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Reviewed by:
  • Selling Style: Clothing and Social Change at the Turn of the Century
  • Marlis Schweitzer
Rob Schorman. Selling Style: Clothing and Social Change at the Turn of the Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. 224 pp. ISBN 0-8122-3728-5, $35.00 (cloth).

Selling Style is a persuasively argued, finely researched exploration of the social and cultural factors that shaped the American men and women's clothing industries in the 1890s. Working from a wide assortment of primary sources, including trade journals, women's magazines, etiquette manuals, and mail-order catalogs, Rob Schorman highlights the significant role that dress played in the daily lives of white, middle-class Americans during a period of rapid transformation. Previous fashion histories have tended to overlook this transitional moment in American history, preferring instead to focus on the exciting innovations of Paris designers such as Paul Poiret or on the emergence of the sexually liberated flapper in the 1920s. In its attention to the 1890s alone, Selling Style is therefore an important work, but happily it accomplishes much more than this.

In particular, Schorman's decision to take both genders into account yields exciting results and sets an excellent precedent for future research. By analyzing the discursive strategies utilized by manufacturers, tailors, and dressmakers to appeal to male and female consumers, he links turn-of-the-century [End Page 536] developments in the production, design, and marketing of ready-made and custom-designed clothing with shifting ideologies of gender, race, class, and nationality. This approach not only offers a more complete picture of the division between the men's and women's clothing industries, but also avoids the trap of attributing historical change to any one factor. Perhaps more important, it allows Schorman to correct previous assumptions about the extent to which the ready-made industry usurped custom-designed clothing in the late 1890s; he demonstrates that men, in fact, responded more readily to manufactured garments than their female counterparts. As he explains, while the notions of progress and scientific rationality associated with ready-made clothes were highly compatible with evolving definitions of American masculinity, these were less appropriate for feminine ideals, which emphasized the importance of expressing individuality and personality through dress. Therefore, while men had little problem purchasing ready-made garments, women continued to make their own clothing or enlist the services of a dressmaker well into the twentieth century.

In his focus on the cultural significance of clothing, Schorman also tempers Warren Susman's thesis about the turn-of-the-century shift from a culture of character to a culture of personality by highlighting the way that clothing allowed men and women to experiment with modern ideas without completely rejecting older values. As evidenced by advertisements and trade literature, men and women's clothing practices reflected a desire to accommodate Victorian gender scripts, especially those dictated by "separate sphere" ideology, with more progressive and at times threatening attitudes toward gendered behavior.

Although Schorman's primary focus is gender, he also examines how issues of class, race, and nationality played out in clothing styles, analyzing the industry's response to the Spanish-American War, as well as middle-class reactions to mass immigration. I was fascinated by the material on the use of patriotic discourse in advertising and the symbolic use of the flag (especially in light of post-9/11 fashion trends), but the discussion of immigrant women's relationships with "American" fashion did little to advance previous work by scholars such as Barbara Schreier, Becoming American (1994) and Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure (1999). Schorman concludes his study by examining the strategies undertaken by clothiers and advertisers to cast off previous associations with charlatanism and present themselves as professional businessmen; this chapter should be of special interest to advertising and business historians.

My only complaint with Selling Style is Schorman's use of sources. Schorman certainly makes effective use of sources such as trade journals and popular magazines, but what these sources cannot provide, and therefore what is often missing from his narrative, are the voices of actual consumers. In several chapters when he does use memoirs and other first-person accounts—most notably...


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pp. 536-538
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