Slow Fashion Through The Ages

Welcome back to the Mane Street Chronicles! Today we are going to look at Slow Fashion throughout history. 

Though in that sense, perhaps Slow Fashion should just be called ‘traditional fashion.’ Or maybe ‘renaissance fashion.’ Not because it is mirroring cuts and styles from the Renaissance time period, but because a ‘renaissance’ is a renewed/revived interest in something, and the concept of Slow Fashion is certainly a renewed way of viewing and interacting with clothing that was once common place for most of history before being lost during the industrial revolution. 

I would say that the 1950’s was the turning point when Fast Fashion became the norm.  Around the 1950’s there was an explosion in marketing and a Consumer Culture was born.  Suddenly shoppers found themselves being egged-on by marketing agencies. Encouraged to try to keep up with their neighbors they constantly sought to display always newer, better, more stylish purchases- from clothes, to cars, to furniture and home decor. 

Looking earlier, there was certainly a period of overlap between Slow and Fast fashion.  The early 1900’s showed a transition to factory production brought on by the industrial revolution.  Suddenly clothing could be made in bulk and conformity at a price everyone could afford. For the first time the middle and lower class could have a say in deciding fashion trends, and they could have more than one or two sets of clothing. 

Before that fashion was dictated by the nobility and the wealthy elite. Were there a great many things wrong with this arrangement? Certainly, but that is not the focus of this article.  And in regards to Slow Fashion at least, times were better back then. 

We can pull examples of Slow Fashion pre-industrial revolution from both the realities and practicalities of time, and from laws enacted by the church and state. 

Practically speaking, all fabric and garment notions (buttons, lacings, thread, etc) were made by hand. Every aspect was hands on: growing the cotton or linen, raising the sheep for wool, processing, spinning, weaving, dyeing, sewing, and more. This gave a much greater appreciation for the materials, and made the price of clothing much more expensive, comparatively, than modern day. For this reason, many things were done to preserve one’s garments. 

For example, many pieces of a lady’s dress were detachable and interchangeable.  Parts of a dress were all separate pieces: the bodice, skirts, overcoat, etc. Sleeves could be removed so a dress could be worn in all seasons.

Also, a lady always wore several skirts.  The nicest skirt was worn as the top layer, with the hem pinned or tied up to keep it clean and out of the mud.  Petticoats and older skirts were worn underneath so a lady’s modesty could be maintained.  But even these skirts often had an extra piece of fabric sewn to the bottom hem so that just that piece could be replaced as it became dirtied and worn out from constantly dragging through the mud and getting stepped on while she walked.  Women who had to work also wore an apron overtop their nicest skirt to keep it from getting dirtied during her chores. 

Young girls wore dresses with thick hems that could be let out for added length as they grew.  Alternatively, as a dress became too short for modesty, panels were sewn to the bottom hem to add length.  

Most ladies had a hand in making their own clothes, or had a personal tailor to do the sewing for them. For that reason dresses could often be modified as trends changed. While the basic silhouette may remain the same, perhaps the cut of a sleeve or neckline might change from one season to the next. Rather than purchase an entirely new dress, women would update their current wardrobe to reflect the new trends. Even once they were done with a dress it was not simply discarded.  If it had been adorned with real pearls or gem stones these would be carefully unstitched and saved for use on a future dress.  Then the dress could be sold, or gifted to a younger family member or even, on occasion, to a servant. Gifts to servants tended to be smaller however: a pair of gloves, a handkerchief, or a fichus (the small thin piece of white cloth or lace worn around a lady’s neck acting as a bit of modesty necessary when bodice necklines were indecorously low). For the lower classes, how a belt was worn- at the waist or hips for example- was a simple way to keep up with current trends without needing to modify existing garments or buy new ones. 

Certain laws also leaned in favor of Slow Fashion. These Sumptuary Laws were most popular in England during the reigns of King Henry and Queen Elizabeth. They dictated what fabrics, colors, designs, and accessories the various classes were permitted to wear.  Though these laws were in place to maintain societal hierarchies and distinguish between the classes, they also had benefits to Slow Fashion.  For example, only certain nobility could wear certain furs- thus preventing the over hunting of those animals.  There were laws on the amount of fabric permitted to be used in particular garments. In a culture where your clothing said a lot about your wealth and status, people certainly would have been tempted to dress to excess if not restrained.  Often an overarching goal of the Sumptuary Laws was to encourage purchasing textiles and accessories made within the country, rather than importing foreign items, and supporting the local economies. That all sounds very Slow Fashion indeed. 

Special and ceremonial attire was often seen as antiquated or traditional when compared to current fashions. This was because these pieces were worn infrequently and therefore updated more slowly. 

The list goes on. But from these examples, as you can see, Slow Fashion was the norm up until the early 1900’s where it began picking up speed until it reached the break neck fast fashion culture we have today. There have always been outliers: the hippies of the 60’s and punks of the 80’s certainly didn’t conform to society’s Fast Fashion standards.  But it wasn’t until the early 90’s that Slow Fashion began reclaiming any noticeable share of the fashion marketplace. Even today it is far less well known than it should be. But hopefully as we move towards greener, more ethical, and environmentally sustainable choices overall, the fashion industry will be pulled along as well. 

Certainly 2020 has seen a break in the Fast Fashion carousel. Thanks to the global pandemic, fashion shows canceled around the world. Designers didn’t release collections. With no where to go and Be Seen, overall purchasing in the fashion markets dropped significantly. Perhaps this is the pause for breath we have needed. Perhaps this is the year to evaluate your closets and your habits. Build that capsule collection. Learn how to sew and start mending those worn out favorites before casting them aside. Decide what your style IS, not what you’re told it should be. And move forward into the future with new priorities and goals for a healthier Slow Fashion mentality. Just a thought.

Tune in next time while we explore the final piece in our Slow Fashion series: Not Just For Faire. We’ll show you how to use your Unicorn Clothing pieces all the time!

See you then!


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