- Ready-Made Democracy: A History of Men's Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860
The strength of this book lies in the author's bringing together of insights from economic, industrial, labor, cultural, and gender history to support a series of broad conclusions about democracy and capitalism in the antebellum era. It is also a pleasure for a historian of fashion and physical appearance like me to see dress taken seriously as a major force in individual lives and American culture.
In this book, Michael Zakim provides the most detailed account yet assembled of the rise of the men's clothing industry in the United States and of its early rationalization and standardization under the capitalist system, which began to appear in New York City in the late eighteenth century and grew rapidly in the antebellum era. By 1850 the clothing store Brooks Brothers, for example, had a "marble palace" of 20,000 square feet and a sales force of 2,000 (99). Pants were neatly piled on tables in the middle of its salesroom, and coats were displayed on hooks on the walls. Four hundred workers in back rooms either cut out the parts of the clothes from patterns placed on cloth or sewed together the parts into the items for sale. [End Page 496]
Zakim tells us more about the nature of dress in the lives of the young, upwardly mobile men who flooded the cities in this era to become clerks in stores and businesses than previous studies of the subject, including my own American Beauty (1983) and Patricia Kline Cohen's Murder of Helen Jewett (1998). Zakim is sensitive to the importance of individual items of dress; thus, he notes that the invention of disposable white collars allowed clerks to adopt a defining style of the male elites without having to undergo the significant expense of keeping those collars clean.
Zakim presents women who worked in the men's garment industry as calling into question any notion of a "transcendent feminine passivity or even domesticity" (157). Mercilessly exploited by capitalism's unrelenting drive for cheap labor, they responded to the conditions of their exploitation by forming labor unions and engaging in strikes. Ultimately, however, they would fall victim to the "breadwinner ethic"—the idea that men should support their families by their own work, no matter their income. Even workingmen espoused that ideology, which they used to demand higher wages for themselves and which created a divide between male and female workers.
Unfortunately, however, Zakim's narrative wanders, and it is at times hard to follow. Moreover, his conclusions are not as new as he claims them to be. Trained by social historians at Columbia University, he does not seem aware of a large body of literature in the history of fashion that has been accumulating for some time. Historians of fashion realized years ago that uniform, well-tailored clothing in dark colors had become the mark of the modern man of business and that fashion had become a standardizing force masking the revolutionary nature of capitalism, which separated home from office, created gulfs between the classes, and turned commodities into fetishes.
Zakim, however, is more postmodern and cynical than his predecessors, even among fashion historians. He finds capitalism's "great transformation" something of a sleight of hand under which the vaunted "democracy" of the Jacksonian period was little more than a "collection of political practices and cultural styles that acquired a wholly new importance as a means for distributing political power" (5). This elliptical phrase seems related to current views of the Left about the suspicious nature of President Bush's commitment to "democracy." Under it, Zakim discounts Jacksonian reforms such as universal male suffrage. Drawing from current theoretical perspectives in vogue, he seems to employ a variation on Michel Foucault's notion that individuals internalize [End Page 497] the precepts of a diffused cultural power, in combination with Marxian theories of hegemony, as owners and...