- Ready-Made Democracy: A History of Men’s Dress in the American Republic, 1760–1860
Michael Zakim's Ready-Made Democracy positions men's clothing manufacturers at the heart of the democratic and capitalistic transformations that engulfed the United States between its founding and the mid-nineteenth century. He argues that the history of the men's suit, embodying as it does a host of social, economic, and political [End Page 533] relationships, presents an unequaled opportunity to observe these changes. Zakim creates a nuanced interpretation that responds to a half century of historiographical debate about the nature of the market revolution in America.
The story begins when a "homespun ideology" became a focal point for revolutionary politics in the eighteenth century. To underline their resistance and lack of subservience to British control of their lives, colonial Americans began to regard simple, deliberately unfashionable, homespun clothing as an important measure of political commitment. The implicit self-sacrifice and austerity of this attire became tangible signs of the colonists' civic virtue, a demonstrable rejection of the corrupting influences of material excess and imperial standards of cultural refinement. Then, during the first part of the nineteenth century, the social significance of men's clothing shifted drastically, so that a high-quality suit no longer stood for luxury, aristocracy, and decadence but instead marked its wearer as an exemplar of industry, civilization, and equal opportunity. The book shows that tracing the movement of this commodity through society can provide valuable insights into the "the mutual embrace of capitalism and democracy" that occurred in the United States during this time (p. 219).
An important corollary to Zakim's argument concerns the manner in which the female wageworker's exploitation became a cause célèbre in the service of democratic patriarchy. The impoverished seamstress emerged as a popular symbol for the dangers of the market-driven society in the early nineteenth century. However, the pity she received (from middle-class reformers, along with working-class males) by and large was not aimed at improving her working conditions or wages, but at demonstrating that women were unsuited to industrial work and ought therefore to be shielded from the workplace—and from waged independence. This reaction produced a new, gendered definition of work that maintained the republican equation of industriousness and virtue but limited women's labor (and virtue) to the household. At the same time, the economic divisions and conflicts attendant on industrialization were reconfigured as issues of gender rather than class, a shift that made these inequalities more manageable and sidestepped their apparent contradiction with the democratic ideals of the new republic.
Zakim's discussion of the men's clothing industry provides a case study of large-scale production that emerged without recourse to capital-intensive manufacturing plants or continuous-process technology. In fact, the tools and techniques of clothing construction changed little from the precapitalist to capitalist eras. Rather, clothing entrepreneurs synthesized existing means of production into a [End Page 534] flexible labor system characterized by specialization, piece-rate compensation, and subcontracting. In the process, they helped transform Americans' understanding of economic productivity, shifting the meaning of "manufacture" from the transformation of nature's raw materials to the creation of surplus value, and that of "industry" from making things to making profit.
Given this rather decentralized and somewhat archaic system of production, the emergence and cultural authority of ready-made clothing was perhaps not as clear-cut and advanced by midcentury as the title of this book implies. In the climactic chapter on "The Fashion Regime," for instance, the author makes references to "ready-made fashion" (p. 192), the "ready-made revolution" (p. 187), and a "ready-made ethos" (p. 199), but he sprinkles his discussion with evidence referring to made-to-measure men's clothing and even women's wear, which was almost entirely custom-made. Elsewhere, Zakim suggests that in the 1850s the men's clothing business was typified by "marble palace" stores...