Industrial Revolution Fashion

Debates are still raised about whether or not the positive outcomes of the Industrial Revolution were worth the struggles faced during the time period. Fashion reflects its time period; therefore, by looking at the fashion of a time one can understand the motives, lifestyles, and productivity of the time period.

By analyzing the fashion industry as a whole from 1780-1860—trends, trades, and machinery—the importance of the Industrial Revolution can be seen. Not only did the Industrial Revolution bring a renaissance for fashion, but fashion also impacted the people, events, and inventions of the time period.

This revolution broke the boundaries of production and led to limitless manufacturing opportunities of goods and services. Of course— as with any other time of novelty, expansion, and growth— there were periods of obstacle and struggle, but the gains that the industrial revolution brought to society are much more profound.

The relationship between the Industrial Revolution and fashion can be seen through many different aspects of the period including: the interests or tastes of the people, trade and trade policies, and the machinery and techniques of the trade. A close analysis of the industrial revolution from a fashion perspective reveals the transformations and advancements of not only production but also of lifestyle during the time and illuminates the overall achievement of the Industrial Revolution.

The industrial revolution was a time of invention, productivity, and innovation; likewise the clothing during the time was redefined, was more intricately designed, and was seeing the beginnings of mass production. An American visiting Great Britain around 1810 said, “We have seen carding and spinningmills, weavingmills, mills for everything. The human hand and human intelligence are not separated.”

The first industry to be revolutionized was cotton textiles. Prior to the 18th century, cotton was available but only through importing and not enough to be used for cloth. The cotton industry is credited for shaping British economy throughout the industrial years. There was a direct correlation between this industry and the economy. In other words, when cotton was flourishing as was the economy.

This relationship between cotton and the economy from ca. 1780- 1850 holds true for fashion, more generally textiles, as a whole. For an industry to expand, demand must be rising. Throughout history “when capital was small, and the movements of trade comparatively sluggish, a new manufacture would extend itself slowly.”

Until the 18th century, basic spinning mules were used to produce thread and cloths. With this level of production, it took a day’s time to make enough thread for an hour of weaving. In many cases, that is not even a full garment. Industrial innovations brought changes for workers, productions, and consumers. With the invention of the spinning wheel in 1764, “there was more yarn to be had than could be woven by the available workers.”

The production cost for yarn decreased and the demand for woven goods rose. Before revolutionizing, thread and cloth were weaved at home and this production was known as “cottage industry.”

However, with production advancements, the water frame and cotton mill were built and cloth production shifted to factory production. Innovations in production brought innovations in products and people began developing distinct desires for novelty designs. Roller printing quickly replaced wood block printing, and designs with multiple colors were produced. Manufacturing with this new type of printing increased production from 168 yards of fabric per day to 14,000 yards per day. The fashion industry, and others as well, began mass manufacturing to make articles of clothing and other goods easily available to more people.

Popular appeal for intricate designs continued to grow. In 1808, the bobbin- net machine was invented allowing for the use of finer fabrics, such as silk satin. At the time, the upper class women were the drive behind the inspiration of new designs. Many new garments were made for their events and becoming increasingly elaborate which further encouraged progress in manufacturing. Even the working class began to desire more luxuries. As the manufacturing techniques improved, and people became fashion forward, the design for fit of clothing continued to change.

As consumers saw that creating new designs was no longer as limited, their taste grew causing an increase in demand, and production speed up allowing fashion cycles—trends—to change quicker.

As industries continued to expand as did job availability. More people were employed and living securely. Culture has always greatly impacted clothing, and this time period is no exception of that. Early eighteenth century fashion developed mostly from the desire of the aristocrats, or the upper class. The industrial revolution evoked class-consciousness, and the upper class wanted to be distinctly and visibly set apart from the rest. The most visible way to communicate their status was through their wardrobe.

As men and women began to show status through appearance “ identities could [now] be negotiated through changes in clothing, [and] fashion became synonymous with social dynamism.” However, in the later years of the industrial revolution, all classes of people were able to spend more and save less. The fashion industry began to not only focus its production around elaborate dress for the upper class but also appropriate clothing for a variety of people.

No longer were consumers of luxury items just the upper class. The working class’s disposable income was growing and consequently so was the market for luxury items. “The insistence that taste, rather than the luxurious fabrics and jewels which only the wealthy could buy…worked to broaden the potential market for Parisian fashion.” The expansion of many industries at once, thus the revolution, greatly increased production efficiency and consumerism. The fashion industry began producing new merchandise quicker and quicker to supply for the ever-growing demand.

It is important to note that clothing did exist before the industrial revolution, as humans have always been a clothed society; however, this revolutionary period is what made clothing into fashion. It is what defined clothing as a form of identification and communication. From another perspective, the people of the era gave clothing meaning and made it a form of representation. Fashion was and still is “integral to the expression of consumer preference, the structuring of markets and the reordering of society.” Fashion became a sign of status, of appeal, of identification.

Other industries prospered, too, because of the expansion of the fashion industry such as metal and steel with the production of embellishments and accessories. During the industrial revolution, as markets grew, consumers began to get creative about the clothing they wished to wear and voice their specific desires for new designs. In some cases, as many consumers begin to focus their interests and tastes certain markets may not thrive. On the contrary, in the case of industrial revolution, specific demands caused the industries to produce more and further develop.

According to an analysis of consumerism during this time, this supply- demand relationship “is because of the association of demand with culture, style, life-style, etc., which serve as the analytical counterpart to technological change.” Consumers greatly influenced the burgeoning fashion industry, “the fashion press acknowledged the desire for variety,” and the designers responded with what they believed would sell. Only with the innovations and advancements that the revolution brought was this possible.

The demand for new styles, colors, and fabrics inspired and encouraged continuous improvements and innovations. The beginning innovations in 1780 initiated market growth, but it was the creation of jobs in addition to consumers’ preferences that continued the steady advancements after the initial breakthrough of the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution did not only cause markets to prosper, but by 1860 markets were more secure.

Prior to the industrial revolution growing manufacturers in Great Britain did not have the most advanced machinery and skill and struggled to produce what the consumer desired. Consumers shopped internationally for fabrics and designs. Asian styles and fabrics were of popular appeal and purchase, but “by the late seventeenth century, Europe’s governments awoke to the threats posed by the mass importation of cottons: the disruption of local textile industries and the social confusions encouraged by this fashion.”

Britain’s government responded by placing restrictions and bans on trade. A maxim of trade stated that, “ the importing Commodities of mere Luxury, is so much real Loss as they amount to.” Though imports were restricted, Asian fashion continued to largely impact European design and production. Manufacturers looked for new ways to produce cloth domestically.

The rise of advancing technology brought about by the industrial revolution created new opportunities for domestic production. New machinery, innovations, and consumer-encouraged designs were produced. Because of the industrial revolution, all of Europe was able to use improved skills for production that were unknown in Asia.

Eventually, trade became a necessary and important aspect of not only the fashion industry but other revolutionizing industries as well. Manufacturers and, later, the government realized that participating in the trade market could potentially reduce cost of production. Importing materials that could be produced elsewhere at a lower cost and used for domestic manufacturing became standard means for efficient production.

Though, initially, trade was used mostly for fabrics for clothing, copper and metal were also imported and exported. Still today, trade is a major aspect of achieving efficient levels and costs of production.

Often when reflecting back, one of the most vivid recollections is how different the dress was in the past compared to how the dress is now. As demonstrated, the industrial revolution redefined clothing. But it is how clothing was redefined that communicates the importance and achievements of the industrial revolution. Fashion, just as person or a country’s identity, is constantly changing. Both are completely dependent upon current events, status, business, consensual opinions, and many other facets of life. A major aspect of the time period was class -consciousness.

The upper class wanted to be distinctly separate from everyone else. This desire was no different before 1780, but the difference in the midst of the revolution was that people began to identify with appearance—materials and clothing. While the world as a whole is changing, so are the individuals. People are dynamic and therefore, just as the world ‘updates’ every day, people do as well. With the factory boom of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century came a clear contrast between the factory (or land) owners – the upper class—and the working class.

This contrast increased the peoples’ inclination toward identifying themselves through appearance. Also, as more jobs were created more people had the income to indulge in consumption. The industrial revolution not only increased production possibilities but also increased consumption. In viewing the industrial revolution through the smaller scope of a fashion perspective reveals the achievements of the time, the problems that were faced, and the tendencies of the people.

Throughout history, fashion has had greater meaning than being merely an article of covering. It is a dialect. The period of the industrial revolution is a perfect representation of how influential fashion can be on people, events, policies, advancements, etc. More importantly, the fashion of the era is a perfect representation of the people and progress of the time.

Bibliography Primary Sources: Baines, Edward. The History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain. London: R. Fisher and P. Jackson, 1835. A French Traveller. Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, During the Years 1810 and 1811. Edinburgh: G. Ramsey,1815. Defoe, Daniel. The British Merchant: A Collection of Papers Relating to the Trade and Commerce of Great Britain and Ireland. Mr. Charles King, 1743 and New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Engels, Frederick. The Condition of the WorkingClass in England in 1844. S. Sonnenschein & co., 1892 Secondary Sources: Fine, Ben and Ellen Leopold. Consumerisn and the Industrial Revolution. Social History. Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis, Ltd., May 1990. Jones, Jennifer. Rousseau: Femininity and Fashion in Old Regime France. French Historical Studies. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1994. Lemire, Beverly and Giorgio Riello. East and West: Textiles and Fashion in Eurasia in the Early Modern Period. Working Papers of the Global Economic History Network. London: London School of Economics, April 2006.


Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (S. Sonnenschein & Co., 1892), 3. [ 4 ]. Beverly Lemire and Giorgio Riello, East and West: Textiles and Fashion in Eurasia in the Early Modern Period (London: London School of Economics, 2006), 29. [ 5 ]. Lemire and Riello, 6.

[ 6 ]. Jennifer Jones, Rousseau: Femininity and Fashion in Old Regime France (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1994), 959. [ 7 ]. Lemire and Riello, 1. [ 8 ]. Ben Fine and Ellen Leopold, Consumerism and the Industrial Revolution (Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 1990), 154. [ 9 ]. Jones, 961. [ 10 ]. Lemire and Riello, 16. [ 11 ]. Daniel Defoe, The British Merchant: A Collection of Papers Relating to the Trade and Commerce of Great Britain and Ireland (Mr. Charles King, 1743 and NY: Oxford University Press, 1969), 2.