Tag Archives: Victorian dressmaking

The Dress Doctor: An Ingenious Lady’s Profession: 1894

The Little Seamstress, John Faed, (c) Dumfries and Galloway Council (Kirkcudbright); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This is certainly the day of utilizing one’s talent, whatever it may be. A woman who lives in another city found herself, after 20 years of happy sheltered married life, a widow with two daughters, 16 and 18, to make a home for, and an income so small as to be scarcely worth mentioning. The elder daughter was delicate, and the younger had two years of her college course to complete. To meet the crisis and tide over an interval which would give one child health and the other education confronted the mother. For a time she saw no way to pursue. Then a clear-headed friend came to her one day for a talk over affairs.

“No, Isabel,” she began, “I know your liabilities, what are your assets? I mean beside your little income. What can you do absolutely well?”

“I’ve a general knowledge of many things,” was Isabel’s discouraged reply, “but the only thing I can do absolutely well,” and her laugh was mirthless, “is to make over old clothes. You know I’ve always had a great aptitude at that for the girls and myself.”

“To be sure you have, and I believe you can do that now,” came the prompt answer to astonish Isabel.

Further talks followed, and in the end the friend persuaded her companion that something could be done with this talent. The beginning that spring was small and merely among her circle of wealthy friends. She did not actually make over the old clothes, but spent a morning or a day with the family seamstress, carefully inspecting accumulated materials and suggesting designs and combinations which permitted the continued use of dresses and fabrics. She charged by the day, and her rate was not low, but she saved it often a dozen times over to her patrons. The autumn saw her clientele increased, and now, after three years, she is busy nine months of the year at good prices.

Before other women embark in the same occupation it must be understood that this woman has little short of genius for her unique calling. It is positive pleasure to see her at her practice, for she jocosely styles herself doctor of robes, and certainly her skill and deftness are closely allied to the surgeon who fits and restores humanity’s broken bones and misplaced anatomy.

She is shown a fine Paris dress bodice of black satin, whose sleeves have vanished, and of whose skirt is left a single straight breadth. She looks them over critically.

“Have you any velvet or figured heavy silk or silk and wool cloth or any handsome black novelty material?” she asked.

A piece of frise velvet is found which will do for full sleeve tops with some other cuffs and leave two or three straight pieces. Then the odds and ends trimming box is looked over, and a few detached ornaments and some black lace are found. The waist is fitted, the long postilion back carefully opened and pressed and left to hang. The pieces of the frise velvet are set on for skirt fronts and hip pieces joined by jars of the black satin skirt breadth. The jet ornaments are put on the waist and at critical points on the hip skirts. Puffs of lace laid over white silk and a collar to match are made and the end is a costume jacket of imported elegance that looks as if it might have cost $150 and did cost not a penny beyond the seamstress’ time and the designer’s suggestion, as the black silk lining in this case was produced from a discarded coat.

If something extra is needed, she can tell to the shade, quality and fraction of measurement what it must be. And her customers are no longer confined to the wealthy. Persons in moderate circumstances realize that their need of her is quite as great. Did space permit, the recital of her many triumphs in evolving a Worth gown from the family ragbag would be most interesting. Her work is carried on quietly, her patrons advertising her, from one to another and her excellent social position, which has undoubtedly much aided her, has never been in the least impaired. New York Times.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 21 August 1894: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil can only applaud the lady’s ingenuity in dress-doctoring and her willingness to accept the advice of her sensible friend. But we really are intensely interested to hear the details of that “Worth gown from the ragbag…”

Remodeling gowns was done by all classes of society.

“Those who are still deep in the fascinating whirl of society engagements do not need to trouble themselves much on this subject [the remodeling of one’s wardrobe.] They usually employ a dressmaker, as they do their household help, by the year, and she assumes the duty of remodeling and making over what she deems worth the labor; but there are many who at best can but afford to employ a clever seamstress to do this kind of work. There are others, again, who must do the greater part of it themselves, or see many dresses laid aside before they have done full service. There is hardly a gown, whether designed for parlor, bedroom, or ball room, but will bear making over once. The clever dressmaker can take out a breadth here, put a panel there, place a Spanish flounce where skirt front has been soiled, or set in a pleating somewhere else. Slashings can be cut, or covered, vests inserted or removed, etc. etc., till any half worn or half soiled gown may be restored to almost its pristine freshness. Even ball costumes can, by skilled hands, be so reconstructed and remodeled as to last and look well after three alterations, and prove satisfactory to any ordinary society goer, unless she be one of those who consider a wholly new costume sent over by Mons. Worth indispensable to her comfort at every evening out.”

Cleveland [OH] Leader 27 January 1889: p. 10

One reason that remodeling was so popular was that ready-made clothing was not always of good quality or plentiful, while there was a surplus of seamstresses and dressmakers. In 1892, these were just a few of the many ladies advertising their talents as dressmakers in The New York Herald. Note the range of fees:

*A dressmaker and ladies’ tailor, “an artist in cutting, fitting, designing; just returned from Paris; late with Worth, Rhodnot, Mrs. Connolly; carriage and tea gown creations; garments made from $12 up…$3.50 per day or at home.”

*Experienced dressmaker in wealthy society family to remodel evening street dresses; superior judgment, good style $2.50 per day.

*Seamstress, First Class, Hand or Machine…will furnish W.W. sewing machine free of charge $1 day.

*Seamstress, Understanding Dressmaking, to go out by the day $1.25 $6 per week.

See the “dressmaking” and “domestic arrangements” tabs for further adventures in make-do and mend, albeit not always of couture quality.

[This post was originally published in 2014.]

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Something Suitable:1889

SOMETHING SUITABLE.

By E.B.W.

“Here is your invitation at last, Margaret!” Mrs. Darton exclaimed, as she pushed open the door of the kitchen, where her youngest daughter sat by the table peeling and slicing the apples her sister Mary was converting, -with dough and paste-cutter, into substantial tarts for half-a-dozen hungry school-boys.

“Hurrah!” and Margaret joyfully waved above her head a long, ribbonlike strip of green and crimson peel. “This is good news, mamma! Blessings light on Aunt Bessie for remembering me, though she has been a long time about it.”

“Three weeks,” said Mrs. Darton, smiling at her daughter’s enthusiasm. “It is no more since she landed in England, and I met her at Gravesend. She accounts in this note for her silence. Business detained her in London for a week, since when she has been looking for a house. She has been advised to take one on the south coast till she and her daughters are hardened to our changeable climate; so many years in India makes them dread an English winter.”

Margaret’s face lengthened.

“Is Aunt Bessie going to bury herself in the country? I thought–that is I hoped–she would settle near town.”

“She has decided on a house at Torquay; but, as it will not be ready for her till the end of next month, she proposes spending the interval at Brighton, and you are to go to her there.”

“Brighton in the heart of the autumn season ! Delicious !” ejaculated Margaret, springing up to waltz her mother round the kitchen, attempting to repeat the dance with her laughing sister, who kept her at bay -with the rolling-pin. “What a lucky girl I am to have a rich aunt, good-natured enough to give me such a delightful change! There’s one drawback, and that is leaving home. Why doesn’t she invite you too, mother dear, and Mary?”

“As if I could leave papa and the boys!” cried Mrs. Darton.

“Or as if I could be spared,” added Mary. “At five-and-twenty one feels too sober for much holiday making. I shall have a day’s blackberry-picking with the youngsters, and go to the cathedral town for the choral festival, and to the park for the annual picnic of the townspeople; and that is all the dissipation I care for.”

“Query. Shall I be as content, at twenty-five, as my sister?” asked Margaret, demurely, “Perhaps I shall, if I have an amiable young curate to strengthen my resolves with his praises. Don’t blush, Mary, and don’t menace me with such a dangerous weapon. It might fly out of your hand, and I could not go to aunt Bessie’s with a bruised cheek or a black eye. By the way, what day am I to start?”

“Next Monday. Her maid will meet you at King’s Cross.”

“And I shall say adieu to the flats of Cambridgeshire for one short, sweet, too fleeting month! But oh, mother dear, the great question of all has yet to be discussed. What am I to wear? I should not like to go shabby; but I know you will not be justified in asking papa for money just as he has been at such heavy expense in articling Will to Messrs. Stapylton.”

“It’s all right,” replied Mrs. Darton, cheerfully. ” Your Aunt Bessie thought of this before I did, and promised to send you something suitable to wear.”

Margaret winced, for she was young and proud.

“It’s very kind of her, she murmured, slowly; “but it makes me feel like a pauper.”

“I don’t think you need say that, my dear,” her mother made answer. “Before my sister left England, to become the second wife of Judge Laurence, your father had given her the advantage of his time and talents, and enabled her to get possession of some property withheld by a very knavish attorney. Papa positively refused to be paid for his services, and she remembers this, and rejoices to requite him through his children. She is going to send Maurice to college as soon as he is old enough. I am so thankful; for a country doctor, with a large family like ours, cannot always give his sons as thorough an education as he wishes.”

“If Aunt Bessie is going to be a fairy godmother to the boys, I shall love her dearly. And now to commence preparations for my journey. Don’t laugh. Mistress Mary; there is a great deal to be done. When a lady’s wardrobe is a limited one, it is necessary to make the most of it; and as soon as the ‘something to wear’ arrives that is promised me, we shall have to set to work at dressmaking in right earnest.”

Mrs. Darton referred to the note she held in her hand.

“I forgot to look for a postscript. Oh, here it is! Listen to it. ‘I selected two or three things for your little girl when I was doing my own shopping, and ordered the parcel to be sent off to you directly.'”

“And here comes Carrier Cripps with it!” exclaimed Margaret, with a skip and a jump. “How can you go on, Mary, so placidly rolling out paste, whilst I am in a flutter of expectation?”

Away she ran to meet the little covered cart in which an apple-faced old man jogged to and fro the market-town and the station three times in the week; received from Master Cripps the important package that bore the stamp of a West-End linen-draper, and hurried with it to the dining-room, whither her mother and sister followed her.

Too impatient to untie knots, Margaret cut the string, tore open the brown paper, and then eyed the contents askance.

Were these the fairy gifts she had expected to receive?–the pretty, if not actually expensive, gowns that were to enable her to make a good appearance beside her more fortunate cousins?

What she really found was a roll of stout, serviceable calico for under-garments; a dress-length of coarse, strong navy serge, and another of a neat chocolate cambric, and these were all.

Margaret looked from these things to her silent, troubled mother, and back again, tossed them into a heap, and ran away to throw herself on her bed and weep bitter tears of disappointment.

“I don’t understand it at all,” sighed Mrs. Darton, in confidence to her sympathizing elder daughter. “Unless your aunt thought it would be wiser to make her present plain and useful, than to encourage in Margaret a love of dress, which, in our circumstances, it is more prudent to repress.”

“Perhaps Aunt Bessie dresses very simply herself,” Mary suggested.

“A rich widow, who had discarded her crape when she landed, and is evidently not in the habit of denying herself any luxury! No, no, Mary, my sister Bessie does not clothe herself in coarse serge and common print. But what is to be done? your father will be vexed if this invitation is declined; yet to bid Margaret go, arrayed in a garb that would mark her as the poor relation, I cannot.”

However, Mr. Darton, rendered irritable by overwork and the anxiety of making a small income meet the wants of a large family, angrily pooh-poohed the mothers objections.

“Decline so kind an offer simply because our sister’s good sense prompted her to send useful articles instead of finery! You shall do nothing so foolish. Margaret is to go to Brighton, I insist on it, and let her remember that by behaving rudely or ungratefully she may ruin the prospects of her brothers. If anything should happen to me, pray what friend have you in the world besides Mrs. Laurence?”

“If papa insists, of course I must obey,” said Margaret, gulping down a sob. “And for Maurice’s sake I will try to be civil and all that; but I shall take care not to stay longer than I can help. and wear those horrid things I will not. The serge can be cut into blouses for the boys.”

“But, my dear child, you are so poorly provided for such a visit,” sighed Mrs. Darton.

“Do not I know that, and writhe at the thought of displaying my poverty to my rich relatives! Yet if they were not ashamed to insult it, why should I care? Not even to please papa will I put on Aunt Bessie’s ‘something suitable.'”

And to this resolution Margaret adhered. Her loving mother would have sold a small quantity of lace she possessed, and made a few additions to her daughter’s wardrobe with the price obtained for it, but her purpose was discovered and forbidden. It was, therefore, with a very small amount of luggage–the gray cashmere, just made up for Sunday wear, the dark green worn all last winter, and an Indian muslin embroidered for her by Mary at the beginning of the summer that Margaret went away, to be convoyed to Brighton by the highly respectable, middle-aged woman in black silk and furred mantle, who introduced herself to the young lady as Mrs. Laurence’s personal attendant.

Some of Margaret’s resentment melted beneath the warmth of her reception, for Mrs. Laurence, a handsome, energetic, middle-aged woman, came into the hall to meet her niece, and tell her, with a hug and a kiss, that she was almost as pretty as her mother used to be at her age.

Then she was hurried upstairs, to be introduced to Emma and Marion, sallow, sickly looking girls of thirteen and fourteen, whose time seemed to be spent in ceaseless squabbling with the brisk little French governess, who was endeavoring to arouse them from their indolence.

There was not much companionship to be expected from them, and for the first three or four days after her arrival at Brighton, Margaret scarcely saw her aunt, except at lunch. Mrs. Laurence breakfasted in her own room, came to the luncheon-tray with her hands full of papers, over which she pored, or made notes while she ate a few biscuits. The carriage bore her off directly after, and she merely returned in time to dress for a dinner-party, being overwhelmed with invitations from friends and relatives of her late husband.

Perhaps Margaret preferred that it should be so. She felt no desire to improve her acquaintance with the lady who had made her feel so keenly that she was a poor relation; but, at the same time, she was in no hurry to return home. Gossiping neighbors might whisper that she had been sent back in disgrace; and her father, whom press of work often rendered unjust, would be sure to suspect her of having given way to temper, and forgetting that any act of rudeness on her part might mar the future of those she loved.

So Margaret resolved not to do anything hastily. Mademoiselle, when set free from her duties in the schoolroom, was a vivacious, intelligent companion; and the gaiety of Brighton was as delightful as it was new to the young girl, who had never before left the village in one of the midland counties where her parents resided.

To stroll along the King’s Road, watching the ever-changing groups that came and went; to sit on the pier, listening to the choicest music; or to venture as close to the waves as could be done with safety, and thrill with mingled pleasure and awe as they rolled on; these were amusements enough for such a novice, and the first week of Margaret’s stay in Blank Crescent glided away with astonishing rapidity. But one morning Mrs. Laurence came to luncheon without the usual budget of papers. “At last I am free,” she said to Margaret, “and I shall have time to attend to you. Poor child, how I have had to neglect you! I have had a whole family on my hands,” she proceeded to explain; “a family in which my dear husband, the Judge, was very much interested. I found them out as soon as I got here; and, as two of the sons were going on in a very unsatisfactory way, I suggested their all emigrating; so they start to-morrow. It has been a tremendous undertaking to get them all off with a clergyman who has promised to look after them; but it is done, and I can repose on my laurels and transfer my attentions to you.

“Have you been dull, my love? No? You shall go with me to a conversazione this evening. To-morrow I have a reception here, and a couple of engagements for the following night, both of which include you. Remember, you must be dressed by seven. I have promised to look in at the theater on our way, and see the first act of the new opera. Jones shall get you some flowers and do your hair.”

But Margaret proudly declined the lady’s-maid’s assistance. She did not choose to be under the inquisitive eyes of that important personage while she shook out the skirts of her only evening-gown, and fastened at her throat her only ornament, a bunch of crimson rosebuds. Mademoiselle whispered in her ear that she was toute-a-faite charmante, and Mrs. Laurence, regal in black velvet and lace, and diamond stars, nodded approval of the simple girlish costume.

Nor did Margaret feel as much embarrassed by the inquisitive or admiring glances of a throng of strangers as she had feared she should, for the first face on which her eyes rested was a familiar one.

When Mr. Darton’s family was smaller and his children younger he had taken pupils and was wont to congratulate himself that the students who commenced their medical education under his tuition had invariably turned out well.

The cleverest of them all—Gordon Evrington—was now practicing at London-super-Mare, where he was steadily rising to the top of his profession. It was not often that he could spare an evening for amusement, but he felt himself repaid when he recognized in the graceful little creature, whose eyes sparkled with pleasure at sight of him, the pretty child whose willing slave he had been in the long ago.

Dr. Evrington soon found his way to the back of Margaret’s chair; and if she had some trouble in keeping back her tears when he talked affectionately of her mother, and recalled the scenes and spots so dear to the young girl now she was so far away from them, still she was sorry when a call upon his attention compelled him to leave her.

“But I shall see you again,” he said “I have the pleasure of knowing Mrs Laurence. You will make a long stay with her?”

“Oh! no; I hope not! That is, I think not. I came reluctantly; and though my aunt is kind, I—”

Here Margaret stopped, afraid of saying too much; and Gordon Evrington went away mystified; but determined to see more of one who came nearer to his fancy-portrait of what a maiden of seventeen should be, than the more fashionable young ladies angling so openly for the hand of the clever physician.

Mrs. Laurence, who saw them meet, asked a few questions in her brisk fashion; then, in the important business of going with her daughters to the dentist, appeared to forget Margaret till both were dressed for dinner on the following day, and met on the stairs just as the first guests arrived.

A swift scrutiny may have shown her that the embroidered muslin was not as fresh as it had been, but she made no remark; and by the aid of a good-natured housemaid, who ironed it out, it even passed muster once again; but this third time of wearing was at a juvenile party, and Margaret, whose gaiety and good-nature caused her to be much in request, came home with her once immaculate skirts so smudged and so soiled by the sticky caresses of some of her small admirers, that nothing but the labors of the laundress could renovate it.

And Mrs. Laurence had issued cards for a soiree; Dr. Evrington would be amongst the guests, and Margaret, alas! would have to stay up-stairs, to miss the pleasant chat he had warned her, during a chance rencontre in the street, that he was looking forward to.

If her lips were tremulous that day, and she found it difficult to appear in her usual spirits, no one appeared to notice it. Mademoiselle was suffering with tooth-ache, and, in the hurry and bustle of preparing for so large a party, no one appeared to see that Mrs. Laurence’s pretty niece shut herself in her room early in the afternoon, and had not emerged from it when the guests began to arrive.

It was verging on ten o’clock when Margaret’s door was thrown open and Mrs. Laurence came in. The room was dark, but crouching at the window she saw a little figure, and hurried toward it.

“Why, what does this mean, child? Are you ill? No, your skin is not feverish. Have you had bad news from home? But of course not! You would have told me directly. Then why are you sitting here in this melancholy fashion? I insist on knowing.”

“I should like to go home, aunt Bessie.”

“For what reason? Be frank, and tell me. What, silent? I did not know one of your dear mother’s children could be sullen. However, I can not–will not–leave you moping here.” And Mrs. Laurence rang imperatively for lights. “Now, dress yourself, Margaret, and come down with me.”

“It is impossible, madam, for”– the truth was told with proud reluctance “for I have nothing to wear.”

“Nothing! Did you not have the gowns made up that I sent you? Was there not time? You should have told me so as soon as you came. I am surprised that, your mother–”

“Do not blame her!” cried Margaret. “She would have sold her lace to fit me out respectably, but how could I let her?”

“How, indeed, poor soul! But surely with what I sent you, child, you ought to have done very well. Where are those dresses? Of course you brought them with you unmade? No! What is the meaning of this? Were you too proud to accept my gifts, or was your vanity wounded by their simplicity? You do not reply. You are beginning to make me feel ashamed of you! How can you display such temper such ingratitude? I bought for you, as I would for my own daughters, and–”

But now Margaret broke in impetuously:

“And would you have had me appear before your guests to-night in coarse serge, or a calico gown?”

“What are you saying?” exclaimed her aunt, looking positively startled. “I begin to think there has been some mistake. I purchased for you a cream surah and pale blue nun’s veiling to be made up for evening wear, a dinner-dress of biscuit cashmere, and a pretty stripe for walking. Did you not receive them?”

Then Margaret described the contents of the package she had received, and Mrs. Laurence threw herself into a chair, and laughed long and heartily.

“My dear, you must forgive me,” she said, when she could speak, “for it is not I who have been in fault, but the shopman, who has evidently put the wrong addresses on the parcels intrusted to him to dispatch. When I was shopping I bought that serge, etc., for a young girl for whom I had procured a situation. I knew she was flighty and had a bad mother, who would have spent the sum I promised for her outfit in useless finery; so I very prudently, as I thought, laid it out myself. And now I can account for the rapturous tone of the letter of thanks I have received, and the assurance that the lovely things that I have sent Sarah Dobbs will make quite a lady of her. What must her mistress have thought of me? And you too, poor child! Now I can understand why you have shrunk from me and not seemed happy here.”

Margaret spent the rest of that evening in her room, but it was in a very different state of mind. She had no more reservations from Aunt Bessie, and not only stayed willingly at Brighton till Mrs. Laurence moved to Torquay, but accompanied her thither.

Only for a brief term, however. Dr. Evrington has won from her a promise to be his, and ere long he will seek his bride at the house of her father, Aunt Bessie having promised, ‘midst laughter and tears, to give her “something suitable,” both for her dowry and her trousseau.

The Daily Republican [Monongahela PA] 19 June 1889: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  One does so like a happy ending, especially when a young woman has not only been bitterly disappointed in the contents of a parcel, but finds the weight of her brothers’ fortunes resting squarely on her embroidered-muslin-clad shoulders.

The contrast of dress materials for “lady” and “servant” is a sobering one. Still, one fears for the flighty Sarah Dobbs in that pretty stripe for walking….

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

The Dress-maker’s Duty to Humanity: 1886

THE FUNNY SIDE OF DRESSMAKING

“Dressmaking has its humorous side as well as anything else,” remarked a little black-eyed dressmaker on North Clark Street.  “There is the thin woman who will dress in snaky stripes, the scrawny girl who insists on a  décolleté gown, the matron of embonpoint who pleads for flounces to the waist, the matchlike maiden who wants a torturingly tight bodice, and the fluffy-puffy little body who wants gathers.

“But I never give in to them,” she continued with a snap of her eyes.  “I think too much of the human race.  I believe we all have one duty toward humanity.  Mine is to keep women from committing artistic suicide.  The little idiots come into my parlors, look at a fashion-plate, discover the picture of a lady in green gloves holding her fingers as if they were covered with molasses-candy, and decide that they want a dress like hers.  Now, there are nineteen chances out of twenty that the dress was never meant for her at all.  If they think so much of dress, why don’t they make a study of it?

“There is a certain rich lady here, with the face of a Madonna, who came to me with goods for a plaid dress.  I wouldn’t make it for her.  ‘Madame,” I said, ‘you must dress in gray silk.’ I had my way.  There wasn’t a bit of trimming on that dress—nothing but draperies—and she looked like a goddess.  Then another mistake is the universal adoption of color because it is announced to be fashionable, regardless of the fact that the majority of the wearers are making perfect guys of themselves.  Heliotrope is a point in question.  There is a young bride on State Street who came home from Europe last week with a dress of heliotrope.  Her skin is as dark as a Spaniard’s, and her hair and eyes are jet black.  She would have been magnificent in dark red or a cloud of black lace – but heliotrope!” and of this the dressmaker nearly died… [Chicago News]

The Lamar [AL] News 1 April 1886: p. 4

John_Faed_-_The_Little_Seamstress

The Little Seamstress, John Faed, Artuk.org

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire We can but respect the dress-maker’s scruples and punctilious devotion to her calling!  The great Charles Frederick Worth himself was similarly conscious of his duty to humanity.

How Worth Makes The Woman.

Very many ladies of this city send regularly to the great man-dressmaker, Worth, in Paris, for their dresses, both summer and winter. Do not for a moment suppose all these women have seen Worth. The greater proportion send a photograph to him, with a description of the complexion, the color of hair, eyes, etc. It is not an infrequent occurrence to have the photograph returned to the owner with regrets at being unable “to compose a toilet for Madame.” A lady of high fashion in this city relates how she went to Worth on one occasion to have a number of dresses made. He asked her to walk across the room. It was a medium-sized apartment. When she was about half across, he called to her from the sofa where he was sitting, “Madame, that is enough; I cannot invent a dress for you; your figure does not please me. Good morning, Madame.” A mother and daughter in this city, charming women, but newly rich and over-anxious about dress, wear the most exquisite toilets of Worth’s composition, which are entirely unique. They have never been to Paris, or “waddled through the Tuileries,” yet Worth has seen them—that is, he has their life-sized pictures; he admires them, and sends then; poetical and ravishing dresses.

The Millinery Trade Review 1876

Miss Maude Annesley, who spent a fruitful year in Paris chronicling French life and fashion, wrote about the tactful Parisian dress-makers.

Even in the rooms of the humbler dressmakers there is a faint echo of the method of the great ones. There is a drawer full of pieces of many colours, wherewith effects can be tried, there is a long glass in three parts in which to study “all sides of the question,” there are thick curtains ready to be drawn when artificial light is needed. Then, although there are no mannequins to prance about in wonderful confections, there is the dressmaker herself, who sees at a glance what Madame ought to wear, and will proceed to illustrate her notion with silk and pins to her customer’s entire satisfaction. They all have taste and ideas, these dressmakers. They would never think of allowing some one to choose anything unbecoming. There is the difference between an English and French dressmaker. In London a woman enters a well-known dressmaker’s establishment, or goes to some old favourite — it is the same thing everywhere. She chooses what she wants, and her taste is rarely disputed.

I will not say that a Parisian couturiere is always right, no one is infallible; but I aver that she very rarely is mistaken in her ideas of what will or will not suit her customers.

And she is so clever in inventing little notions to hide or lessen some imperfection. If Madame is too thin (very rare in these days of the thin woman rage!), if she is too fat, too short, too tall —then it is wonderful to watch the skillful hands manipulating drapery and trimmings. And the tact shown is remarkable.

I was once waiting in the waiting-room at my dressmaker’s when, from the fitting-room, I overheard an enlightening conversation as follows: —

Customer — “I want the neck cut low. No collar.”

Dressmaker — “Parfaitement, Madame.”

Pause. Some action which I naturally could not see.

Dressmaker — “How charming Madame looks with that white tulle edged with pink against her cheek!”

Customer, in “purry-purry” voice — “It is rather becoming. You can use that for the guimpe.”

Dressmaker, sorrowfully — “Alas, Madame, impossible. One cannot edge a guimpe with pink, one can do it only on a collar. It is a thousand pities Madame is to have no collar, her complexion looks ravissante with this pink. However, it is no good discussing it.”

Pause. Some talk about a sleeve.

Customer, in doubtful voice — “Do you think the dress would look as well with a collar?”

Dressmaker, still sorrowful — “Much better, Madame. However, we will not talk of it. . . Does Madame like this band of lace straight or crosswise?”

Customer, after much talk of lace and frills, and several pauses — “Do you know, I think I will have a collar after all! That pink is so charming.”

Dressmaker, joyfully — “Oh, I am glad, Madame. I would not have thought of trying to persuade Madame, but I am sure it will suit Madame admirably.”

Some time afterwards the lady who was “not persuaded” passed through my room. She had no collar to her dress, and her neck was short, her chin double, and two deep wrinkles surrounded the yellow “column.”

I told my dressmaker what I had overheard, and she chuckled. “Well!” she said. “What else can one do with ladies who are unreasonable?”

I agreed, and admired her diplomacy.

My Parisian Year, Maude Annesley, 1912

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

“A paper pattern so perfect every lady can make it up herself:” 1911, 1874, 1915

"The international encyclopedia of scientific tailor principles, for all kinds and styles of garment-making ... Also designing ... embroidery, crocheting, knitting, worsted work, fancy and artistic needle work .." (1885)

“The international encyclopedia of scientific tailor principles, for all kinds and styles of garment-making … Also designing … embroidery, crocheting, knitting, worsted work, fancy and artistic needle work ..” (1885)

New Phase of the Paper Pattern Business

The newest development of the sartorial business is the manufacture of paper patterns, made to measure and fitted, with the aid of which it is possible for a woman to wear a gorgeous gown of an unimpeachable foreign design at a very small cost as compared with such a garment purchased from a high class dressmaker. The cost of these paper costumes range from about $3.50, although occasionally they are less than this. The average is about $6.00.

“Six dollars does seem a big price for a paper pattern,” admitted the manager of the pattern place referred to, “but the same pattern not cut to measurements or pinned together may be had for $4, and skirts, coats and other pieces separately cost $1 and $2 only, unless cut to measurements.

“Nevertheless the demand for these patterns in New York is so large that there are now two or three places which deal in nothing else. At this time of the year, for instance, our business is so brisk that we do not guarantee to furnish a pattern cut to order in less than ten days.

“By far the largest percentage of our private orders come from women who keep a lady’s maid and can afford to buy imported gowns; who do buy imported gowns. All the same these women come here and send their maid in for certain patterns to be made up at home by the maid and a seamstress.”

At this particular place only paper models are shown, but every one of these is marked with the name of one and another noted French house and is an exact copy, a saleswoman explains, of a recent model put out by that house. But supposing a customer doesn’t care for any of the models on the dummies, she looks over books filled with illustrations of the latest French costumes and it would be strange if any woman with $5 in her purse hesitated about handing it over to the saleswoman and having her measurements taken.

At a Fifth avenue place the procedure is a little different. Here early in the season an exhibition of imported costumes is held for a week or ten days, primarily for the benefit of dressmakers, although outsiders who pay for the privilege are admitted. Models from all the leading European houses, made of various materials and costing up to the $1,000 mark in some cases, are displayed and sold to anybody who cares to buy, and before the sale closes most of the costumes have changed hands. The majority of these in turn before they leave that place are copied in paper, and, after the exhibition of originals closes, the paper duplicates have a show of their own. The most popular of these duplicates are made in several regular sizes and sold for less than those cut to fit. But needless to say it is the chance of getting a pattern of an imported model cut to fit that has spelled success for a branch of the paper pattern business undreamed of not many years ago. Information and advice respecting materials, color, and probable cost are handed out with the pattern.

“Tell your dressmaker,” or “Tell your seamstress not to deviate from the pattern” is included in the advice, and probably this hint is needed, for results have justified the enlargement of show-rooms and the hiring of more expensive quarters since the concern started.

A man long connected with the paper pattern business, old style, said that this was one of the surprises of the business that while the price of ordinary paper patterns had declined steadily since reaching a certain stage of popularity and competition, the newest phase of the business represented prices equivalent to the price charged by old-fashioned dressmakers for making a gown. Said he, “I worked for years for the concern which first put paper patterns on the market nearly fifty years ago. The head of this was a custom tailor who by request cut a paper pattern of a skirt to oblige a customer. By advice of his wife, who herself made her children’s clothes, he made a paper copy of a suit she had made for her little girl and sold it, and after that a wrapper pattern designed by his wife. That was the beginning of the paper pattern business, which grew so tremendously that some other folks started in making paper patterns too and then some more, till now there are a dozen thriving concerns in the field. The output of the original concern, still the largest of all, is 50,000,000 paper patterns a year, nine-tenths of which are for women’s and children’s garments. For some years the lowest price for a pattern was 45 cents. Today no paper pattern of this concern is sold for more than 15 cents.”

This man believed that were the output of the other manufacturers of paper patterns added to that given the figures would be doubled. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 14 May 1911: p. 3

Many magazines such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Godey’s, and Peterson’s printed patterns for men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing. Here is an advertisement from Frank Leslie’s:

Every Lady Her Own Dressmaker

It is now a conceded point that the very best and cheapest mode to dress in Fashion, and with the most admirably fitting dresses, is to send on a stamp to the Pattern Department to Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Journal, with your address in full, when a Catalogue will be sent, which will afford full information of all the fashionable dresses of the day, and how to make them.

Ladies have merely to mark the dress in the Catalog, and to send the exact measurement, taken under the bust, and a paper pattern will be sent for 25 cents, so perfect that every lady can cut out the dress, and make it up herself, thus saving the expense and trouble of a dressmaker.

We receive on every hand the most gratifying testimonials of the superiority of our patterns to all others. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper [New York, NY] 24 January 1874: p. 14

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has, in her capacity of lady’s maid, made up dresses from patterns. She may therefore rightfully claim to be sceptical that there exists a pattern “so perfect that every lady can cut out the dress and make it up herself.”  Gowns in 1874 were not some simple frock one could make at home and repent at leisure, (to use Saki’s memorable phrase) but richly layered confections of a richness and complexity that would do credit to a state bed.

The Bunch of Lilacs, James Tissot, 1875

The Bunch of Lilacs, James Tissot, 1875

Each generation had its own intricacies in paper patterns. A gentleman describes the perils of a pattern “with instructions” in 1915. He exaggerates, but only a little:

A correspondent of the New York Evening Post says that she wanted to make a plain little white waist, the kind that you pay $9 for in the shop and that are obviously worth about 14 cents. So she bought a pattern with instructions. You know the kind of pattern, at least you do if you are married and know anything at all. They are made of extraordinarily thin yellowish paper that tears if you so much as think about it. It is perforated all over with holes like piano-player music and you get into trouble if you absently use a piece for a cigar-lighter. You must have seen it about. Now the pattern was all right. Any one can make anything with a pattern. In fact we have long cherished the conviction that we ourselves could construct any article of women’s clothing, upper or under, if we only had a pattern, solitude, and the ability to restrain our manly blushes. All you have to do in the case of an undergarment is to lay the pattern firmly upon the raw material, mark the outline with a pencil, leaving a margin for hems and errors. Cut it out. Do it a second time with another piece of raw material, stitch them together along the edges, construct a sort of tunnel for the pink ribbon, stitch on the lace around the lower extremities or the upper edge as the case may be, and there you are.

But to return to the lady who pours out her sorrows on the sympathetic bosom of the New York Evening Post. She has no complaint to make about the pattern. It is the elucidatory instructions that have reduced her to the edge of a gibbering idiocy. And here they are:

“Tuck front creasing on slot perforations; stitch three-eighths inch from folded edges; or omit tucks and gather between double ‘TT’ perforations. Gather back on crosslines of single small ‘o’ perforations, and adjust stay under gathers; centre backs even, bringing small ‘o’ perforations in stay to under-arm seam. Close under-arm seam as notched, terminating at stay. Sew sleeve in armhole as notched, easing any fullness.”

Now in all humility we ask to know: Do these ravings mean anything?  How do you ”adjust stay under gathers” ? What is the process by which you “centre backs even”? Of course you “sew sleeve in armhole.” We should not be likely to sew the sleeve into the neck or into the small of the back. We know enough for that. Even in our own unobtrusive garments we should greatly object to find the sleeve anywhere but in the armhole. That is obviously where it belongs. But when it comes to “easing any fullness” we  may frankly confess that we should be stumped.

And we do not know how to ‘”tuck front creasing on slot perforations.” We have an inner conviction that it cannot be done except perhaps by prayer. If the mysterious hand of destiny should at any time require us to make “a plain little white waist” we believe that we could do it in the way already outlined, but we shall avoid the false aid of the commercial pattern with its insanity-producing “instructions.” The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 3 July 1915

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

The Dress Doctor: An Ingenious Lady’s Profession: 1894

The Little Seamstress, John Fae, courtesy of Dumfries nad Galloway Council

The Little Seamstress, John Fae, courtesy of Dumfries nad Galloway Council

This is certainly the day of utilizing one’s talent, whatever it may be. A woman who lives in another city found herself, after 20 years of happy sheltered married life, a widow with two daughters, 16 and 18, to make a home for, and an income so small as to be scarcely worth mentioning. The elder daughter was delicate, and the younger had two years of her college course to complete. To meet the crisis and tide over an interval which would give one child health and the other education confronted the mother. For a time she saw no way to pursue. Then a clear-headed friend came to her one day for a talk over affairs.

“No, Isabel,” she began, “I know your liabilities, what are your assets? I mean beside your little income. What can you do absolutely well?”

“I’ve a general knowledge of many things,” was Isabel’s discouraged reply, “but the only thing I can do absolutely well,” and her laugh was mirthless, “is to make over old clothes. You know I’ve always had a great aptitude at that for the girls and myself.”

“To be sure you have, and I believe you can do that now,” came the prompt answer to astonish Isabel.

Further talks followed, and in the end the friend persuaded her companion that something could be done with this talent. The beginning that spring was small and merely among her circle of wealthy friends. She did not actually make over the old clothes, but spent a morning or a day with the family seamstress, carefully inspecting accumulated materials and suggesting designs and combinations which permitted the continued use of dresses and fabrics. She charged by the day, and her rate was not low, but she saved it often a dozen times over to her patrons. The autumn saw her clientele increased, and now, after three years, she is busy nine months of the year at good prices.

Before other women embark in the same occupation it must be understood that this woman has little short of genius for her unique calling. It is positive pleasure to see her at her practice, for she jocosely styles herself doctor of robes, and certainly her skill and deftness are closely allied to the surgeon who fits and restores humanity’s broken bones and misplaced anatomy.

She is shown a fine Paris dress bodice of black satin, whose sleeves have vanished, and of whose skirt is left a single straight breadth. She looks them over critically.

“Have you any velvet or figured heavy silk or silk and wool cloth or any handsome black novelty material?” she asked.

A piece of frise velvet is found which will do for full sleeve tops with some other cuffs and leave two or three straight pieces. Then the odds and ends trimming box is looked over, and a few detached ornaments and some black lace are found. The waist is fitted, the long postilion back carefully opened and pressed and left to hang. The pieces of the frise velvet are set on for skirt fronts and hip pieces joined by jars of the black satin skirt breadth. The jet ornaments are put on the waist and at critical points on the hip skirts. Puffs of lace laid over white silk and a collar to match are made and the end is a costume jacket of imported elegance that looks as if it might have cost $150 and did cost not a penny beyond the seamstress’ time and the designer’s suggestion, as the black silk lining in this case was produced from a discarded coat.

If something extra is needed, she can tell to the shade, quality and fraction of measurement what it must be. And her customers are no longer confined to the wealthy. Persons in moderate circumstances realize that their need of her is quite as great. Did space permit, the recital of her many triumphs in evolving a Worth gown from the family ragbag would be most interesting. Her work is carried on quietly, her patrons advertising her, from one to another and her excellent social position, which has undoubtedly much aided her, has never been in the least impaired. New York Times.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 21 August 1894: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil can only applaud the lady’s ingenuity in dress-doctoring and her willingness to accept the advice of her sensible friend. But we really are intensely interested to hear the details of that “Worth gown from the ragbag…”

Remodeling gowns was done by all classes of society.

“Those who are still deep in the fascinating whirl of society engagements do not need to trouble themselves much on this subject [the remodeling of one’s wardrobe.] They usually employ a dressmaker, as they do their household help, by the year, and she assumes the duty of remodeling and making over what she deems worth the labor; but there are many who at best can but afford to employ a clever seamstress to do this kind of work. There are others, again, who must do the greater part of it themselves, or see many dresses laid aside before they have done full service. There is hardly a gown, whether designed for parlor, bedroom, or ball room, but will bear making over once. The clever dressmaker can take out a breadth here, put a panel there, place a Spanish flounce where skirt front has been soiled, or set in a pleating somewhere else. Slashings can be cut, or covered, vests inserted or removed, etc. etc., till any half worn or half soiled gown may be restored to almost its pristine freshness. Even ball costumes can, by skilled hands, be so reconstructed and remodeled as to last and look well after three alterations, and prove satisfactory to any ordinary society goer, unless she be one of those who consider a wholly new costume sent over by Mons. Worth indispensable to her comfort at every evening out.”

Cleveland [OH] Leader 27 January 1889: p. 10

One reason that remodeling was so popular was that ready-made clothing was not always of good quality or plentiful, while there was a surplus of seamstresses and dressmakers. In 1892, these were just a few of the many ladies advertising their talents as dressmakers in The New York Herald. Note the range of fees:

*A dressmaker and ladies’ tailor, “an artist in cutting, fitting, designing; just returned from Paris; late with Worth, Rhodnot, Mrs. Connolly; carriage and tea gown creations; garments made from $12 up…$3.50 per day or at home.”

*Experienced dressmaker in wealthy society family to remodel evening street dresses; superior judgment, good style $2.50 per day.

*Seamstress, First Class, Hand or Machine…will furnish W.W. sewing machine free of charge $1 day.

*Seamstress, Understanding Dressmaking, to go out by the day $1.25 $6 per week.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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