs, wardrobes grew accordingly. The fit of the clothes was a differentiator between early ready-made and the made-to-fit alternative still available. There was a time when ready to wear items did not fit well as there was no agreed-upon standard and so some people still had to have alterations made to get a good fit. There was a need for some sort of  investigation to aid the industry to produce items with a good enough fit to truly make them ready-to-wear.

The USDA made an effort to create a standard sizing for manufacturers to base their sizes on. Along with other data and cloth makers’ efforts around the world, clothes would eventually be better fitting. It became easier to manufacture for low cost and still have the items fit well enough to look the way they were intended. At the same time, art and clothing would be more and more intertwined as high-fashion houses would develop into worldwide known entities. It was only a matter of time before they would start to utilize the modern manufacturing methods to increase their fame and profits. They could offer a product that fitted well enough for most individuals and was closer to what the higher cost of exclusive tailoring created when an item was made-to-fit.

Conspicuous consumers with disposable incomes ...

Shopping (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fashion industry developments

As the fashion industry developed and an increasing number of people were able to afford more clothing without the old being worn out, there were increases in new designs which included “riskier” styles and choices. Trends became seasonally displayed as the industry held shows to show their newest clothes in an attempt to bolster or create style differences. Fashion weeks became a mainstay of major cities that are influential in fashion trend changes. These are are now held so that the public and press can talk about the trends, see the new creations and decide what they like or don’t like in the new labels. The specific fashion weeks are now held for ready to wear showcase items as well as cutting-edge unique designs. This, in turn, separates the more purely artistic and often more daring high-fashion shows from those designed to feed the mass market.

These fashion weeks seem to be adapted from the New York Fashion Week that was created to help gain attention for the local fashion houses and might have been influenced by early fashion shows like the fashion parades held at couture salons in France. The popularity led to them being accepted as an indicator of style choice over time, and in these weeks, the made-to-wear items shown have a chance to influence the clothing that most of us wear every day. Other major cities have fashion weeks now, each with its own particular culture and strengths. They have helped fashion houses become household names and led fashion trends that have effected mass market clothing worldwide.

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