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Ready-Made Democracy

A History of Men’s Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860

Ready-Made Democracy explores the history of men’s dress in America to consider how capitalism and democracy emerged at the center of American life during the century between the Revolution and the Civil War. Michael Zakim demonstrates how clothing initially attained a significant place in the American political imagination on the eve of Independence. At a time when household production was a popular expression of civic virtue, homespun clothing was widely regarded as a reflection of America’s most cherished republican values: simplicity, industriousness, frugality, and independence.

By the early nineteenth century, homespun began to disappear from the American material landscape. Exhortations of industry and modesty, however, remained a common fixture of public life. In fact, they found expression in the form of the business suit. Here, Zakim traces the evolution of homespun clothing into its ostensible opposite—the woolen coats, vests, and pantaloons that were "ready-made" for sale and wear across the country. In doing so, he demonstrates how traditional notions of work and property actually helped give birth to the modern industrial order. For Zakim, the history of men’s dress in America mirrored this transformation of the nation’s social and material landscape: profit-seeking in newly expanded markets, organizing a waged labor system in the city, shopping at "single-prices," and standardizing a business persona.

In illuminating the critical links between politics, economics, and fashion in antebellum America, Ready-Made Democracy will prove essential to anyone interested in the history of the United States and in the creation of modern culture in general.

306 pages | 36 halftones, 1 map | 6 x 9 | © 2003

Culture Studies

Economics and Business: Business--Industry and Labor

History: American History

Political Science: American Government and Politics


"[Zakim] suggests that too much emphasis on America’s preliberal past has diverted attention from the Big Story: the ’great transformation’ of the United States into a democratic capitalist society in the early nineteenth century. It is this Big Story that Zakim seeks to illuminate in Ready-Made Democracy. He succeeds brilliantly. . . . Part of what makes Ready-Made Democracy so worth reading is Zakim’s beautiful, even elegant, prose. At least as important is his ability to marry Marxian analysis and Tocquevillian insights into a coherent and compelling interpretation of American history."

Gary J. Kornblith | Common-Place

“This dazzling book deserves a wide audience of readers, not least among labor historians.  Do not let the narrow-seeming subtitle fool you; saying that Ready-Made Democracy is about “men’s dress” is like saying that Moby Dick is about a whale.  Zakim uses the production, marketing, and consumption of clothing—a fascinating and important story that he tells with verve and precision—as a lens through which to reframe and synthesize the first century of democracy and capitalism in the United States.  This genre-bending work is simultaneously splendid cultural history, sure-handed business history, fascinating labor history, and, ultimately, an important political history, for it demonstrates the ways in which clothing became, in the mid-nineteenth century, a ‘paradigm of liberal governance’. . . . A brief summary can not do justice to the empirical richness or the surprising but enlightening juxtapositions and insights that mark almost every page of the book. . . . Ready-Made Democracy marks a signal contribution to American historiography.”

Lawrence Glickman | Labor

“Zakim follows the development of the market for ready-made clothes from innovations in business and manufacturing through the emergence of an urban retail culture serving ‘white-collar’ clerks to the conditions of seamstresses and, finally, to the standardization of a sartorial icon for bourgeois individualism—the broadcloth suit. He thus offers an impressively nuanced social history of a modern commodity, one that describes in remarkable detail production and retail practices that often remain invisible in studies of the nineteenth-century city. . . . Situated against long-standing debates about the rise of capitalism and the liberal consensus that defined antebellum America, Ready-Made Democracy offers an innovative model of cultural history. It interprets broad themes about the legacy of the republican ideology of “homespun” within a startlingly vivid evocation of the material world of everyday life while keeping our eyes on the big picture of structural changes in society and economy that effected a sometimes tense accommodation of mass industry and democratization. More impressive than the archive Zakim has assembled is the sophisticated interpretation and elegant narration by which he dramatizes his argument. To understand why "getting dressed proves to be a central event in modern life," he notes, requires a method that locates the existence of the suit within a complex interplay of "habits, systems, conflicts, and explanations that were born in the wake of the commodity’s rise to social dominance" (p. 4). Throughout, Zakim’s reading of his sources remains pungently alive to the particular artifacts, terms, and phrases by which the market entered the very fabric of work, shopping, and deportment.”

Thomas Augst | Journal of American History

“A brief review cannot do justice to the complexity of Zakim’s argument or to the multifaceted nature of his book, which literally bursts its seams. . . . In short, Zakim combines a careful, perceptive, often original discussion of the evolution of the clothing industry—one that encompasses entrepreneurs, workers, and consumers—with a broader cultural history.”

Wendy Gamber | Business History Review

"Zakim rescues the subjects of business, fashion, and the commodity from the dustbin of political history. He offers an insightful addition to the history of the men’s clothing industry in America and shifts its importance to center stage. In many ways, his book provides clues to the origins of American consumer culture."

Patricia A. Cunningham | Amrican Historical Review

"This is a creative book, full of original and often brilliantly expressed insights. . . . [Zakim’s] central points about the relationship between fashion, democracy, and the culture of capitalism in nineteenth century America is plausible and important."

Anne Lombard | Journal of Social History

"A valuable, inventive, and multifaceted examination of important dimensions in the early economic and political development of the United States."

Rob Schorman | Enterprise and Society

“Original, vivid, and provocative, Zakim’s study of male dress is rich with new insights into the significance of capitalist development for antebellum American culture.”<Amy Dru Stanley, University of Chicago

Amy Dru Stanley, University of Chicago

“A delightful book, one full of fresh insight into the relationship between two critical developments in nineteenth-century America: the emergence of political democracy and industrialization. From sartorial politics to burgeoning consumerism, little escapes Zakim’s fine eye and elegant pen. Ready-Made Democracy is Saville-Row scholarship.”<Mark Smith, University of South Carolina

Mark Smith, University of South Carolina

“In vigorously analyzing the economy of clothing in New York City in the decades before the Civil War, Zakim transcends older debates on the twin emergence of capitalism and democracy, contributes to the ongoing project of dismantling a romanticized view of American labor history, and reinvigorates the writing on American capitalism by deeply situating business in a political and social context. Powerfully argued and splendidly told, this book marks a milestone in American history.”<Sven Beckert, Harvard University

Sven Beckert, Harvard University

“A marvelous work of history, imaginatively conceived, scrupulously researched, and gracefully composed. Zakim takes us behind the scenes of the antebellum commercial revolution, inside the offices of clerks and counter-jumpers and the shabby rooms of young seamstresses. There he shows us the makings of the new, mass-produced uniform of the business suit: the principal term in a new language of goods that promised to finesse the tensions between standardization and individuality and between capitalism and democracy. With his unerring eye for the revelatory detail, Zakim pulls apart the stitches in the otherwise seamless story of the early nation’s ‘market revolution’ and shows how Americans were prepared for a new and distinctly masculine consumerism—how they were made ready, in other words, for the ready-made.”<Jean-Christophe Agnew, Yale University

Jean-Christophe Agnew, Yale University

"This is a very ambitious book that not only fulfills all the reader’s expectations, but also offers a feast of ideas that historians of dress will have to note carefully in future."

Giorgio Riello | Textile History

Table of Contents

Introduction: Sartorial Politics
1. A Homespun Ideology
2. A Clothing Business
3. The Reinvention of Tailoring
4. Dressing for Work
5. Ready-Made Labor
6. The Seamstress
7. A Fashion Regime

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