A Species of Slavery: Dress making for High Society in the 19th Century

(see http://www.mythweaver.co.uk/stitchery/snippets/stitch-stitch-stitch-in-poverty-hunger-and-dirt/  for details of the conference at which this talk was presented)


For young girls preparing for their ‘coming-out’ the choice of spectacular dresses to wear at the prescribed events was a major consideration: this talk is about the women who made these dresses working for long hours undertaking tedious and intricate work for low wages.

Notes from a talk by Joanna Marschnner

(Presented at the Costume Society Seminar on ‘Sweated Trades’ Feb 8th 1986)

Two classes of dressmakers – honourable, and sweated.

1st class – was suitable work for those not fitted to be governesses or similar.  Daughters of clergy, middle class etc.

Dressmakers made garments.  Milliners made hats, caps, and trimmings.

Apprenticeships lasted 3 years.

March to July were busiest seasons, the highlight being court presentation.  Dress required – had written regulations, must have long train, feather headdress and veil.  Dresses of silk, tulle, ninon (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninon )  They were a great consumption of fabric.

1863 – a letter from a dressmaker in the Times described death in the workshop due to overwork.  This was Mary Ann Walkley, working at Madam Elise in Regent Street (Princess Alexander was a client there.)  (see https://bust.com/style/18808-mary-walkley-death-seamstress.html for a detailed account of this tragedy.)

Girls lived in cubicles in dormitories, 2 girls to a bed.

Workrooms were crowded and un-ventilated.  Windows were unopened so as to keep out smuts.  There was no chance of exercise, and fresh air was lacking.

Meals were consumed rapidly at irregular hours.  They were unappetising.  A 12 hour day was normal but in the season could be 6:00am to 11:pm, and sometimes they worked all night for Royal drawing rooms to complete orders.

Trimming dresses and making trains involved standing for long hours.

This case inspired research and many horror were uncovered.  The system and conditions undermined health.  The mortality rate of needlewomen was thrice that of other classes of occupation.  Some hands were dismissed for giving evidence.

Many earnest moves were made to alleviate conditions.  Societies formed, and authors wrote of milliners and dressmakers in books.  A few employers relaxed their systems and allowed a reduction in hours.

After 1863:

1869 – laws to prevent more than 12 hours for dressmakers, but were difficult to enforce.  Customers were responsible by wanting dresses at short notice.

1875 – re-organisation of systems, dressmakers allowed to live out

20th Century – girls still sometimes worked all night to finish orders.

Investigations into conditions started in 1842, but nothing much done or brought to public attention until 1863 after death of M.A. Walkley

In 1863 1 hand, plus 1 apprentice took 1 day to complete a dress.

Many witnesses of the 1860s said that conditions had improved from the 1840s

By 1870s day work (non living-in) was becoming more common.  However, senior hands still lived in.

Much of this work was done by hand.  Sewing machine work was very unpopular, and it was mainly used for foundation work and skirts.

Joanna Marschner was (at the time of the conference) Assistant curator of the Court Dress collection, Kensington Palace.  She had previously been Museum Assistant in the Department of Costume and Textiles at the Museum of London.

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