“Who are you wearing?” Fashion production in the age of Adam Smith

essay arts & culture division of labor wealth of nations custom and fashion woolen coat fashion inverness museum and art gallery isabella mactavish fraser dress

Caren Oberg for AdamSmithWorks

June 10, 2020
 “Who are you wearing?” It’s the most common question on the red carpet. Generally it is asked of women but rarely of men, but the question is also problematic because of its emphasis on “Who”. The interviewer means the designer, in singular, and answers are always in the singular. Clothing is made by (Donatella) Versace, Karl Lagerfeld, or Maria Grazia Chiuri (for Dior). “Who” is understood in the singular. As such, this use of “who” supports our collective amnesia of the thousands of people – technical designers, tailors, seamstresses, and models --  whose industry and knowledge are necessary to bring a garment to the red carpet. Garment production--for the red carpet or anywhere else--has always been complicated. 

Adam Smith considered in detail the number of people it takes to produce a garment. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith describes the production of a laborers’ wollen (woolen) coat: 
Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people of whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation. The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labour is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore, the feller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting-house, the brick-maker, the brick-layer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the mill-wright, the forger, the smith, must all of them join their different arts in order to produce them. (Smith, Wealth of Nations, pages 22-23 in the LF edition). 

Smith makes his point clear with a description of the coat of the “most common artificer or day-labourer.” Let us apply this thought process to a women’s garment from the same time period and location. 

The Isabella MacTavish Fraser dress is housed at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery in Inverness, Scotland and has been a recent focus for dress historians on both sides of the Atlantic.  A group of historical costumers and researchers recently even came together to recreate the dress in a weekend. The dress is unique because it is the only pre-1800 tartan gown in existence. This tartan dress is known to have been worn by Isabella MacTavish Fraser, a Scottish woman from just outside Inverness, for her wedding in January 1785. By the cut of the garment, however, dress historians suspect that the garment was made a generation earlier, around 1751, when Isabella's mother-in-law, Elspet MacTavish married. 

In writing "Personality in Fashion: Case Studies of Localism in Eighteenth-Century Scotland," Emily Taylor describes the Isabella McTavish Fraser dress in just a few sentences, "the dress is made from wool tartan, lined with linen. It is shaped to fit the wearer's back with pleats, has turned back cuffs extended slightly beyond the fitted sleeves and a closed bodice front over an open skirt," (218). Taylor adds a new sentence of description later when describing regional dye processes and the addition of imported cochineal (220). 

To unpack the Isabella McTavish Fraser dress in terms of Smith’s description of production: The dress is made from wool. As Smith described, the wool which Elspet or Isabella worked with would have required a sheep herder, carder, spinner, weaver, etc. etc. But, the dress is also lined with linen, an entirely different textile. Linen is produced from cellulose fibers which are gathered from the stalks of the flax plant. Linen requires farmers who planted seeds, harvested the flax, and removed the fibers from the flax; blacksmiths who made the spindles and specialized tools such as a hatchel; spinners who spun  the fibers into yarn, which could then be dyed and woven into linen fabric. Historian Laurel Thatcher Urlich’s description of linen production conveys far more detail, “a Kennebunkport ship captain’s wife, Elizabeth Wildes, described combing, spinning, and twisting linen; making webs of linen; then bleaching, boiling, scouring, dyeing, and dressing the finished cloth,” (281). This description is only for the steps of post-harvest production.  It takes several more pages for Urlich to discuss the actual farming of flax.

The wool fabric and linen lining would then need to be cut and sewn using not only labor of the sewer, but also scissors, needle, pins and thread produced by another’s labor and knowledge. The pins themselves are, of course, a famous subject of Adam Smith’s attention.

Unlike Smith’s laborer’s coat, the Isabella McTavish  Fraser dress required significant underpinnings so that the garment would hang correctly on the wearer’s body. Mid to late 18th century gowns concealed many layers of petticoats and undergarments--each layer requiring its own intricate, multi-step, multi-artisan process of creation. 

Considering the Isabella McTavish Fraser dress from its outermost layer to its innermost, the red and green wool tartan is called a gown or overskirt. Eighteenth century Scots were as open to globalization as we are in the twenty-first century (Taylor 2018). This globalism is demonstrated in Taylor’s discussion, almost as a second thought, of the red dye used for the tartan. This red dye, it is believed, is from the cochineal shell, which comes from an animal native to South America and produces excellent dye, especially for use on animal fibers such as wool (Taylor 2018). The very idea that the shells that produced this dye were from South America means the creating this gown includes the work of construction and managing of a boat which could cross oceans, let alone the dyers and traders necessary to purchase and apply the dye. 

Under this tartan layer is the skirt, called a petticoat. The petticoats and chemise would likely have been wool, linen, or a blend of the two fibers called linsey-woolsey. Under the petticoats were a pair of stays    (corset), a chemise, and either hoops (or a hooped petticoat) or a false rump. The creation of these undergarments would have required yet another set of laborers. 

The stays, hoops, and the false rump provide the silhouette, or shape, of the gown. Mid to late eighteenth century stays did not produce the extreme shapes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but stays were referred to as “whale bone prisons” in the time and Adam Smith, himself, speaks critically of corsets’ malformation of the figure. (TMS V. I.8). Although Melville’s Moby Dick would not be published for another 100 years, the novel is a good reminder that to have whale bone available for these stays, one would have needed access to the people and products required to build the boat, sail the boat, and manufacture all of the tools and equipment needed to hunt, capture, and process a whale.  

Hoops also used whalebone. These hoops are not the extremely wide shapes of the mid-nineteenth century, such as images (real or not) from the American Civil War. Hoops worn with the Isabella McTavish  Fraser dress would have been oval shaped with the longer side across the hips. Although hoops themselves were falling out of everyday style by the mid to late eighteenth century, shadows of the shape would continue to the end of the century using the false rump. The false rump was a “crescentic pad stuffed with cork. It fitted at the back of the waist,” (Cunnington, 1974, 336). Eighteenth century cork production required access to cork-producing regions such as the Iberian Peninsula. That access then required all the necessary labor involved in any international trade, plus laborers who could produce the cork and the machines to do so. As Universal Magazine said in 1776, “Let the cork-cutter make her a rump.” (Cunnington, 336). 

Elspet or Isabella might have sewn her dress herself; we do not know. Still, it is likely that the wool was shorn from sheep that may or may not have been hers, the wool spun into yarn by spinners, the yarn then woven into fabric by weavers, dyed by dyers, and then, perhaps, the dress cut and sewn by one of the dress wearers. And without a sewing machine, the act of piecing the garment together would have taken days, if not longer. (For perspective, sewing a man's shirt took 17 hours to do by hand.)  

Although lovers of history find a sense of romanticism in hand production of a garment, especially a wedding dress, how special would this have been at a time when every single garment was handmade in this way? Sewing machines would not be invented until well into the next century. Moreover, a focus on ‘handmade’ negates the contemporaneous proto-industrial cottage industry and the inefficiency of such industry. Interestingly, Taylor discusses how villagers in Inverness would have been talented at many different jobs because they had to switch jobs and duties with the seasons (2018). There is a backhanded acknowledgement of the importance and normalcy of sharing one’s labor with others. Or as Smith writes in Wealth of Nations: “Every workman has a great quantity of his own work to dispose of beyond what he himself has occasion for; and every other workman being exactly in the same situation, he is enabled to exchange a great quantity of his own goods for a great quantity, or, what comes to the same thing, for the price of a great quantity of theirs. He supplies them abundantly with what they have occasion for, and they accommodate him as amply with what he has occasion for, and a general plenty diffuses itself through all the different ranks of the society,” (WON I.1.10) 

In the book The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich presents the myth of homespun -- that all women in the early Republic could and did produce homespun clothing. She explains the divisions of labor which occurred for any given piece of cloth, "Within households, husbands and wives managed different steps in linen production, but even the simplest piece of fabric usually represented exchanges of tools and labor among neighbors," (281). Ulrich continued explaining that "behind the labor of households was the work of rural craftsmen-blacksmiths, turners, and wheelwrights,” (281). Moreover, she explains that “even skilled weavers…sent specialized fabrics to neighbors, and young women relied on more experienced weavers to help with setting up their looms," (288). 

Industrialization was even more helpful. According to Ulrich, "when John Scholfield, the son of a Yorkshire clothier, set up a wool-carding mill half a mile from the meetinghouse in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1801, local housewives were skeptical. They soon discovered they could spin twice as much wool in a day by starting with the soft spools produced by machine carding,” (289). Scholfield had dreams of a full fledged factory that would spin and weave, as well as card. But he recognized the value he could add “as a manufacturer of carding machines for other towns” (289). Ulrich ends this section with a slightly anachronistic view of factories, suggesting that “as long as they weren't working in the mill, most women appreciated the convenience of machine carding. Martha Ballard [a New England contemporary to Adam Smith and Isabella McTavish Fraiser) increased her wool production after the opening of the carding mill at Winthrop, Maine," ( 289).

Adam Smith paid garment production its due when describing the industry involved in his laborers' “simple” coat. As he says, “[If] we examine, I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labour is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated,” (Smith, Wealth of Nations, pages 22-23 in the LF edition). Then, as now, when asked “who are you wearing”, the answer should always be in the plural. 


Bradfield, N. (1997). Costume in Detail: 1730-1930. Hollywood: Costume and Fashion Press

Cunnington, C.W. & Cunnington,  (1972). Handbook of English Costume in the Eighteenth Century. London: Faber and Faber Ltd 

Taylor, E. (2018) “Personality in Fashion: Case Studies of Localism in Eighteenth-century Scotland.” Fashion Practice. 10:2, 213-235

Ulrich, L.T. (2001) The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. New York: Knopf

Waugh, N. (1971) Corsets and Crinolines. New York: Theater Arts Books