Mass Production of Clothing History


Fast fashion. In the UK it’s known as off the peg. The US, off the rack. Either way, it’s the main way we purchase our clothes.

Today, we tend to buy clothing that is not tailor-made. We wear them a few times. Then we throw them away. The creation, production, and distribution of clothing is the largest employer of people in the world.

Before the economic revolution, most textile and garment production was tiny. It took place on a low scale, in-home workshops.

Merchants dropped off raw materials at the workers’ homes. Production relied on self-pacing and extremely adept work. Ladies spun wool into thread and weavers, (typically men) wove cloth in home workshops. It was mainly skilled work done on a small scale However, a ready to wear industry did exist for particular items.

Ready to Wear in the old Days

Before 1300, (AD) individuals didn’t wear fitted clothes. Middle Eastern people wore loose, flowing robes from natural fibres. Medieval Europeans wore linen under-tunics and wool top tunics. These were fabricated from such sturdy material that a garment could last a lifetime.

After 1350, clothing became more form-fitting. A small-scale, off-the-rack business began to supply shirt accessories. Detachable sleeves, collars, gloves, and hats started to be made in batches. By the last half of the sixteenth century, these items were imported and exported in bulk quantities.

Records show that merchants in Ancient Babylonia shipped and distributed some ready-made clothes as early as 1400 BCE (BC). They appear to be kilts worn by the men and wrap around cloaks for the women.

These garments appear to have trims which ranged from simple to ornate. It’s believed they were been produced in batches, rather than individually.

In Ancient Rome, workshops of up to one hundred employees outfitted the military. They produced armour, baldrics (sword holders), tunics, braccaes (trousers) plus a few other pieces for the higher ranks.

For a more detailed insight, read Kolbeck, B., 2018. A Foot in Both Camps: The Civilian Suppliers of the Army in Roman Britain. Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal, 1(1), p.8. DOI:

The Beginning of Off-the-peg As We Know It Today

During the late 1700s to the early 1900s, there was a revolution in apparel production. Distribution, patterns, designs and materials also changed. The trendy retail-clothing business we have today didn’t exist before the 19th century.

Before off-the-peg garments, Europeans purchased attire to order.

If you wanted a suit or dress, you visited a draper to buy fabric. A mercer for fasteners & alternative accessories. A tailor or seamstress would be the person who stitched it for you.

Your social class determined how you purchased your clothing. Landed gentry had their pick of tailors, dressmakers, hosiers, etc. Their children’s clothing would be created by artisans who specialized in such work.

Bourgeois customers had their own craftsmen & women to put their outfits together. The main difference between them & the upper class was the quality of the materials. Possibly the quality of finish.

The working poor didn’t have that option. For them, rags & second-hand garments were the best they could hope for. Their clothes were sold to street sellers by the servants of the well off.

These street vendors were called fripperers. They had a ready market, even though most believed their goods were diseased or stolen. These sellers maintained little outlets near outdoor markets.

The business was so prolific that in Paris, throughout the first decade of the 19th century, four sheds covering over 10 thousand sq. metres were set aside just for selling them.

In every shed, you’d find well-worn rags heaped in bins for the needy. Sometimes if you were really lucky a rare, still-stylish outfit was discarded by its well-heeled previous owner.

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Clothes Shopping As We Know It Arrives

As the European population grew (throughout the 19th century) makers and merchants began manufacturing in larger numbers.

Tailors, seamstresses, material cutters & different garment staff were enlisted to work in a progressively standardized trade. Their main work was selling off-the-peg clothing to the swelling proletariat. In 1824 Pierre Parisot opened the doors of his Paris store.

Parisot’s success caused an explosion. It was the first time in recent European history, that mass-produced goods were sold for a set price. His competitors were forced to set their prices close to his. This led to them using production methods close to Parissot’s.

This culminated in the opening in 1838 of the opening of Le Bon Marche by entrepreneur couple Mme & M Boucicaut. They offered refunds & exchanges but were firm on the price

Full Circle

As off-the-peg clothing flooded the market, the used-clothing merchant & freelance tailor all but disappeared. Off-the-peg dresses were more and more common. Despite this, the ready-made garment business found it tough to satisfy the demands of feminine fashion. Counter cultures through the ages have also made it difficult for retailers to keep up. Another major problem for mainstream clothing retailers is a strong trend for greener fashion in the west.

Greener Fashion Trends

Shoppers have a better understanding of how environmentally unfriendly fashion can be. Manufacture of everything from the materials to the finished products can be problematic. Because of this, there has also been a return to the purchasing of second-hand clothing, especially by the young. Also, more of us are buying clothing which has been made especially for us. There’s been an explosion of TV & internet programmes on how to sew from scratch. Or customize older items.

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