Body and Clothing

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    This chapter examines color in clothing and body decoration from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, focusing on Europe and North America. During this period, industrialization fundamentally changed the ways in which men and women in Europe and North America learned about, acquired, and wore their clothing. Scientific and technological changes allowed many developments in the making and coloring of clothing, including an exponential rise in the number of available textile dyes and many advances in the manufacture of printed textiles. The popular press also grew dramatically, disseminating images and information about fashion and clothing. Fashionable color was often discussed using sophisticated language and color terms. Wearing appropriate, flattering colors comprised an important part of fashionable knowledge and unsuitable colors could lead to accusations of vulgarity. By the end of the nineteenth century, fashion designers (particularly those in Paris) had become a main source of inspiration for fashionable women’s dress. Acknowledging that a great range of colors were worn throughout this period, this chapter will discuss some key examples of fashionable color and its use.

    The turbulent political events of the late eighteenth century contributed to a rejection of the multicolored, richly-decorated fashions of the ancien régime. The early nineteenth-century neoclassical dresses of elite women were often made of lightweight white muslin. Fashionable cashmere shawls and Turkey red cotton demonstrate how vivid colors were often linked (in name or reality) to the East. Men’s clothing of the early nineteenth century also eschewed heavy ornamentation and tended to be made in neutral or dark colors. For men who could afford it, snowy-white linen also reflected fashion’s emphasis on simplicity. In elite women’s dress, the historicist silhouettes of the 1820s and 1830s were often realized in jewel-toned silk velvets or satins. Colorful printed fabrics also enjoyed popularity, usually featuring floral or geometric designs. Throughout this period, printed cottons allowed all but the very poor to include color in their wardrobes. As the nineteenth century progressed, dark colors (usually gray, brown, or black) became the standard for men’s clothing. If color and pattern appeared, they were often on waistcoats, shirts, or accessories such as socks. The Victorian cult of mourning meant that many women, across social classes, also wore black for years of their lives.

    From the late 1850s, the use of aniline dyes to color textiles changed the palette of both men and women’s clothing. Although not all bright colors were created with artificial dyestuffs, many of the aniline colors would have been difficult or very expensive to achieve otherwise. Their industrial origins contributed to their novelty for contemporaries. Fashionable dressmakers and couturiers created costumes that emphasized these vivid colors by using shiny silks. Some observers, however, objected to the brightness of these aniline colors. Followers of the Aesthetic Movement preferred more muted colors in soft materials that draped gracefully. Asian clothing and textiles, including Japanese kimonos and Indian cashmeres, often satisfied ‘artistic’ tastes, inspiring European and American manufacturers as well. By the early twentieth century, many fashionable designers of women’s clothing favored pale and pastel shades ornamented with lace and embroidery. In the years just before World War I, however, bright colors became popular again, often drawing inspiration from orientalist fantasies.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationA Cultural History of Color in the Age of Industry
    EditorsAlexandra Loske
    Place of PublicationLondon
    PublisherBloomsbury Academic
    ISBN (Electronic)9781474206211
    ISBN (Print)9781474273350
    Publication statusAccepted/In press - 24 Dec 2020

    Publication series

    NameThe Cultural Histories Series
    PublisherBloomsbury Academic


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