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  • Dresses and Dressmaking by Pam Inder

    Clara Dare's dress, c. 1868. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    From the Late Georgians to the Edwardians

    In my working life I was a museum curator, looking after collections of ‘applied arts’ – which means furniture, ceramics, glass, silver, textiles, dresses and so on. I soon realised that when we put on an exhibition of ceramics, silver, glass, or furniture the display labels concentrated on where and when the item was made and by whom. With dresses, the information we supplied was largely descriptive – ‘Dress of cotton printed with small pink and green flowers, c.1790’, for example. If we knew anything about where the garment came from it usually related to the wearer – so the label would then be something like ‘Wedding dress of ivory silk worn by Jane Smith when she married John Robinson in September 1863’. Not until the late 19th century when makers began to put labels in their garments did we have any knowledge of the firms or individuals who made the dresses in our collection.

    Yet making a dress of expensive fabric that fits and flatters the wearer, is robust enough to withstand years of wear and conforms to the fashion of the day requires as much skill and knowledge of materials as, say, fine wood carving or glass blowing, particularly as dress patterns as we know them did not come on the market until the 1870s. Prior to that there had been a few books with diagrams that had to be scaled up and adapted to fit, but most dressmakers made their own patterns, either from an old dress that they unpicked or by pinning and draping material on their clients.

     

    Dress of white tambour-embroidered muslin, early 1850s. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    I became interested in the women who made our clothes – and given that most of the dresses I was curating were made post-1770, dressmakers were nearly always women. Up to the 1690s those women’s dresses that were not made at home were made by tailors, and tailoring was a guild occupation so tailors were almost invariably men. By the 1690s some women, calling themselves ‘mantua makers’ after a new style of dress that had originated in France in the mid-1670s and become very popular, began to infiltrate the trade, though not without considerable opposition from the tailors who saw half their trade disappearing into the hands of pesky women! However, by 1800, women had a near monopoly of the dressmaking trade.

    I wanted to know more about these people. Who were they, how did they learn their trade, how much did they earn? How did they take over the trade? I soon learnt that it was not the feminist triumph it might at first appear. Dressmakers, particularly in the first half of the 19th century, worked unbelievably long hours, often in wretched conditions, and earned very little. The making up of a dress often cost no more than the price of a single yard of the fabric from which it was made. The trade was oversubscribed – it was one of the few ‘respectable’ occupations for women – so there was intense competition and many businesses went under.

    Back view of Purple dress of ribbed silk, c. 1895. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    It turned out there were not a great many actual records for me to examine. ‘Scissors’ writing in 1895 in a pamphlet entitled ‘Why Dressmaking does not pay’ claimed that Many dressmakers keep no book – in other words, many dressmakers did not keep records - even though by 1895 the law obliged them to do so. However, such records as I found presented a coherent picture and I was able to create a fairly full picture of the development of the trade in the 19th century. For the earlier period much less survives – but it is reasonable to suppose that things did not change radically between the 1780s and the early 1800s.

    I became fascinated by account books. In the 18th and 19th centuries many women kept detailed records of their weekly expenditure, probably so they could account for the money they were given by their husbands and fathers. These not only tell us what individual items cost but also enable us to work out how much these individuals spent on dress in total over the course of a year. One such set of accounts – kept by Eliza Stone of Knighton in Leicestershire in the early 19th century is included in the present work.

    Fashion plate from the Dressmaker and Warehouseman's Gazette showing dresses with kilted trimmings. Undated, but mid-1870s. (Dresses and Dressmaking, Amberley Publishing)

    No account of the dressmaking trade would be complete without an examination of the actual garments dressmakers made, and this study concentrates on garments in the Leicestershire museums’ collections. These are among the items I used to curate so I know them well and include details and descriptions showing how they were constructed. Because the dresses are nearly all from Leicester and Leicestershire, much of the rest of the book refers to the city and county. This is not as limiting as it might at first sight appear. Leicester was as fashionable as any other county town, it was a wealthy city and much of that wealth came from the manufacture of garments, particularly boots and shoes and knitwear. The county of Leicestershire is a typical English county with its fair share of big houses, stately homes and gentry families. It is also a hunting country and was visited in the winter season by keen huntsman and their families, fashionable people from all over the country, including royalty. A study of dress in the city and county can therefore stand as a study of dress in much of England.

    This is a slim volume and limited in scope. There is much more that could be written about the makers and making of our ancestors’ clothes – and it is hoped that this work will whet the readers’ appetites and encourage them to learn more.

    Pam Inder's new book Dresses and Dressmaking: From the Late Georgians to the Edwardians is available for purchase now.

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