Industry Via Fashion?

What caused the industrial revolution to appear in Europe, clearly in full swing after 1800, yet never before anywhere else in the world? Since causes precede effects, one simple way to try to answer this question is to ask: What is the earliest thing that happened only in Europe that seems plausibly along a causal path to later produce an industrial revolution? For example, there was the scientific revolution in the mid 1600s, the exploration of new continents in the 1500s, and the printing press in the late 1400s. I just came across a plausible earlier candidate: rapidly changing clothing fashion starting in the mid 1300s:

The sociocultural phenomenon called “fashion,” that is, styles being widely adopted for a limited period of time, was not part of dress in the ancient world. (more)

Fashion in 15th-century Europe was characterized by a series of extremes and extravagances. … It is in this time period that we begin to see fashion take on a temporal aspect. People could now be dated by their clothes, and being in “out of date” clothing became a new social concern. (more)

The craze for change year after year took some time to become really established. … The further back in tome one goes, even in Europe, one is more likely to find the still waters. .. The general rule was changelessness. Until toward the beginning of the twelfth century costumes in Europe remained entirely as they had been in Roman times. … The really big change came in about 1350 with the sudden shortening of men’s costume, which was viewed as scandalous by the old, the prudent, and the defenders of tradition. …After this, ways of dressing because subject to change in Europe. At the same time, whereas the traditional costumer had been much the same all over the continent, the spread of the shorter costume was irregular, subject to resistance and variation, so that eventually national styles of dressing were evolved, all influencing each other to a greater or lesser extent. … So Europe became and remained a patchwork of costumes, until at least the nineteenth century. (Braudel pp.315-7)

The new taste for fashion led to a more general taste for the new, which plausibly promoted innovation, exploration, and science. A plausible partial cause of this new taste for fashion was the sudden big bump in wages caused by the Black Death in the mid 1300s.

Added 6p: Its actually a bit of a puzzle. Why do fast fashion cycles seem so robust in our world, happening in so many areas, at yet they almost never happened in any areas in pre-modern societies? A great many theories have been published to explain fashion cycles, but they all seem to explain too much; I can’t find any to explain the lack of ancient fashion cycles.

Added 8p:  on Twitter points to this discussion of limited fashion in Rome. Fits my story of Rome as culturally an almost industry era.

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  • Lars_P

    I’ve heard the introduction of coffee mentioned as a possible tipping point.

  • Silent Cal

    Interesting, and diametrically opposed to the version I learned, which holds demand rather than innovation as the bottleneck of the industrial revolution (Cistercian monasteries had water-powered manufacturing long before the IR, and no one cared). On this account , it was a matter of commerce and productivity driving each other forward until things hit a critical mass.

  • Curt Adams

    The really big change happened around 1350 with the sudden shortening of men’s costume

    Did fashion really undergo a major change right in the middle of the Black Death? That would be rather astonishing.

    Fashion as a major cause of the industrial revolution isn’t too plausible because fashion was big everywhere in Europe during the early modern era but the Industrial Revolution started pretty specifically in England. There was an earlier industrial revolution of sorts in the Netherlands during the Dutch War of Independence which petered out when they ran out of easily accessible peat. Neither of those periods is famous as a golden age of fashion and the Golden Age Dutch were rather dour Calvinists, actually.

  • Cahokia

    How about the slowing of fashion cycles in the last twenty years or so? Fashion in the late 20th century evolved through a succession of unmistakable styles, but has ground down, not to a halt but to a statelier pace in recent decades. Going along with your hypothesis, will this slowing of fashion cycles contribute to already apparent secular declines in productivity and economic growth?

    • Curt Adams

      Clotheswise I don’t think it’s slowed down so much as become more diverse, so there’s no universal look to associate with a period. My teen son is obsessed with fashion, as are many of his friends. Also, there is a “21st century” look in *body* fashion, with widespread body modifications that were very sub-cultural before the 90’s, and a lot of interest in complex facial hair stylings for men.

    • lump1

      I have the same impression about fashion slowing down, but here’s how I explain it: I’m getting old.

  • Why do fast fashion cycles seem so robust in our world, happening in so many areas, at yet they almost never happened in any areas in pre-modern societies?

    What about the cheapening of goods (such as clothing)?

  • sflicht

    I’m not sure I agree with the premise that there is a puzzle here. AFAIK there was precisely one other candidate place where the Industrial Revolution might have begun, namely China. Political collapse prevented it from taking place under Ming. Why it didn’t happen under Qing is definitely unclear. What do you think you know about fashion cycles in China in the 14th-18th centuries, and how do you think you know it?

    • Douglas Knight

      Ming or Qing? Really? Song is a more popular choice.

      • Curt Adams

        Yeah, the Chinese had the technological know-how in the Ming period but they and the Qing were both intensely conservative dynasties. The Song were the dynasty where things seemed to be starting and they also had politics somewhat reminiscent of early modern Europe, with complicated interactions between reformists, the nobility, the peasantry, and the Emperor.

    • IMASBA

      There’s a theory that Ming China was simply too unified while European states were constantly competing and warring (but with large areas relatively safe). European rulers had to let science and engineering go ahead or they wouldn’t be rulers anymore the next day. The church couldn’t put a stop to it because Europe was fragmented and competing churches destroyed the authority of a unified church.

      But I’m sure a lot of it is also just coincidence: I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibilities that had some curious Ming or Ottoman prince died a few years later there would have been an industrial revolution in their empires. What if Zheng He had been allowed (the decision rested with a single emperor) to travel farther, discovering Australia and North America or if they had discovered gold deposits early on? What if an Ottoman inventor had, by chance, the opportunity to present to his sultan plans for a weaving machine that could make military uniforms right when the empire was up to its neck in a war with the Persians?

  • genemarsh

    high labor costs——-> labor-saving innovation

    • The high labor costs being due to the Black Death, which killed without destroying capital.

      Innovation and the reduced population/natural-resources ratio caused clothes to become markedly less expensive, which gave rise to fashion, since at least the elites could afford the obsolescence of the unfashionable. (Conjecture.)

      • Curt Adams

        Clothes remained fairly expensive until the Industrial Revolution. In the 1700’s ordinary English still had one set of clothes for daily wear and one for Sunday. Fashion was for the well-off, who could always have afforded fashionable clothes. The commercial revolution did have some effect on clothing prices; maybe fashion became affordable for the intelligentsia during the early modern period.

      • IMASBA

        Perhaps the old-money, new-money rift already existed back then (a lot of commoners and second-cousins-of-lords came into money and high positions after the Black Death, Robin is right that people got used to change and new things, he’s just taking it the idea way too far). The old aristocracy was traditional and not flashy, the nouveau rich being the opposite. A bit like if today all the old rich suit-and-tie families died out and rappers, actors, athletes and partying trust-fund kids would be the new elites.

    • arch1

      I too fail to see why fashion is a necessary element of the IR story. What’s wrong w/ Black Death –> high labor costs –> commence labor-saving innovation –> (let simmer) –> IR?

      • IMASBA

        There was a long delay between the Black Death and the labor-saving innovations: the population had rebounded in the meantime.

      • Curt Adams

        The other problem is that the Black Death affected almost all of Eurasia, and while I haven’t seen any statistics outside of Europe, I’ll bet it raised wages everywhere. But the Industrial Revolution only happened in one country in Europe and didn’t spread much beyond Europe and European settlements for 200 years.

  • stevesailer

    In the Ottoman Empire, you wore the clothes of your ethnicity. So there wasn’t much room for fashion innovation. In contrast, Christendom was relatively ethnically/culturally homogeneous, so people were freer to compete for status via fashion.

    This tendency for young people to compete with old people for status — the Generation Gap — was strongest in America during the ethnically homogeneous 1960s.

    • IMASBA

      The groups within some countries are larger than the entire populations of other countries: if Sweden and Italy can have distinct fashion changes then so can any major ethnic or regional group in the United States.

      It’s difficult to quantize such things but I doubt 13th and 14th century Europe was less diverse than the Ottoman Empire. Sure the smaller states and principalities were homogeous but people could and did walk/ride from one capital to another within days (and without passports or visas), sometimes just a single day.

      • The Ottoman Empire had a millet system for the different ethnic/religious groups. Europe mandated Catholicism until partway through the 14th century when some principalities began mandating a state Protestant church. Jews once tolerated in the Iberian Peninsula were expelled or forced to convert after the reconquest. They had been expelled from England under Edward I (although the population was quite small back then) and not allowed back until Cromwell.

        Sailer made an argument about homogeneity rather than size, so the size of Italy or Sweden relative to the US or any of its components is irrelevant.

  • stevesailer

    Another reason was that women had higher status in Christendom than in most of the rest of the world. Women tend to like fashion.

  • rrb

    I think that early machinery, factories, and chemical synthesis was fueled by demand for clothes. To what extent, I’m not sure. If fashion–>industrial revolution is what happened, maybe it happened very directly, through funding factories to produce clothes and dyes. Then the question is why clothes had to be the first things made in factories, rather than weapons, wheels, and all the other stuff we now make in them.