Tag Archives: Victorian modiste

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.

“Madame says your waist is ready, sir.” A Modiste Serves a Gentleman: 1891

The female impersonator, Julian Eltinge.

The female impersonator, Julian Eltinge, best known for his role as “The Fascinating Widow.”


A Society Belle Shocked by a Man Who Was Fitted to a Dress

A young lady who was waiting in the reception-room of a New York modiste experienced a surprise recently that was rather amusing, thought she was somewhat shocked. The modiste was busy when she arrived and begged her to be seated a few minutes. No one being in waiting but a gentleman, who, she supposed, had accompanied his wife, the young belle sat down, and picking up a fashion plate concluded that she would not be kept waiting very long. She had scarcely glanced at the gentleman, and would probably never have remembered him, had not a maid come in and, going up to him, said:

“Madame says your waist is ready, sir.”

His waist ready! The young lady could hardly believe she had heard correctly. But when she saw him follow the maid out just a unconcernedly as if a waist was a common every-day garment for him she dropped the fashion-plate and for a moment was overcome with astonishment. The first thought that entered her mind was to leave. But she finally determined to stay until she had found out a little more.

“Fit! My dear madam, it is splendid,” the gentleman said as he returned, accompanied by the modiste. “You are perfect. Now don’t forget the trimmings on my dress.”

“Oh, let me show you a new pattern, sir?” the modiste interrupted. Don’t forget the trimmings on this dress! The young belle needed no more proof that her modiste, her own modiste whom she had patronized from girlhood up, was making dresses for a man. Shocking! Should she stay and have her feelings hurt? Never! She would go, and what was more, she would tell her friends.

“Your dress will be the prettiest I have ever made for you,” the modiste assured the gentleman, as, with a bow, he left.

Turning, the experience woman saw at a glance what was troubling the mind of her young patron and making her pretty eyes flash fire.

“Why, my dear Miss___, I know what you are thinking about,” the modiste said, smiling. “That gentleman is Herbert Crowley, the female impersonator, and a regular customer. My dear, if you could only see him! He makes the prettiest girl you ever saw.” Washington Herald.

The Morning Call [San Francisco, CA] 4 May 1891: p. 8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Female impersonators were a staple novelty act of the British and the United States stages. Astonishingly, for someone who was so very well-known in his time, there is very little biographical material about Herbert Crowley [1865-1932], possibly because he may be conflated with Herbert Charles Jerome Pollitt, another female impersonator linked with Aleister Crowley or confused with Herbert Crowley, an artist and cartoonist of the same time period. The few snippets Mrs Daffodil has been able to glean come only from newspapers and advertisements for Crowley’s performances. He was described as “The Male Patti” and readers were advised that “The Costumes worn by this gentleman are made by Worth, of Paris.” [1889] Alas, Mrs Daffodil could not find a photograph, but this article gives an idea of his fascination:

“Bet wine for the party that it is a girl,” said one of a group of tourists in the Merchants rotunda last evening, “and to prove it let’s go to the Bodega.”

This remark attracted the attention of the Globe’s representative, and he accompanied the party for the point of attraction.

They had not long to wait ere a symmetrically proportioned blonde in a well-fitting black toilette appeared, long black silk gloves covering the arms, while at the wrists gleamed two rows of brilliants and in the center of a black velvet band around the throat gleamed a diamond cluster pin.

A carefully and tastefully arranged blonde wing complete the make-up of the prima donna, and the deception was complete when the first bars of “Let Me Dream Again” floated out into the crowded hall.

“Tell me that is a man,” chuckled the man who had bet the wine, “It is all nonsense.” But his triumph was short lived for upon the beginning of the second verse of the popular air the singer in decidedly masculine accents exclaimed, “Let her go, Gallagher,” accompanying it with a decidedly male expectoration; and the laugh was on the wine wagerer.

It was the unanimous opinion, however, that Herbert Crowley, the female impersonator, was one calculated to deceive even an expert, and it is pretty hard to make a casual observer and listener believe that he is not in the presence of an attractive young woman.

The St. Paul [MN] Daily Globe, 3 March 1888: p. 5

Later in life Crowley started an act called “Herbert Crowley and his Six Sailors.”

The Orpheum Theatre presents on the stage today, tomorrow, a revue with broad travesty that gives a hint of the fads and foibles of the gentle sex. Herbert Crowley and his six Allied Sailors—all husky gobs who saw service during the war, have fashioned an odd stage conception. It is called “Herbert Crowley’s Different Revue,” and is all that the name implies, for the seven youths [Crowley, by this time was no longer a youth!] made up as pretty girls give a touch of real novelty to the offering. They make no attempt to fool their audience for even though they impersonate women they let it be known that they are men. Beautiful gowns, bright comedy and many novelty songs and dances make the revue an unusual treat.

The Daily Courier [Connellsville, PA] 6 April 1927: p. 9

Mrs Daffodil has previously written about gentlemen who wear corsets, cross-dressing fancy dress, and a gentleman’s plea for short skirts on both sexes.

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.


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