Historical Sew Fortnightly

The HSF ’14: Challenge #11: The Politics of Fashion

Fashion is often criticised for being frivolous, pointless and superficial: existing for no purpose, and being driven by nothing but the whims of people with too much time on their hands.

People who say this couldn’t be more wrong.  Fashion is one of the truest indicators of the state of society, and as you trace the history of fashion, you see all of the events which changed the world are reflected in changes in clothes, and sometimes changes in clothes change the world.

Wars interrupt trade, and lead to changes in the availability of dyes and fibres, which show up in clothes.  Trade routes out of the American South were blockaded during the American Civil War, and Europe and the Norther US had trouble sourcing cotton fabric.  The South, in turn, had trouble sourcing silk and luxury items like buttons.  Not quite a century later, World War II would cause so much unrest and destruction in the Far East that a number of varieties of silkworms went extinct, and certain silks can no longer be manufactured.

Dress, 1860—63, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art C.I.42.76.1ab

Dress, 1860—63, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art C.I.42.76.1ab

Wars can also foster trade.  The various Crusades exposed Northern Europeans to the luxury fabrics of the Middle East, both those imported from China along the Silk Road, and those produced in Constantinople.  What they saw, they wanted, and a trade in satins and velvets North from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires through Venice made the city rich and powerful, and forever altered Northern European fashions.

Portrait of the Venecian Doge Francesco Foscari, ca. 1457—1460 or mid to late 1470s, Lazzaro Bastiani (1430—1512), Museo Civico Correr, Venice

Portrait of the Venecian Doge Francesco Foscari, ca. 1457—1460 or mid to late 1470s, Lazzaro Bastiani (1430—1512), Museo Civico Correr, Venice

Natural disasters like earthquakes and major storms wipe out industries and destroy technology.  The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 hugely affected the Southern European textile industries, contributing to the rise of cotton as an acceptable textile for everyday wear, and the dominance of Northern European textile manufacturing throughout the Industrial Revolution.

Caraco jacket, late 18th century, cotton, Belgian, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Caraco jacket, late 18th century, cotton, Belgian, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Natural disasters often lead to pestilence and epidemics, which have their own effects.  A drought in Kashmir in the 1870s led to widespread famine, which turned into epidemics of disease.  By the mid 1880s, it’s estimated that 70% of the weavers in Kashmir were dead, taking with them the Kashmiri shawl industry, and a garment that had been the epitome of luxury in Western fashion for almost a century.

Political alliances led to exchanges of materials and trends.  The marriage of Catherine of Aragon to Henry VII saw the introduction of the farthingale into England in the 16th century, paving the way for the classic stiff Tudor and Elizabethan silhouettes.

Catherine Parr in a skirt supported by farthingales, by Master John, 1545, National Portrait Gallery, London

Catherine Parr in a skirt supported by farthingales, by Master John, 1545, National Portrait Gallery, London

Fashion has also affected politics and world events in its own right.

Wars have been fought to gain control of fabric and fashion.  Much of the English conquest of India was driven by a desire to control the flow of Indian cotton fabrics into the West (and tea, but fabric was a huge part of it).

Bergere hat, 1780s, lined with ca 1715 Coromandel Coast chintz, Meg Andrews

Bergere hat, 1780s, lined with ca 1715 Coromandel Coast chintz, Meg Andrews

Wars have also been stopped, or at least paused, for fashion.  During the 18th century ‘little ambassadors’ or dressed fashion dolls were routinely allowed to cross borders during conflicts where all other goods were stopped.

And nations have even engineered their entire foreign policy around fashion.  Louis XIV of France set out to make France the most important nation in Europe by making it the leader in style and fashion.  He created a uniform of court clothes (the robe de cour and justacorps) that became the proscribed court wear across most of Europe for a century and a quarter.  At points he almost directly bribed Charles II to make the ensemble the prescribed outfit at the English court, thus spreading France’s influence, and selling France’s silks.  The Sun King even want as far as to have mirror-makers and weavers kidnapped and brought to France in order to ensure that France would have the best mirrors, and could make the most beautiful fabrics.

Louis XIV and heirs with the royal governess, Formerly attributed to Nicolas de Largillière, now unknown, circa 1710

Louis XIV and heirs with the royal governess, Formerly attributed to Nicolas de Largillière, now unknown, circa 1710

In the HSF Challenge #11, The Politics of Fashion, due Sunday 15 June,  the challengers are asked to create an item that illustrates the intersection between politics and fashion.  I’ve given a few ideas, but these are just a fraction of the ways in which clothes have changed and been changed by world history.

As with the Innovations challenge, this challenge may require some research, which obviously I think is fantastic.  I can’t wait to see all of the beautiful creations, and to see all the ways in which we have found links between the way governments and nations were shaped and changed, and fashions were shaped and changed!


  1. Thank goodness! I’m not shallow after all 🙂 The way personal and group identity is expressed in clothing/appearance is truly fascinating, especially seen in the wider sociopolitical context.
    By the way, I think you mean ‘prescribed’ outfit at the English court – proscribed means forbidden. Or have I got my history confused?

      • You aren’t ambidextrous by any chance, are you? Apparently it comes with an increased likelihood of getting R & L confused – my bane. (Turn left! The other left!)

        • I’m ambidextrous at some things, and very much not in others! I can sew and embroidery and cut with both hands, but am very right handed as a writer.

          I was taught to type ‘properly’ so keep my fingers on the keyboards. However, much of the time my eyes are looking up reading something else or watching TV or Fiss, so I have to edit carefully to catch any typing errors!

    • Elise says

      I studied linguistics in graduate school, which in part looks at how different social groups use distinctive words. One of the reasons I adore textiles is that they function they same way as words. Are you going to be participating?

      • Interesting point about linguistics – I hadn’t thought of that similarity. It is very tempting to leap into the HSF, but unfortunately I am trying to be ‘good’ this year and plough through some UFOs – which are equally unfortunately not garments, for the most part.
        I guess I’ll just be drooling over what everyone else creates – and trying to sleep at night with wild wardrobe visions coursing through my mind!

        • Elise says

          Everyone deserves a cheerleader, and you can do that! (Speaking of which, I need to get back on and ooooh and ahhh and support)

          Best of luck with your UFOs.

      • Thank you. 🙂 I really wanted to get that out there one day, because it’s a fascinating subject; so now I can check an item off an imaginary bucket list!

    • Lynne says

      That was most interesting! Thank you for sharing.

    • Quoting myself from Facebook (because I don’t want to write the whole thing again :D), so that anyone who’s not there could read it here, too:
      I am now playing with the idea of a sewalong for this piece of clothing, i.e. a mid-19th century braided jacket, if anyone is interested (there is at least one Czech lady who’s interested, so it’s probably going to happen in some form either way). It would not necessarily have to be “Czech national costume” for everyone involved, because it’s a fairly generic mid-19th century jacket style; the Czech part were the colours and possibly the braiding; but even the braiding was also very popular elsewhere.
      I played around with the pattern in Inkscape, so after a bit more playing, there would be a starting point for the pattern available, in multiple sizes as a printable PDF. I’m keeping the original proportions and there would be no guarantee that it would really go together and fit, but it would be a starting point that would save you some resizing.
      So, anyone interested? I don’t think there would be a strict schedule for the thing, because I could not keep it myself. More like a way to share experience, and our work, and maybe figure out if the multiple-sizing of the pattern works the way I wish it should; because if that is the case, I’ve discovered a nice way to share more of my patterns.

      Basically, I think there should be more mid-19th century jackets out there in the costuming world!

      • Elise says

        That’s so generous of you to share your patterns.

        • There aren’t so many, and they’d always come “as is”, no seam allowances, no neat markings, and no neat PDF pages either, because I can’t figure out a way to do that without a fancy software. 😀 I’d just give back the favour others have given…

  2. Interesting writeup! Of course the weaving business did continue strongly in Kashmir, and does to this day — although war and violence has had the odd tendency of spreading it around via refugees. Here in Kathmandu, where I live, one of the most pervasive styles — a particular embroidery style for shawls and purses — comes in fact from Kashmir and is sold in shops run by Kashmiri immigrants who moved here in part to escape the past decades of war and violence there.

  3. karenb says

    Your article has come just at the right time… I am in the middle of an assignment on costume and fashion history.It’s all helping give me a better understanding of how fashion and fabric is affected by what is going on in the world at the time. There is so much to learn and it’s all so interesting. Love how it all ties together…politics,wars,people, disease……just fascinating.

  4. Lynne says

    jstor.orgfinancialjesus.comfuneralinspirations.co.ukSo much of interest in this challenge. May I offer a couple of other articles?

    The first requires you to join JSTOR’s free site (wonderful to have access to some of these articles at last), and is a twelve page article on ‘Fashion, Sumptuary Laws and Business’.

    And the second relates economic growth to skirt length! http://www.financialjesus.com/interesting-economics/economic-growth-vs-skirt-length-the-hemline-index/

    If I were entering this challenge I might be tempted to make a nice woollen shroud – they seem to be coming back into fashion!

    • I’m dubious about the bit on 30s skirt lengths in that second article, though. I really wonder where they got the idea of floor-length skirts in the 30s. Most 30s skirts I’ve seen – if we don’t count evening dresses, which are always a different matter – are about the same length as 40s dresses, or even 20s dresses.
      It’s still an interesting idea, but the article deals with it in a very cursory, shallow manner.
      (I’d put that at the article itself, but the comments are closed.)

      • I agree with you; the entire article seems more like conjecture than actual understanding of fashion.

        • Yeah, the hemline index has been long since completely disproven. No relationship between economics and skirt lengths!

  5. I’ve thought a lot about this particular challenge, and have an idea that might not be popular: The Dirndl.

    • I’d like it, because I see connections to what I’m doing. I did not research Dirndl, but Wikipedia ( very reliable ) says it was adopted in the second half of the 19th century, which was before all those unpopular connotations happened, right?
      Wise patriots support other nations’ emancipation, too.

      • It was adopted before, but the Nazi regime did encourage women to adopt the “country-style” because it was “healthier” than the fashionable slim styles. They had this perposterious theory that German women weren’t having children because it would ruin their figures for wearing slinkly clothes (it couldn’t possibly be a bad economy, could it? Because that would make sense).

        Oddly enough, in the United States, I’ve found that dirndl styles (cut A-line to conserve fabric once the war was in full swing) became popular around 1939-40. An actress, Marsha Hunt, wrote in her book “The Way We Wore” that Hollywood stars were told to “dress like little girls, so that the men fighting were endeared by the little sweet women at home they were protecting.” After seeing teenaged Marsha look more sophisticated at 17 than she did at 22, it was quite a shock.

        I’ve always wanted a dirndl for myself (some of my heritage is Bavarian), I like the earlier 20th century style with the scoop neck and buttoned front.

        But, also, I’ve been think a lot about Ukraine’s current struggles. I’ve always been attracted to their embroideries and the folk-chemise, I can’t remember what it’s called.

  6. I thought you might be amused to know that I just gave copies of this post to my high school students, who enjoyed it immensely.

    I had asked them to research some aspect of material culture, and I wanted them to see what sort of plummy discoveries turn up in this sort of research.

  7. […] #11: The Politics of Fashion – World affairs have both affected, and been affected by, fashions.  Craft something that demonstrates the interactions between dress and political history. […]

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