Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I'll Take Thirty Dresses

 A Note From Nancy *

I've been sewing since I was a little girl.  It's in my blood.  As such I like fashion, and I like to write about dressmaking...

Made-to-order workroom in Stewart's
My novel An Unlikely Suitor begins in a dressmaking shop in New York City in 1895. Off-the-rack clothes were no longer a novelty and could be purchased at a myriad of department stores (Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Stewart’s, Bergdorf-Goodman…) Many stores offered both custom made clothing as well as ready-to-wear, which was often sewn to fit on the premises. Women could also order clothing from catalogs. But with all these options, most high-society ladies still had their wardrobes custom designed and sewn, often in small dress-shops. In my book it’s Madame Moreau’s Fashion Emporium. The “Madame Moreau” in the store’s name is in reaction to a fascination with all things French. Actually, the woman who runs the store is named Mrs. Flynn, who had the uncanny ability to adopt a French accent when dealing with her clientele. These dressmakers often imported Paris fashion—to copy, although in the 1890's they were taking more and more pride in their own developing American fashion.
Bloomingdale's 1888 catalog

Although the complexity of the bustle-era was gone (illustration at left is 1888), dresses in the mid-1890’s were far from simple. The focus moved from the back of the dress to the sleeves—or actually to the waist. For by making the sleeves ridiculously huge, a woman’s waist appeared tiny in comparison. And in the everything-old-is-new-again phenomenon, it should be noted that these sleeves were also popular in the 1830’s. But during that time, skirts were also wide, making women look as if they were swallowed up by their clothes!  Too much.
Fashion is all about silhouettes. To create the hour-glass silhouette of the 1890’s, a wide top and small middle was needed. 

bodice pattern
The over-sized puffy sleeves were called gigots, or leg-o-mutton sleeves. They were often made from four separate pieces of fabric (most sleeves nowadays are cut from one piece), and they could be stuffed so they kept their shape. Skirts were often four or six gores, or had insets of gathers at the thigh-level (as a seamstress myself, I know these insets would be difficult to do.) Even though the patterns to ,make these clothes were still far from simple, it was a big step for women’s fashion to lose the bustle.

Note the inset flared skirts on the right
To herald the new style came the “shirtwaist”. It became the uniform of working women everywhere: a relatively plain skirt with a leg-o-mutton blouse that had a standing band collar and buttons up the back. A simple petticoat was all that was needed—except for the dratted corset, of course. It would still be twenty-five years before women rid themselves of that awful contraption. Wearing this relatively simple ensemble women were able to go to college, work, and enjoy sports such as golf or tennis.

But forget shirtwaists for the rich patronesses of the dress shops. They wanted custom designs that made them stand out from the masses of women wearing the simpler styles.

The dressmaking shops were often staffed by immigrants, first or second generation Americans. They created the intricate patterns for the dresses, cut the fabric (which was purchased in varying non-standardized widths. Now, we basically have 45”, 54”, and 60” widths to choose from), and sewed the garments on machines and by hand (I’ll be blogging about the evolution of the sewing machine next week.) The elite of society kept these shops busy with their need to showcase their family’s successes and wealth through their fashion. To walk the streets of New York City in elegant finery, to take a promenade through Central Park, to go to the opera or Delmonico’s, to attend a ball or dinner at the Astor’s or Vanderbilt’s, demanded fashion that wowed the viewer. Has much changed today? Don’t we also long to be thought of as fashionable?

Now here’s an age old question: did women dress for men or women? Do we dress for men or women now? The fashion of the late nineteenth century tried to emphasize a woman’s figure (even if it was completely covered). But I still think most women dress for the appreciation of other women. For do men really know if something is fashionable or not? Women notice. Women know.

Another reason the dressmaking shops kept busy was the summer season. Many of the members of the Four Hundred of New York society went to Newport, Rhode Island for six to eight weeks at the end of every summer. There, amid the cool ocean breezes, they created another version of society, with as many rules and standards as they had in the city. Each woman needed nearly thirty new outfits for this season.

That’s the starting point in An Unlikely Suitor. A mother and daughter enter Madame Moreau’s in need of an entirely new wardrobe…only the daughter suffers from an infirmity that causes her dresses to hang oddly. Enter the heroine, Lucy Scarpelli to find a sewing solution. And so a friendship between immigrant seamstress and wealthy heiress is born . . . and continues as Lucy gets a chance to join Rowena in Newport. It’s a classic premise of friendship between a poor girl and a rich girl, set amid the lavish opulence of Newport, with the breeze blowing off the Cliff Walk, and handsome young men with time on their hands . . . Trust me, the story is well . . . sewn.//Nancy


  1. I cannot imagine the skill involved in creating these fashions. No wonder the sewing machine was such a welcome invention!

  2. I've often wondered the same thing, looking at dresses from that era. I've always loved those long beautiful dresses though. Can you imagine the amount of fabric it took for those dresses. Good article.

  3. Not just the yards of fabric, but the yards of trim. Trim at the neck, bodice, waist, sleeve, down the front, around the bottom... And all those layers underneath. It's a bit overwhelming!

  4. The fabric on the bolt back then was narrower than we have now, which means they needed even more yards. I have read that it could take as much as 20 yards of fabric to make a dress in the late 1800s.