Gilded Age Fashion – How and Why It Shaped America | So sew easily

The Gilded Age, which spanned the second half of the 19th century, is often considered a time of opulence, innovation and social transformation. His influence was profound, impacting not only the political and socio-economic fabric of the time but also the world of fashion. In this article, we'll explore how and why the Gilded Age played such a pivotal role in shaping American fashion, leaving an undeniable mark that is still felt today.

An era of transformation

The Gilded Age, spanning from the 1870s to 1900, is a term often attributed to the collaborative literary work of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. Their novel, “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today,” satirizes the stark contrast between the superficial glamor of the era and the underlying problems of social inequality and corruption. This era in United States history was marked by rapid industrialization, technological advancements, and urban expansion. However, behind this burst of prosperity lie deep-rooted societal disparities and political corruption.

This period witnessed innovations that would reshape the nation, pushing America toward modernity and changing the very fabric of daily life.

Electricity stands out as one of the significant innovations of our time. The incandescent light bulb, introduced by Thomas Edison, not only illuminated homes but also extended working hours, transforming urban landscapes and routines. Cities, once confined to daylight, could now thrive after dusk, paving the way for the 24/7 hustle and bustle we experience today.

Then there was transportation. The expansion of the rail system connected the vast expanse of the continent, making travel faster and more efficient. Cities grew around railroad stations, commerce sped up, and people and goods moved with previously unimaginable ease. Furthermore, the invention of the automobile towards the end of this period foreshadowed the profound changes that the next century would bring in terms of personal mobility.

Communication was not left out either. The introduction of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell broke the barriers of distance. Conversations, once limited to face-to-face interactions or delayed written correspondence, can now take place in real time in every city.

Additionally, the rise of industrialization and mechanization led to significant changes in the workforce. The sewing machine, for example, revolutionized the textile industry by introducing the mass production of clothing. Factories sprouted across urban landscapes, introducing new models of work and fostering a shift from agrarian livelihoods to industrial employment.

In a nutshell, the Gilded Age was a whirlwind of technological progress. He laid the foundation for the modern American lifestyle, with innovations that bridged distances, brightened nights, and redefined the way people lived and worked.

Fashion in the golden age

Fashion, often considered superficial by some, is actually a profound expression of its times. Like all art forms, it captures the zeitgeist, reflecting the societal, political and economic nuances of its time. What sets fashion apart, however, is its dual nature: it straddles the realms of commerce and art, making its impact more widespread and palpable across various strata of society.

At its core, fashion tells a story. Each silhouette, fabric choice and design element tells a story of the world from which it comes. For example, the austerity and practicality of wartime fashion speaks to the scarcity of resources and functionality, while the opulence of Gilded Age clothing echoes societal aspirations and greatness of this period.

Due to its commercial nature, the reach of fashion is extensive. While paintings and sculptures may be confined to galleries or the homes of the elite, fashion is worn, seen and experienced by many. It's in our streets, in our homes and on our screens. This ubiquity means that fashion, more than many other art forms, has the power to influence societal norms and values. Women's adoption of pants, for example, was not just a style choice but symbolized a shift in gender dynamics and the changing role of women in society.

Additionally, the commercial imperatives that drive fashion ensure that it is constantly evolving. Market demands push designers to innovate, and in doing so, they inadvertently capture the changing moods, aspirations, and challenges of society. The rise of sustainable fashion in recent years is a good example, reflecting global concerns about the environment and sustainability.

Key Influences on Gilded Age Fashion

  1. Industrial Revolution: The rise of mechanization made mass production possible. The sewing machine, in particular, revolutionized the fashion industry. Ready-to-wear clothing became more accessible, bridging the fashion gap between classes.
  2. Urbanization: As people migrated to cities, there was a mixture of cultures and influences. This cosmopolitanism was reflected in the eclectic fashion choices of the time.
  3. European touch: Europe, and particularly Paris, was considered the capital of fashion. The American elite often took inspiration from Paris, bringing European styles to American shores and integrating them with national tastes.

For the ladies

The era gave rise to a unique silhouette for women, heavily characterized by bustle – a padded undergarment that accentuated the backs of women's dresses. Day dresses featured high necklines, while evening dresses allowed for a more daring neckline.

As the era progressed, we also witnessed the rise of “mutton” sleeves, wide and puffy at the shoulder, narrowing to the wrist. Luxurious fabrics like silk, velvet and brocade took center stage, adorned with intricate embroidery, lace and ruffles. The S-shaped corset, arriving later in this period, became a signature, highlighting the chest and hips.

Gentlemen's outfit

Men of the Gilded Age showed elegance in three-piece suits, mostly in dark hues. White shirts with stiff stand-up collars, paired with ties, bow ties or long neckties dominated the scene.

Essential accessories included top hats for formal events, and for everyday wear, the bowler hat and fedora made their mark. Pocket watches, canes and gloves further accentuated the distinguished appearance.

The rise of the sewing machine

The advent of the sewing machine in the 1850s reshaped fashion production. Ready-to-wear fashion has emerged, making fashion more accessible, even if custom tailoring remains a luxury for the rich.

The invention and proliferation of the sewing machine in the 19th century had a profound impact on the fashion industry. Before this innovation, clothing was painstakingly sewn by hand, a method that was both time-consuming and expensive. The sewing machine brought a wave of transformation, introducing efficiency and scalability into the process of making clothes.

With the sewing machine, clothing could be mass produced, leading to the rise of ready-to-wear clothing. This democratization of fashion meant that a wider section of society, particularly the growing middle class, could now afford stylish clothing that had previously been reserved for the elite. Additionally, the sewing machine ensured greater consistency and precision in clothing production. As a result, clothing became more affordable and featured a standardized quality that was difficult to achieve with hand sewing alone.

Another important change brought about by this invention was the acceleration of fashion cycles. As clothing could be manufactured more quickly, fashion trends began to evolve at an unprecedented pace. This allowed the Golden Age to experience a myriad of styles, each leaving its unique mark on the era.

On a socio-economic level, the sewing machine opened the doors to employment and entrepreneurship. Many women found employment opportunities in garment factories or embarked on an entrepreneurial journey by starting their tailoring businesses. Although initial working conditions in these factories were far from ideal, they ultimately paved the way for labor rights movements and crucial reforms in the following years.

The legacy

The Golden Age paved the way for many modern fashion concepts:

  • The birth of branding: The era saw the beginning of recognizable brands and fashion designers. People began to associate quality and style with specific names.
  • Consumer culture: Department stores like Macy's and Marshall Field's rose to prominence, laying the foundation for a modern retail culture.
  • Democratic Fashion: While the Gilded Age had its moments of elitist fashion, this period also democratized fashion to a certain extent. Ready-to-wear collections made the style more accessible to the middle class.

Does Golden Age fashion still influence us?

Absolutely! Beyond exquisite silhouettes and intricate details, the Gilded Age has left an indelible mark on contemporary fashion trends and societal reflections. Although we've come a long way from ornate bustles and stiff collars, the influence of the Gilded Age is more than skin deep, resonating not just in design but in the very fabric of the how and why of fashion evolves.

Today, just like in the Gilded Age, we face serious socio-economic problems. Wealth disparity is at its peak in many parts of the world. The rise of technology, while beneficial in many areas, has also led to job losses and growing concerns about the future of work. In the same way that the Industrial Revolution impacted work during the Gilded Age, modern automation and AI-driven innovations are reshaping today's workforce.

So what does this have to do with fashion? Just like in the Gilded Age, fashion today often serves as a facade, masking deeper societal issues. The opulence of high fashion could be seen as a parallel to the grandeur of the Gilded Age, a shimmering veneer that sometimes distracts from underlying issues.

Additionally, just as the Gilded Age saw an increase in ready-to-wear thanks to technological advancements, we are seeing a transformation in fashion accessibility with online shopping, digital customization, and cycles fast fashion. The essence is the same: technological advances drive fashion consumption.

There is also a revival of fashion trends inspired by the golden age. Vintage and retro styles, with their embroidery, lace and intricate silhouettes, have seen a resurgence. This could very well be an unconscious nod to the past, a reflection of society's yearning for simpler times in the face of contemporary challenges.


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