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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.

  • The Rag Trade: The People Who Made Our Clothes by Pam Inder

    The Rag Trade 1 ‘Fashions for October’ in Cassell’s Magazine, 1891. The figure on the left wears the sort of tailored costume Adolph Kushner would have helped make. The figure on the right wears the softer sort of garments Mrs Pattinson would have made for Mrs Fenton, and they both wear elaborate hats like the one described in Mrs Fenton’s letter. (c. The Rag Trade, Amberley Publishing)

    For much of my working life I was a museum curator working with collections of ‘applied arts’ – ceramics, furniture, silver, costume and textiles, glass, objects d’art. My particular interest was in costume and I became aware that when we exhibited a piece of ceramics or furniture, the label gave details of the maker or decorator – ‘Royal Doulton, decorated by Florence Barlow’, ‘Chippendale chair, made for the Earl of Little-Snoddington-under-the-Wold’ and so on. However, a dress was likely to be described simply as ‘Silk day dress, c. 1835’ or ‘Wedding dress worn by Elizabeth Smith on her marriage to Henry Robinson in January, 1872’ – in other words, we knew virtually nothing about the people who made the garments. As a needlewoman myself, I was aware that the makers of some of the items in our collections were extremely skilled – just as skilled as the furniture makers and potters whose names we knew. I decided to do something about it.

    In 2000 I submitted a thesis to De Montfort University for which I received a PhD. It was entitled ‘English provincial dressmakers in the 19th century’ (and, for those of you who don’t get out enough, it is available through the British Library).

    I’m interested in people: in people’s lives, interests, families, triumphs and tragedies as well as their work. In the course of my research I found some wonderful sources of information about dressmakers. Record Offices up and down the country are stuffed with fascinating documents if only we go and look. With the PhD out of the way I wondered whether some of these resources would make a book – and the result is ‘The Rag Trade: The People Who Made Our Clothes’, eleven single-chapter biographies of workers in the clothing trades. Here are some tasters:

    The dressmaker and the widow

    ‘Could you send me another bottle of whiskey in a little box like last time and perhaps it would do with cloak so that Mrs P need only have one parcel and a little 6d needle book …’

    Old Mrs Fenton wrote to her dressmaker at regular intervals. She was a widow, a nervous lady who believed herself to be an invalid, and she hated travelling. Even the short distance into Ulverston where she had been born and where her good friend, Mrs Pattinson the dressmaker, lived. It was so much easier to order goods on approval, and Mrs Pattinson was always so obliging about buying her whisky – for medicinal purposes of course – packing it in corset boxes and wrapping it in bundles of clothes. She was sure the carrier never suspected for a moment what he was delivering.

    The Rag Trade 2 Sketches of country folk by William Johnstone White, showing the sort of garments John Evens made for his poorer clients. (c. The Rag Trade, Amberley Publishing)

    The smuggling tailor

    John Evens had a flourishing business in the little village of Holbeton in Devon. He was a tailor, making suits and ‘everlasting breeches’ and smockfrocks for his neighbours, as well as bed curtains, tarpaulin covers for their carts, banners for the local pageant – in fact anything they asked him for. He also farmed the family smallholding, tended his orchards of cider apples and acted as ‘parish constable’ – a sort of unpaid policeman. But he had another, much less respectable source of income. John Evens was a ‘venturer’ organising local gangs of smugglers to bring tubs of spirits and parcels of tobacco across the Channel from France. He spent many a night on the clifftops watching for incoming vessels and organising the gangs of men who unloaded them. He borrowed carts from his neighbours and wrapped rags round their wheels and round the horses’ hooves to muffle the sound they would make in the narrow, twisting lanes of south-west Devon. It was young Mr Evens who took orders, delivered goods to buyers – and had his fair share of skirmishes and near misses with the excise men.

    The Rag Trade 3 Ida Allen at the door of her lace shop in the 1930s. (Courtesy of Norman Lambert, The Rag Trade, Amberley Publishing)

    Lacemaker to royalty

    Ida Allen was no stranger to the royals. Princes and princesses visited her little shop in Beer, bought handkerchiefs and veils of Honiton lace and placed orders for more. They sent precious items to her for cleaning and repair and were, it would appear, very happy with the results. What they did not know was that Ida’s house had no water supply. The valuable laces were washed in water from the water butt out back – once the algae and dead leaves were cleaned out. She used lethal combinations of cleaning fluids – neat gin or chlorine bleach and salt. But worst of all, her house was infested by rats, attracted by the rotting meat in the orchard next door in which her neighbour grew the maggots he sold to fishermen.

    Learn more about these 19th century characters and many more in:

    9781445657295

    Pam Inder's new book The Rag Trade: The People Who Made Our Clothes is available for purchase now.

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