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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.

  • Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818 by Colin Brown

    Elizabeth, 'Lady M', etching by Braun Clement after John Hoppner. (c. National Portrait Gallery, Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    Elizabeth Lamb was sexy, shrewd and presided over a salon for the fashionable Whig set for three decades but in writing her biography I found fresh evidence that Elizabeth Lamb, the Viscountess of Melbourne was as scheming and ruthless as Marquess de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

     She was almost proud of her reputation for intrigue. When she commissioned an artist to do a group portrait of herself and her two closest friends, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Anne Damer, a sculptor, she arranged it so they were portrayed as the three witches in Macbeth, casting spells on those around her. Not that she regarded herself as a wicked witch, but others did, and today she might be regarded as a monster who would do anything for her ambition to rise to the top of Georgian society.

    She lived by a rule that provided a woman had done her duty in producing an heir for her husband, she should be free to have as many lovers as she liked. Before the age of contraception this led to the birth of many illegitimate offspring but such were the different moral codes before the Victorians, a Georgian man invariably accepted his wife’s infidelities and her children as his own. Lady Melbourne had six surviving children but only the first, Peniston, was by her husband, Peniston Lamb. Her second son, William – who later became Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister – was almost certainly sired by George Wyndham, the third earl of Egremont, Elizabeth’s long-term lover who owned Petworth house in Sussex. Her fourth son, George, was widely assumed to be the result of Elizabeth’s brief sexual encounters with the young, plump Prince of Wales when she visited Eton to see Peniston.

    Elizabeth had been born Elizabeth Milbanke in 1751 in the Yorkshire Dales at Halnaby Hall – now only the stables survive – but she managed to rise from being a squire’s daughter to one of the leading ladies of Georgian society. Her marriage to Peniston was a marriage of convenience for both parties. He wanted the respectability of the Milbanke’s. She wanted Peniston’s fortune – he had inherited £1 million from his father, with two country houses, Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, and Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, with a comfortable house in Sackville Street, just off Piccadilly.

    Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire - Elizabeth took a keen interest in agriculture. (Author's collection, Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    She discovered soon after she had married Peniston while she was pregnant with his son that her husband had taken up with a celebrated courtesan called Sophia Baddeley, whose friend humiliated Elizabeth by writing her kiss and tell memoirs which claimed Peniston had promised Sophia lavish sums of money providing she would only have sex with him. Elizabeth had her revenge by having a string of lovers and spending Peniston’s fortune firstly on a splendid London house – now converted into flats called the Albany, still one of the most prestigious addresses in Piccadilly.

    Georgiana came under Lady Melbourne’s spell, which infuriated Georgiana’s mother, Lady Spencer who repeatedly ordered her daughter to break off her friendship with Lady Melbourne, to no avail. It was almost as though Georgiana was afraid of Lady Melbourne and wrote many letters (now in Lamb archive at the British Library) pleading with Lady Melbourne not to be angry with her. Lady Mary Coke complained the Duchess ‘cannot walk into a room; she must come in with a hop and a jump’. I found that was not Elizabeth’s style. Where the Duchess was gushing and gauche, Elizabeth was calculating, scheming, politically shrewd. Her advice was to prove disastrous for her intimate friend Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, (1757-1806), however.

    Georgiana spent years trying to produce an heir for the Duke and when she did, she then took Lady Melbourne’s lead by taking a couple of lovers. However, where Lady Melbourne insisted on absolute secrecy about her affairs, Georgiana fell pregnant to a rising Whig politician, Charles Grey and she was quickly confronted by the Duke who insisted on her having the child in exile in France to limit the scandal – and the potential problems of inheritance. Unlike Lady Melbourne, she was forced to give up the child, a girl, who was brought up in the country by Grey’s parents.

    York House, Whitehall, as it looked when it was exchanged by the Duke of York with the Melbournes. (Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    Elizabeth’s intrigues reached a climax in her middle age when the poet Lord Byron literally stumbled into their lives. The Melbourne’s had done a house swop with the Duke of York and moved from Piccadilly to the Duke’s house in Whitehall, now Dover House, the Scotland Office, jammed between Horse Guards and the Cabinet Office. William Lamb’s wife, Caroline Lamb, was holding dancing parties and had invited the young poet who had burst onto the scene like a pop star with his epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage. He had one leg shorter than the other, and tripped on the staircase at Melbourne House. He commented to a friend: ‘It is a bad omen’. He was right. Caroline fell head over heels in love with the dashing poet and for a hot summer in 1812 they became passionate lovers. Caroline’s ‘crime’ in Lady Melbourne’s eyes was not that she had cuckolded her son; it was that she conducted her affair in public. After an earlier affair, she wrote an excoriating letter to her daughter-in-law saying: ‘When one braves the opinion of the World sooner or later they will feel the consequences of it.’

    Lady Caroline Lamb today would be regarded as a wild child, a celebrity starlet, the darling of the gossip columns. Byron tired of Caroline’s attentions – she dressed up as a page to get into his rooms and slashed her wrists at a ball – and tried to drop her. Astonishingly, her mother-in-law set about helping Byron to extricate himself from Caroline’s desperate clutches. And she did so by helping to engineer a marriage between Byron and her niece, Annabella Milbanke. The marriage was a disaster but I found evidence that Lady Melbourne was keen to promote it – even after she discovered that Byron had had an affair with his half-sister, and had a child with her. Byron and Lady Melbourne exchanged rings and letters like lovers. There were claims that she had become Byron’s lover. She was sixty one and he was twenty four. It may seem unlikely but she was such an extraordinary woman, no-one would say it never happened.

    Colin Brown's new book Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818 is available for purchase now.

  • The Georgian Kitchen by Emma Kay

    Microsoft Word - Document1I wrote the Georgian Kitchen to tell the story of my conviction in Britain’s cooking culture forming during this period. This was a time of extraordinary change in Britain, when the country became a vastly powerful world entity; a wealthy, extravagant and culinary rich nation. Conflict, poverty and sea power led many migrants to British shores. As well as importing from all over the world and exploiting other countries of their own resources, Britain’s migrant population was already influencing the way we still eat today. The population doubled during the Georgian period and in particular large numbers of French citizens began to quickly dominate Britain’s kitchens. It became imperative for every wealthy household to employ a high ranking French cook, while the middling and labouring classes dined in the abundant inns, taverns, cook shops and street markets. The workhouses and prisons were overflowing with the poor and destitute who might look forward to a dollop of ‘hasty pudding’, mouldy bread or a potato every day – if they were lucky. Most poorer families shared a single cooking pot which would have sat in the middle of their one room accommodation, to be used for cooking, washing and as a urinal. In addition to the workhouses early philanthropy included the understanding that owners of large estates and tenured country residences would provide the poor of their parishes with a basic meal, usually of soup and benevolent soup kitchens began to flourish in some of the bigger cities by the early nineteenth century.

    There was a stark contrast between poor rural and urban living, the former reliant on self-sufficiency and few luxuries such as tea, coffee and sugar that would often require a long trip to a local market. Even the middle classes, like Jane Austen herself kept livestock. All farmer’s wives were skilled in cheese-making, brewing, preserving and curing which was a necessary seasonal routine in order to survive all year round. The Georgian era was also the one that marks the beginning of the end of large rural communities, as new technology and innovation began to broaden the scope for work and travel, with aspiring people migrating to the large towns and cities to live. By the end of the 1700s the urban cook shops, coffee houses and club culture for those men of high rank and business were already beginning to morph into early forms of restaurants and hotels. As greater emphasis was attached to the importance of food and slow developing advancements in kitchen design and contents evolved, kitchen equipment became a valuable commodity and the records of the Old Bailey during this period are full of incidents of thefts of anything from tea caddies, to silver spoons and sugar nippers. These items could be sold on at the dodgy street markets or pawned for food and clothing. The media was also awash with specialist crafted items for the kitchen and new inventions. In 1800 the average kitchen may have contained one or two pans. By 1899 they would have housed a whole set.

    As previously mentioned French cuisine, in addition to Italian confection and iced deserts dominated British culture during the Georgian age. However it is also important to reiterate that British cooking and British recipes were always included on the menu - or as the eighteenth century termed it ‘A Bill of Fare’, interspersed with European dishes. Celebrity chefs such as the great Marie-Antoine Carême, Louis Eustache Ude, Charles Francatelli, Alexis Soyer and William Jarrin are just some of the names who lived and worked in London divulging their European culinary secrets and whipping up gastronomic delights that were worthy of any of the big name celebrity chefs of today. They also all wrote prolifically about it, contributing to the new mass eighteenth and nineteenth century consumerism for recipe writing, including Mrs. James Simpson’s first Vegetarian cookery book of 1812.

    Microsoft Word - Document1Diarists and housekeepers also left their legacy of recipe writing and accounts of domestic kitchen and dining routines that were so integral to the Georgian lifestyle. The journals of James Woodforde, a simple country parson provide us with an indication of how even the humblest of middle class Georgians ate. We learn how he attends regular country dances, often into the early hours of the morning, feasting on roasted shoulder of mutton and plum pudding, followed by veal cutlets, frill’d potatoes, cold tongue, ham, cold roast beef and eggs in their shells. This was all washed down with punch, wine, beer and cider. Food is a regular theme throughout Woodforde’s diary and is a stark reflection of the importance placed upon culinary satisfaction and excess at this time. His description of one dinner he hosts for three acquaintances is quite hard to swallow (literally). The first course alone consisted of a couple of boiled chickens, a tongue, a boiled leg of mutton with capers and a batter pudding. The second course provided roasted ducks, green peas, artichokes, tarts and blancmange. And it continues - with almonds and raisins, oranges and strawberries, naturally ending with port wine. Such extravagance on a regular basis makes it so understandable that we associate poor health and obesity significantly with this period. Interesting how our own society mirrors some of this today alongside the Georgian throw away, disposable culture.

    Celebrity chefs, endless recipe books promoting the latest fad or baking craze, elitist French cuisine, a new gadget for the kitchen marketed every month, Immigration, class divide and cheap imports. We are not so different after all.

    9781445650562

    Emma Kay's The Georgian Kitchen is available for purchase now.

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