A brief history of ready-to-wear fashion

Women had to wait nearly a century until ladieswear could be pre-made in multiple sizes

Models present creations from fashion designer JW Anderson  during a catwalk show for the Spring/Summer 2020 collection on the fourth day of London Fashion Week in London on September 16, 2019.  / AFP / Niklas HALLE'N
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We are in the middle of fashion week season, but not that long ago the notion of brands showing multiple collections each year with countless models stomping to pounding music, was too ridiculous to even contemplate. A woman from the early 1800s either ordered the latest fashions from the mannequins that did the rounds of upper-class homes, or summoned her seamstress and had dresses made to her requirements, using fabrics of her choosing.

Not until 1858 was a new style of dress actually shown on a live person, when British designer Charles Frederick Worth arrived in Paris and had women "model" his creations (thereby inventing the role). He also established an atelier to design and make gowns under his own name, creating an industry we now call haute couture.

Although many Americans were wealthy by the end of the 19th century, distance kept many away from the fashion houses of Paris. So, in 1903, the Ehrlich Brothers decided to bring the best of French couture to their department store in New York, with women wearing the designs for the audience, giving the world its first fashion show. 

In Europe, such soirees were called fashion parades and, for much of the 20th century, favoured clients were invited to an atelier to watch a line of models – each carrying an identifying number – sashay before them. Models could be requested to linger, so clients could examine the dress or coat more closely, and then they placed their orders at the end.

By 1945, these events were formalised into a calendar that all French houses followed, with Milan setting up the Camera Nazionale della Moda (National Chamber of Italian Fashion) in 1958. Made-to-measure clothes were the norm, and it was then standard practice for houses to sell their couture designs as paper patterns to clients, seamstresses or boutiques.

Menswear was on a different path. In 1868, the Dewachter brothers opened their department store offering men's clothes in a series of pre-made sizes for a lower price, and, voila, the world's first ready-to-wear collection had arrived.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 16: A model walks the runway at the Richard Malone show during London Fashion Week September 2019 at the BFC Show Space on September 16, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Rosie Galleway/Getty Images)
Richard Malone at London Fashion Week Getty 

But the complicated nature of female fashion of the day meant it was impossible to duplicate. Instead, women had to wait until ladieswear had evolved into a more relaxed, natural silhouette that could be pre-made in multiple sizes. That took almost a century, until Yves Saint Laurent opened his Rive Gauche boutique in 1966. Designed to sell high-end clothes that could be purchased and worn the same day, it was a revolutionary concept. A new fashion universe was created, and other brands followed, with Chanel staging its first ready-to-wear show in 1978. London got in on the act in 1984, while New York delivered its version in 1993.

Soon, fashion shows became a celebration of creativity rather than just clothes, as the current spring/summer round of London Fashion Week proved when it delivered sculptural, double-width dresses by Richard Malone and asymmetric clothes from JW Anderson that look, quite literally, to the future, adorned with eyeglass works by artist Liz Magor.