Anoka County history: What are you going to wear today?

by Vickie Wendel

Nearly everyone has — at some point — stood staring at their closet trying to decide what to wear.

Clothing is necessary for physical health, but fashion is necessary for our mental health.

In 1938, textile historian Carrie Hall wrote that “We cannot escape clothes, but we may escape from the follies of fashion.”

What fashion she considered a fashion “folly” is not known, but everyone has their favorite fashion folly memory!

Fashionable or not, clothing is a necessity.

Hand sewing was the only way to make clothing before Isaac Singer began selling his sewing machines on the installment plan in the late 1850s.

That “a little money down and so much a month” idea made sewing machines more economically accessible to people and within a few decades, nearly every household had a sewing machine.

Mass production also helped by cutting the cost of sewing machines to around $55 in most areas.

Women could sew clothing for their families with these labor saving devices or take in sewing to earn a little extra money.

Ready made or ready to wear clothing was available in the mid 1800s, but limited mostly to coats and undergarments, particularity for men.

Most of this was made in cottage industry settings where each piece was made one at a time.

The millions of uniforms needed for the Union Army during the Civil War gave the first real push for mass production of ready-made-clothing and a standard set of body measurements was found to be fairly common, giving rise to a sizing plan in ready made clothing.

Men’s clothing continued to be mass produced and sold in increasing amounts after the Civil War, but a woman’s clothing was still mostly made just efor her.

This may have been due in part to the fashions of the day that required well fitted garments.

It was not until the 1920s that women’s clothing began to move toward mass production.

This was fed by the mail order catalogues that were very popular and carried the latest fashions on their pages.

In 1937, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began a study of body sizes aimed a creating a standard sizing that everyone across the clothing industry could follow.

World War II took many women out of the home and put them into jobs that left little time for sewing and, coupled with the better fitting and fashionable clothing available in the ready made market, sewing clothing for the family began to decline.

Today, it is almost considered quite novel to learn of someone sewing their own clothing.

Mark Twain said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Visit the Anoka County Historical Society to see what was influential in clothing in the newest exhibit, “Clothing the County — Fashion for Every Occasion.”

From work clothes to a night on the town, this exhibit features fashion for men, women, and children from the distant past and the not-so-distant past with commentary on why we wore some of the clothes we chose.

The History Center is located at 2135 Third Ave. N, Anoka; call 763-421-0600.

Editor’s note: Vickie Wendel is program manager of the Anoka County Historical Society.

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