Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ready-Made Democracy

Michael Zakim's 2003 book from the University of Chicago Press, Ready-Made Democracy: A History of Men's Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860, is not just (as the author writes) "a history of men's dress in America. It is also a social history of capitalism and of America's 'great transformation' into a democracy." {2}

Zakim combines a genealogically detailed account of the players in this great and ironic drama, a fantastically detailed acquaintance with the source materials (largely but not exclusively in New York) and the precise details of how the technology of clothing was revolutionized, and always an idea of the larger significance.

The Revolutionary-era ideal of Americans as plain homespun-clad folks survived into the 1850s and beyond, but the reality had changed enormously. The same words now meant something quite different. "That inversion is the subject of this book: how capitalist revolution came to America under the guise of traditional notions of industry, modesty, economy, and independence." {3}

This kind of history is not to everyone's taste, so no guarantees. But if you like it at all, you'll love it. There is a preview on Google Books if you want to test the waters.

1 comment:

History Majorette said...

Thanks for the recommend for this book - I just read a few paragraphs from the Conclusion and was really impressed.

"And that, in fact, was the point Marcy wanted to make in clothing the country's diplomats in the "simple dress of an American citizen." In America fashion was not handed down from social elites to a sycophantic public. Rather the common man was king, and popular taste ruled. In contrast tot eh "freaks and follies of foreign fancy." democratic dress would be "strictly consonant with American feelings and predilections," which issued from the bottom up, like social power in general.

I've added this to my library list :)
Debbie V.