The Historical Influence of the Industrial Revolution on British Fashion

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The Historical Influence of the Industrial Revolution on British Fashion

Sheryl Stoeck

Sandra Day O’Connor High School
San Antonio, Texas

2010 NEH Seminar for School Teachers

Historical Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain

Fashion is the mirror of history.” - Louis XIV

As the introductory quotation from Louis XIV suggests, fashion reflects its time period. By looking at the fashions of an age, one can see how the historical context informs the clothing, and vice-versa. In many cases, not only does history influence fashion, but fashion also has an impact on the events of history. Because of my interest in this relationship, I chose to use the fashions of the Industrial Revolution as a way of exemplifying many of the issues surrounding the period. Specifically, I created a “museum walk” of objects and images representing key issues and developments related to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on fashions of the day, and I wrote a narrative script to be recorded on mp3 players that students can play as they circulate around to each image in the “museum.” My objective is to illustrate for students some of the main themes of the Industrial Revolution through the fashion of the period, showing how the Industrial Revolution influenced fashion and, in some cases, how fashion had an influence on people and events of the Industrial Revolution.
Fashion is an area well suited to understanding the Industrial Revolution for a number of reasons. First, the cotton industry was the first to industrialize (Hobsbawm 26), and it was extremely important to the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, gauging the growth of the overall British economy, contributing to the capital accumulation of many industries, and stimulating a number of technical innovations (46-47). Second, the scholarly study of the Industrial Revolution has frequently divorced the production processes from their products. By focusing academic analysis on the changes in production, the changes in the goods produced and the consumption of those goods has often been neglected (Berg 12-13). Analyzing fashion synthesizes important processes and product innovations in the Industrial Revolution, in both textiles and other manufacturing areas like metal and steel, and it facilitates an examination of the ways in which new products were consumed and used. Moreover, fashion exemplifies many of the most central issues of the Industrial Revolution, which I have attempted to incorporate in the selection and narration of the museum items, namely: innovations in the processes of production, the effects of a changing production system on people and family life, the role of the state, the role of and impact on consumers, and the role of Empire or trade in the Industrial Revolution.
In the accompanying document, I selected seventeen images to represent these central issues of the Industrial Revolution. If these images are posted around a classroom or on different tables, students can walk around with mp3 players and listen to the recorded narration that explains the significance of each one. Because I wrote the narration with a fashion design class in mind, I assumed little to no background knowledge of the Industrial Revolution on the part of the students. My objective was to convey some of the themes important to understanding the Industrial Revolution by showing ways in which the Industrial Revolution influenced fashion from about 1780 to 1860.1 In some cases, such as the demand for vibrant textile prints of the style of wide women’s skirts, it could be argued that fashion may have influenced innovations of the Industrial Revolution. Although I intend to use this project for a fashion design class, it could also be used in other subject areas like social studies that study the Industrial Revolution. It could be used, for example, as an introduction to a unit on the Industrial Revolution to introduce the major issues, or it could be used later in the unit to give students a visual representation of the issues they have been considering. Alternately, instead of having students listen to a teacher’s interpretation and explanation of the objects’ significance, students could be challenged to look at some of the images to draw their own conclusions about what Industrial Revolution issues are reflected there.
Another pedagogical strategy raised by this project is to have students curate their own museum exhibit to exemplify issues of the Industrial Revolution (or any other topic). In the selection process, they would engage with primary sources and in visual analysis, and the narrative explanations of their items would require them to demonstrate their knowledge and interpretations of events and issues. They would also have to learn or practice proper citation of images and their conclusions. If they prepared and shared their exhibits, it would give students a more authentic audience and an opportunity to learn from each other. For more information about using student-curated museum exhibits in the classroom, see Bell and Zirkel-Rubin.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge some of the limitations of this particular project. First, the focus is necessarily narrow. Although analyzing fashion does raise several key issues of the Industrial Revolution, it certainly does not capture all of them, and there are even more issues I could have explored in relation to fashion, such as the role of slavery in the manufacture of cotton or the impact of new sources of “mineral power” rather than organic power in textile production. By looking only at the impact of the Industrial Revolution on fashion, I have excluded other historical influences on fashion of the period. Moreover, I have also excluded interpretations of fashion symbolism, such as those by theorists like Thorstein Veblen. A further development of this project, whether by a teacher or students, could more fully consider the uses and meanings of the fashion by its wearers.2

Lastly, I had initially intended to include more images that represent fashions of men and of the working class. Unfortunately, I am constrained by time and, probably more importantly, by the images available. Photography was not widely available during most of the Industrial Revolution, and so I must rely on contemporary depictions of clothing or on available digital photographs of clothing that has survived. My project relies heavily on photographs from museum collections because they tend to be high quality images of clothing fully displayed, and they include reliable information regarding the textile, source, and date of the clothing. I regret that most of these collections reflect women’s fashions, particularly because Berg makes it clear that both men and women were avid consumers of the new products in the Industrial Revolution (243). With regards to working class fashions, Mayhew’s exasperation with the ubiquity of crinolines suggests that the fashion styles of the middle classes may have been similar to those of the working classes. In the case of crinolines, further evidence of this is given by a notice in Courtland’s Mill in 1860 directing workers that “the present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called, is, however, quite unfitted for the work of our Factories. . . . We now request all our Hands, at all our Factories, to leave HOOPS AND CRINOLINE at home when they come to the Factories to work. . .” (Tozer and Levitt 135). Even if working class fashions were very distinct from middle and upper class fashions, however, finding modern images of them from museum collections, for example, is very difficult. They were not saved as frequently as finer garments, quite possibly because of the large second-hand market that involved changing and altering the fabric for multiple wearers and uses (Tozer and Levitt 122, 139-41). Although I believe the images selected represent the most significant issues of the Industrial Revolution as they relate to fashion, the project could be further developed with more fashion accessories such as shoes and buckles and the clothing of men and the working classes.

  1. Spinning Wheel
    pictures 120.jpg
    (Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire, England)
    Until the 18th century, a spinning wheel such as this one was used to create yarn or thread out of natural fibers like cotton and wool. Weavers would then use the thread to weave cloth using a handloom. It would generally take a person an entire day to spin enough thread for a weaver to use in just one hour.

  2. Handloom
    pictures 134.jpg
    (Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire, England)

The spinning wheel and the handloom (pictured here) were the predominant means of producing thread and cloth from the 17th to the middle of the 18th century. Families worked in their own homes in the country, “controlling the pace and organization of production,” to weave cloth for merchants in the city (Tilly and Scott 14). This system of home-based production is known as a “cottage industry.”

  1. Spinning Jenny
    pictures 136.jpg
    (Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire, England)

The great inefficiency of the spinning wheel prompted Englishman James Hargreaves to patent the “spinning jenny” in 1770. This multi-spool wheel allowed a spinner to work eight spindles at once, greatly increasing productivity.

  1. waterframe.jpg

About 1770, fellow Englishman Richard Arkwright improved Hargreaves’s invention by designing a frame that utilized power provided by a water wheel. With power from water rather than manual human labor, the number of spindles and productivity of the water frame dramatically increased. Pictured here is an extract from Arkwright’s patent application in 1768.

  1. Factory Photo
    pictures 115.jpg

Arkwright’s water frame not only changed the efficiency of the cloth-making process, it also changed the entire cloth production system. Instead of a “cottage industry” in which thread and cloth were produced in individual homes by families, cloth-making shifted to factory production. Hundreds of the machines could be housed together and easily operated by a single person. Thus, Arkwright built a cotton mill (shown here) at Cromford, England.

  1. Factory Workers

Although this factory system was more efficient than the handloom method of spinning, it put thousands of men who made a living by handloom weaving out of a job. Not only were fewer workers needed with the more efficient system, but women and children were increasingly employed in the factories at lower rates of pay than men. In the Boulton button factory in 1800, for example, men earned 25 to 30 schillings per week, whereas women earned seven and children earned between one and four schillings (Berg 174).


By 1852, 76 percent of all fourteen year-old girls and 61 percent of all 14 year-old boys in Manchester, England, for instance, were employed in textile mills (Tilly and Scott 83). Children usually worked ten to fifteen hours per day, and because the factory system worked on a strict division of labor, each individual performed the same repetitive task continuously for that time (Hammond and Hammond 159).

A girl wrote of her work in a Nottingham lace factory, “children and young women are kept there at work from eight in the morning till seven, eight, and nine o’clock at night, for about 3s . . . per week, which, in my opinion, is worse than slavery in South America, for I do not think they work above 12 hours a day; and if they do they are better off than a portion of the warehouse girls of Nottingham, who have to work in cellars not fit for pigstyes, much more for human beings” (Brown 34).

  1. Asian Chintz

In the early to mid- eighteenth century, there was a high demand for fabrics such as chintzes and calicoes imported from Asia. This dress is made of hand-painted silk from China, as is the man’s Banyan robe in the Indian style of those imported by the British East India Company. Compared to the domestic wool and cotton fabric produced in Britain before the Industrial Revolution, these Asian fabrics had far greater variety in patterns and colors (Berg 52-53).


This dress from 1770 is made of printed fabric from India. Calicoes from Asia were so popular that the British government banned them in 1700 and placed high tariffs on other Asian cloths to protect domestic textile industries. The popularity of the fabrics combined with their ban to create a substantial incentive for enterprising industrialists to find new ways of producing cloth that would substitute for the Asian textiles and meet the large demands of consumers (Berg 78-79).

  1. block-printing.jpg

    This sketch shows the way in which fabric was hand-printed by wooden blocks for most of the eighteenth century in Britain. This labor-intensive process was slow and imprecise, making it yet another way in which innovation in process could address consumer fashion demands (Lemire and Riello 29).

  2. floral_day_dress.jpg

At the end of the eighteenth century, roller printing was developed to replace the inefficient wood block printing. Using multiple rollers imprinted with designs such as these, designs with multiple colors could be applied consistently to fabric and approximate the colorful and intricate designs of fabric from Asia. Compared to the wood block printing which produced about 168 yards of fabric per day, machine roller printing could produce up to 14,000 yards per day (Lemire and Riello 29).

When Ben Franklin visited London in 1758, he purchased cotton fabric for his wife which he wrote was “printed curiously from Copper Plates, a new Invention” (Berg 14).

  1. close-up-of-net-dress.jpgnet_dress_full.bmp

It was not just the methods of production that were changing, however. Innovations in products occurred alongside innovations in production (Berg 44). New inventions of the period made fashions such as these net dresses both possible and popular. Before John Heathcoat patented the bobbin-net machine in 1808, hand embroidery was required but created a plainer netting of inferior quality. These evening dresses with machine-made silk bobbin net over a silk satin underdress would have been worn at fancy balls and dances (Johnston 146). The consumers’ demand for quality, variety, and novelty spurred manufacturers like Heathcoat to innovate their productions, processes, and designs (Berg 86-87).

  1. blue_dress.jpg

Throughout the Industrial Revolution, advances in textile dyes continued to take place (Lemire and Riello 25-26). This dress, for example, was not possible until 1856 when chemist William Perkin discovered aniline purple dye. After the accidental discovery of synthetic dye which made vibrantly colored clothing more durable and affordable, vivid colors in fashion became “the rage” (Breward 161).

  1. crinoline003.jpg

By the 1840’s, fashionable skirts were so full that they required multiple layers of petticoats stiffened by “crinolines” of horsehair. A number of entrepreneurs experimented with materials such as rubber, whalebone, and cane to construct a more comfortable, hygienic, and unlimited skirt frame. The most successful of these crinolines were created from flexible steel hoops connected by vertical wool tapes such as this one (Johnston 128). British fashion historian James Laver declaired that crinoline was “the first great triumph of the machine age” (Laver qtd. in Briggs 26).

  1. crinoline_dress.jpg

In 1856, journalist Henry Mayhew claimed, “Every woman now from the Empress on her Imperial throne down to the slavey in the scullery, wears crinoline, the very three year olds wear them. It may be safely calculated that every female in the kingdom possesses two sets of hoops; one for ordinary wear and one for best; one for the drawing room, another for the promenade, one to wear while cleaning the doorstep, another to distend the merino or the muslin for the Sunday out. Crinoline has become a vast commercial interest. It is no longer a matter affecting merely a few work girls in the London shops. It extends itself to the forge, the factory and the mine. At this moment and at any moment throughout the year, men and boys are toiling in the bowels of the earth to obtain the ore of iron which fire and furnace and steam will in due time, by many elaborate processes, convert into steel for petticoats” (Breward 160).

  1. Buckle




As Mayhew’s description of the crinoline suggests, these new advances in clothing manufacture did not affect just the fashions of the upper classes. Not only did the middle and working classes desire the novelty and vibrancy of new fashion innovations, but the industrial manufacturing made them within the reach of these classes. The expanding middle class and wage-earning families had more money to spend, spending perhaps a quarter of their annual earnings on clothing (Berg 239), and manufacturers deliberately set out to produce goods for these individuals. This buckle on a man’s shoe exemplifies the new metal techniques that were utilized by industrialist Matthew Boulton. Boulton created a range of fashion buckles which he ‘sold to all levels of society and to both men and women’ (Robinson qtd. in Berg 159).

  1. womens_magazine_cover.jpg

    The Industrial Revolution had a significant impact on the fashion industry, but the fashion industry also had an impact on the ignition and evolution of the Industrial Revolution. The high consumer demand for printed textiles spurred innovation in the manufacture of British textiles, and as production processes evolved in textiles and other manufactured materials, consumers eagerly incorporated new products and designs into their wardrobes. The consumer taste for novelty and the increased speed with which products could be made resulted in a shorter, more frequently changing fashion cycle (Berg 252-253). Furthermore, as this cover of the cheaply priced English Woman’s Domestic Magazine illustrates, the middle and even working classes were avid fashion consumers. The Industrial Revolution increased the number of wage earners in the middle classes and made mass manufacture of goods within the price range of more people.

* Images cited in this project were used under educational “fair use” guidelines and may not be reproducible without permission from the copyright holder. All uncited photos were taken by Sheryl Stoeck and may be reused and reproduced for any nonprofit purpose.

Images Cited

4. “Arkwright’s Patent for a Water Frame Spinning Machine.” 1768. Image. Lancashire Pioneers.
Lancashire Lantern. Web. 25 July 2010.
6. “Cotton Winding Machine.” July 1862. Image. Picture the Past. Web. 25 July 2010.
7. “Untitled Photo of Child Labor.” Photograph. Learn History. Crime, Punishment and Protest
Through Time, c.1450-2004
. Web. 25 July 2010.
8. “Typical English Nobles.” 1780-85. Photograph. University of Michigan. The In's and Out's of
the 18th Century Fashion World
. Web. 25 July 2010. student_projects/exoticism/Eng417/Fashion_Page/page2.html>.
9. “Caraco (Jacket) and Petticoat.” 1770-1780. Photograph. Victoria and Albert Museum,
London. The British in India. Web. 25 July 2010.
10. “Block Printing.” 1854. Image. Georgian Index. Shopping For Cloth and Ordering a Dress.
Web. 25 July 2010. .
11. “Day Dress.” 1836-1840. Photograph. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Women’s
Clothes: 1830s-1860s
. Web. 25 July 2010.
12. “Evening Dress.” 1807-1811. Photograph. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Web. 25
July 2010. <>.
13. “Ruched Silk Dress.” 1873. Photograph. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Dating
Clothes & Photograph From the 1870s
. Web. 25 July 2010.
14. “Crinoline Cage.” 1860. Photograph. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Restrictive Flamboyance and the Crinoline Craze: 1830-1860. Web. 25 July 2010.
15. “Dress With a Pattern That Complements the Shape Created by the Cage Crinoline Worn
Underneath It.” 1858-1860. Photograph. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
The Shape of 18th and 19th Century Fashion. Web. 25 July 2010.
16a. “Pair of Shoe Buckles.” 1792-1806. Photograph. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Hidden Treasures. Web. 25 July 2010.
16b. “Lord Mayor’s Ceremonial Pumps.” 1898-1899. Photograph. National Museums,
Liverpool. Social History Collection. Web. 25 July 2010.
17. “Coloured Plate, The English Woman's Domestic Magazine.” July 1860. Image. Victoria and
Albert Museum, London. Women’s Clothes: 1830s-1860s. Web. 25 July 2010.

Works Cited

Bell, Benjamin, and Jessica Zirkel-Rubin. “Goal Directed Inquiry Via Exhibit Design: Engaging
With History Through the Lens of Baseball.” Journal of Interactive Learning Research 12
(2001). Questia. Web. 22 July 2010.
Berg, Maxine. Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth Century Britain. New York: Oxford University
Press, 2007. Print.
Breward, Christopher. The Culture of Fashion: A New History of Fashionable Dress. New York:
St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Print.
Brown, Alan. A Rough Lot: The Story of the Young Women and Girls Who Worked in the
Nottingham Lace Finishing Industry, as Told to John White M.A. for the 1862 Royal
. Sawbridgeworth: Sheila Brown, 2001. Print.
Hammond, J. L., and Barbara Hammond. The Town Labourer 1760-1832. New York: A.M. Kelley,
1967. Print.
Johnston, Lucy. Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publishing, 2005. Print.
Lemire, Beverly, and Giorgio Riello. “East and West: Textiles and Fashion in Eurasia in the Early
Modern Period.” Working Papers of the Global Economic History Network. April 2006.
1-35. Web. 25 July 2010. .
Tilly, Louise A., and Joan W. Scott. Women, Work, and Family. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Tozer, Jane, and Sarah Levitt. Fabric of Society. Manchester: Laura Ashley Publications, 2010.

1 Although the time period of the Industrial Revolution is somewhat nebulous and debatable, it is generally considered to end about 1830-1850 (with the Great Exhibition taking place in 1851). I have included a few items just past this date primarily due to the fact that they were the best visual examples I could find to illustrate the points I am making. They also illustrate some of the effects of issues and innovations that developed during the Industrial Revolution, even if the garments date just after the time period. Singer makes the sewing machine widely available in the 1850s, but while this has a large impact on fashions after that time period, it is not directly related to the period of the Industrial Revolution and therefore not included in this particular project.

2 For a survey of the developing field of academic fashion historiography, see Valerie Cumming’s Understanding Fashion History, 2004.

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