Suggestions For Dressmakers, 1896

“When it comes to making, the actual sewing and finishing, the American dressmaker has nothing to learn from anyone. First class American dressmakers turn out the best work, so far as the mechanics of dressmaking go, of any dressmakers in the world. In point of fact, they make dresses too well. They might with advantage to themselves, and with no disadvantage to their patrons, unlearn something about sewing, and let some of the fussy details, over which they now bother their heads to very little purpose, go by default.

But the A-1 American dressmaker puts too much fine sewing into her dresses. They look well; they look about as well on the wrong side as upon the right side; perhaps if they were not such marvels of patience in the inside finishing, they might be more artistic to look like on the outside. Look at even the highest priced foreign made dresses; by comparison, they seem almost slovenly in workmanship, compared with American dress, but after all to what end put such an infinite amount of pains into finishing off a dress that, nowadays, is worn but a few times…house dresses and evening dresses might be slighted in finishing just as the Parisian dressmakers slight them without suffering an iota in looks or wearing possibilities, and with a notable saving in time and trouble.

The Parisian dressmaker is clever. She knows every trick in putting her work where it will make the most show. So long as she gets the effect she wants, and it stays as long…as it is required, which is not long, for instance, in a tulle party frock, she doesn’t try to make the sewing in every part of the sort that would win a prize at a school exhibition. The Parisian Milliner long, long ago, found that she could get effects by pinning on her hat and bonnet trimmings that absolutely defied sewing, and the Parisian dressmaker will catch a flounce of lace here and a ribbon there with fascinating grace, and never bother her head about what it looks like on the wrong side. Why should she?”

7138bd5bed5bd5a8921d1fd61bbdfd27I came across this passage in Suggestions For Dressmakers (1896) a number of months ago around the time I was completing my 1899 elusive blue evening gown. It is from the chapter called “Making” on pages 27-28.

The passage immediately brought to mind my process for making historical garments, which is usually along the lines of the “American dressmaker” in that I put many hours of fine sewing into my dresses to make the insides just as much as work of art as the exterior.

The obvious and most current example that came to mind was the dress I was completing at the time, but there are many others as well. Here are a few made during the last few years and spanning the 19th century in terms of their origins.

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In the style of the “American Dressmaker”, the beautifully finished interior of my 1899 elusive blue bodice made in 2016.

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Another beautifully finished bodice in the “American Dressmaker” style from 2014. This is Georgina’s 1858 evening bodice.

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Tidy insides in my 1813 evening gown made in 2013, also in the “American Dressmaker” style.

I also had this passage in mind while working over the first part of this year on my recent 1885 Night Sky fancy dress. I decided with that ensemble to follow the suggestion to adapt to the “Parisian Dressmaker” style and not worry about the insides as I usually do. While still quite tidy, I did not spend time finishing unseen seams inside the skirt or finishing the edges of the vertical seams on the bodice, as you can see below. It was a bit of a struggle with my natural instincts, but worked out very well in terms of the working on this right up until the deadline and not having time for all the pretty finishing anyway.

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I couldn’t entirely shake the urge to be tidy and nicely finish things, but I did leave some edges raw and basted on the trim in case I want to easily remove it in the future.

There’s also the mention of pinning trim on hats. That is a suggestion that I often make use of! I can think of multiple examples of hats that have had trim pinned on for years even while the hats are in storage. For example, remember the hat that I wear with my 1895 Skating Ensemble? That’s the same hat from my 1883 Tailored Ensemble with fur trim and extra feathers that have been pinned on since early 2015. I’ve felt no need to sew those on!

Do you sew like American dressmaker or a Parisian dressmaker? Is it a conscious choice for you to pick one style or the other, or is it just your natural sewing method? What about hats? Do you ever pin your trimmings on?

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4 responses to “Suggestions For Dressmakers, 1896

  1. Awesome article! I do knock myself out on the inside and freak out as deadlines approach. I think I’ll try the Parisian approach on my next project. Thanks for the reality check!

  2. I LOVE THIS!! I have always felt bad about being much more in line with the Parisian dressmaker. It’s good to remember that not every outfit in the period was perfectly perfect as I’m beating myself up over mine 🙂

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