The history of the apparel industry: Industrial Revolution to now

history apparel industry

The history of the apparel industry: Industrial Revolution to now

Last month we discussed the beginnings of the apparel industry, from early cavemen wearing furs right up to the invention of the Spinning Jenny and the capability of mass production. This month we’re picking up where we left off, with the industrial revolution about to change the world and how the apparel industry was right at the heart of it.

Rise of the machines

Once industrialisation arrived, the skills required by workers changed permanently. Clothing and fabrics could be produced by the thousands in a fraction of the time. Workers were all brought together under one roof, but only to make sure the carding, spinning and weaving machines never stopped. These mass-production methods allowed for the making of standardised and affordable garments in larger quantities.

The industrial revolution had both positive and negative impacts on the apparel industry workforce. On one hand, the factory system created job opportunities for many individuals, providing steady employment and wages. However, working conditions in the early factories were often harsh, with long hours, low wages and incredibly unsafe environments. This led to the emergence of labour movements and trade unions advocating for improved working conditions and workers’ rights.

As mechanised production increased output, the apparel industry was able to meet the rising demand not only domestically but also internationally. Global trade networks started up, allowing for the export of textiles and garments to new markets around the world. This globalisation of the industry set the stage for export-oriented industrialisation and the development of a globalised apparel supply chain.

early victorian apparel

The apparel industry’s global reach

Before the 18th and 19th centuries, only a handful of explorers, sailors and pirates travelled the world, but over the next two hundred years, global trade would explode, bringing countries from the other side of the planet together in common interests.

Clothing and fashion were one of those common interests, with the apparel industry playing a vital role in the globalisation process. Through the establishment of global supply chains, the formation of factories on foreign soil and the expansion of retail markets, the industry played a key role in the expansion of empires and colonialisation.

The apparel industry’s global reach facilitated cultural exchange and the diffusion of fashion influences across different regions. As clothing styles, trends and designs travelled through global supply chains, they intermingled with local cultures and traditions, creating unique fashion identities. This cross-pollination of fashion contributed to a more diverse and interconnected global fashion landscape, where designers and consumers alike drew inspiration from various cultural sources.

The growth of apparel manufacturing resulted in some dark connotations. Many of the victims of the African Slave Trade were brought to the Americas to pick cotton for apparel manufacturing, and the treatment of indigenous peoples here and in other parts of the world was a distressing consequence. Even today, this is still a serious issue and one which we’ve talked about before, but we’ll come back to this another time.

The rise of Haute Couture

As clothes became cheaper and easier to buy, they were no longer the domain of the upper and middle-class. As working-class people began to buy fashionable clothing, the rich in society needed a way to feel superior again, and so custom-made clothing by artisans became popular once more.

From the 1850s, Paris was considered the fashion capital of the world, dictating the styles of the day, but it was an Englishman named Charles Fredrick Worth that changed the industry forever. Worth made his name by designing lavish and extravagant clothing for the French Court, quickly becoming the go-to guy for the aristocracy and the father of Haute Coutre.

Worth completely changed the apparel and fashion industry, becoming the first real “fashion designer” and the first man to become internationally famous in this field. He devised the concept of using interchangeable pattern pieces that would become the foundation of ready-to-wear clothing production. He was the first person to use mannequins to showcase his work to potential clients and one of the first to prepare and show a collection in advance, thus creating what we now call fashion shows.

20th century apparel

Everything changes again in the 20th Century

The 20th century brought about significant changes in the apparel industry, driven by technological advancements, social and cultural shifts, and global events.

The early part of the century witnessed the rise of mass production and the emergence of ready-to-wear clothing, which offered standardised sizes and styles for immediate purchase. These years also witnessed significant advancements in women’s rights and the fight for gender equality, which had a profound impact on the apparel industry.

Women’s liberation movements challenged traditional gender roles and pushed for more functional and comfortable clothing. The introduction of women’s trousers, shorter hemlines and looser silhouettes reflected the changing social norms and increased mobility for women.

The 20th century also saw the introduction of new materials, such as synthetic fibres like nylon and rayon, expanding design possibilities and offering more affordable alternatives to natural fabrics. Fashion designers gained prominence, and their influence on clothing styles grew. The concept of fashion seasons and trend cycles also became more pronounced, driven by the rise of fashion magazines and media.

All this came to a head in the Swinging Sixties with an explosion of fashion, women’s liberation and the beginnings of the environmental movement. Fashion is the engine behind apparel, and as more people around the world wanted to look the part, production on a global scale ramped up.

The move to developing nations

As labour costs increased in developed countries, apparel manufacturing started to move to lower-cost regions, particularly in Asia and Latin America. Outsourcing and offshoring became prevalent as brands and retailers sought cost advantages and access to new markets.

This was put into overdrive in the 1990s with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which eventually emerged into the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC). Before that, there were quotas and restrictions on textile and apparel imports to protect the domestic industries of developed countries. Once those restrictions were lifted, companies could source garments from countries with lower labour costs and greater production capacity.

As a result, many brands and retailers shifted their apparel manufacturing operations to countries like China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and India. This decentralised approach to manufacturing led to the fragmentation of production processes across multiple locations, enabling faster turnaround times and greater flexibility.

Today, it’s estimated that 60-70% of the world’s apparel is made in Asia, with China as the largest producer.

asian apparel producers

The apparel industry played a huge role in our history

As clothing became mass-produced, demand around the world skyrocketed. This led to new trade routes, colonies, and even wars over raw materials. As different cultures mixed, fashion and trends started to blend. Everything from women’s liberation to manufacturing in developing countries all involved the apparel industry.

The industry continues to evolve, driven by consumer demands, innovation, and global trends. As we look to the future, it is crucial to balance profitability with ethical practices, sustainability, and responsiveness to changing consumer preferences… but more on that in part three!