Sunday, November 27, 2011

Tailor Made Part I: Rise of the Dressmaker

Tailored clothing is a relatively new concept in the history of human apparel – before the early Middle Ages, clothing was simply draped, loosely fastened, or wrapped around the body. Shaped or tailored clothing sewn together to fit the human form first appeared in the northern and mountainous regions of Europe and Asia where close fitted garments were necessary for warmth, protection, and freedom of movement.[i] Despite this significant change in garment construction, from draping and pinning to shaping and stitching, making clothes remained a non-paying domestic endeavor performed by both men and women of the time. It was not until the 12th century that tailoring became a paid profession throughout Europe as advances in naval technologies opened up greater trade opportunities among the European, African, and Asian continents. [ii]  

As the appearance of new towns and villages cropped up across Europe to facilitate the booming trade opportunities of the High Middle Ages, a new and affluent middle class – or bourgeois - was born from the common folk and immediately generated the need for a class of skilled tradesmen to service their growing demands. Like other emerging, profit making trades of the age (i.e. tanners, coopers, and other crafters), tailoring guilds were formed in towns and cities to safeguard the interests and privileges of its tradesmen by controlling who could pursue the trade professionally, the production of goods and services, the exchange of specialized knowledge, and the availability of trade resources in order to discourage regional competition. Consequently, it proved difficult for anyone wanting to sidestep the authority and endorsement of the guild to conduct business, particularly tradeswomen.

From their inception, tailoring guilds excluded women – at least from official records - a practice common in all male-dominated, profit making vocations of the Medieval and Renaissance eras.[iii] Prevailing academic, political, and religious ideology reinforced the importance of gender roles, separating domestic obligations (women’s work) from professional pursuits (men’s work), and making it illegal in most European countries for women to engage in commerce reserved for males.[iv] Notwithstanding their absence from official guild records, women’s participation in traditional male trades, regardless of its legality, was customary in many regions, often out of pure necessity. Claire Crowston, in Women, Gender, and the Guilds in Early Modern Europe, explains that “[cultural] notions of appropriate female tasks – sewing, decorating, [and etcetera] – [encouraged] male employers to hire women in sectors from which they were theoretically forbidden.”[v] Thus, tradeswomen who were hired outside of the guild’s authority were often freer to produce variations in their product base (both in quality and kind) for a broader market share, but always in exchange for their professional propriety, particularly in the form of extortion, where many working women were forced to pay operation fees to guild officials to thwart harassment. Further, it was not uncommon for guilds to illegally include women simply to increase membership revenues.[vi] Albeit the pervasive treatment of tradeswomen as second-class laborers by the trade guilds, Crowston notes that women, “[when] given control over guilds, [used] that control to restrict and regulate the labor market in the same way as men.”[vii]

By the mid-18th century, as the guilds reached their apex of corruption and political philandering, the tailoring trade became saturated with competent apprentices and journeymen unable to secure employment for any reasonable length of time (usually for no more than six months out of the year). Consumer demands for fine clothing and textiles flourished as the production of goods and services expanded to include foreign markets. The tailoring guilds found it increasingly difficult to sustain control over their local markets and prevent competition. In an erroneous attempt to prolong their dominion over their respective industries, guild regulations and fees were restructured to secure business for its most esteemed and prominent members (and to discourage would-be competition by younger, more vernal tailors) rather than assist and benefit its members on the whole.[viii] In 1791, at the beginning of the French Revolution, the First National Assembly of France abolished its guilds, and as more European nations adopted free trade laws, guilds increasingly lost their power. By the mid-19th century, most of the guilds across Europe had been disbanded. Opportunist in the tailoring trade took advantage of the surplus of consummate tradesmen, hiring apprentices and journeymen in number and paying them significantly less than the salaries mandated by the former guilds. Here, the predecessor to the mechanized assembly line of the Industrial Revolution was born – the sweatshop.

Although these sweatshops of the late Georgian-early Victorian age produced garments of inferior quality “with no particular wearer in mind,” the costs of these garments were relatively inexpensive and served a growing market for ready-made (prêt-à-porter) clothing.[ix]  The middle classes found that they could now purchase what they once had to make for themselves. Likewise, new technologies, such as the power loom, the spinning mule, and the shearing frame, enabled unskilled workers to perform tedious, time consuming tasks, which had been traditionally relegated to junior guild members, with comparatively less effort and in a fraction of the time. As textiles became cheaper and more available, the wealthier classes discovered that they no longer needed to repurpose their clothing, but rather donated it to second hand shops. Tailors fast became the authorities and purveyors of fashion as the aristocracy competed amongst themselves for the finest fabrics and the most extravagant wardrobes. By the early 19th century, tailors had more than enough business to sustain themselves, often employing their own families in the trade, in addition to several apprentices, journeymen, and a number of unskilled laborers.[x]
While women were not typically employed in the tailoring sweatshops of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, those who were worked an average of 80-hours per week in exchange for their keep.[xi] A cheap and abundant source of labor, women were more commonly kept away from the tailor’s shop and employed in their homes to hand sew bails of piecework, a laborious task that paid significantly less than what the average male earned for the same work. [xii] Despite the limited income and employment opportunities available to most women due to pervasive cultural distinctions between men’s work and women’s work, this did not dampen the aspiration and success of the individual dressmaker – on the contrary, it created a boon. Female garments constructed by tailors were generally limited to underpinnings (corsets and hoops) and outerwear (habits and coats) - male dressmakers did not conform to society’s idea of masculinity, therefore the making of women’s apparel was left primarily to women.[xiii] By the latter half of the 19th century, women made up 99% of all dressmakers.[xiv]

(Proper citation when referencing this article: Thornhill, Angela. "Tailor Made Part I: Rise of the Dressmaker." The Merry Dressmaker. Blogspot, 27 NOV 2011. Accessed [Date]. <>.

[i] Franck, Irene M. and David M. Brownstone. Clothiers: Work Throughout History. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1987. 81.
[ii] Ibid., 82.
[iii] Malcolm-Davis, Jane and Ninja Mikhaila. The Tudor Tailor. London: Batsford, 2006. 42
[iv] Franck, Clothiers, 83.
[v] Crowston, Claire Haru. “Women, Gender and Guilds in Early Modern Europe.” The Return of the Guilds. October 2006: 12.
[vi] Ibid., 13.
[vii] Ibid., 18, 29.
[viii] Franck, Clothiers, 93.
[ix] Ibid., 93-94.
[x] Ibid., 86.
[xi] Ibid., 103.
[xii] Ibid., 99.
[xiii] Gamber, Wendy. The Female Economy: The Millinery & Dressmaking Trades, 1980-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. 127.
[xiv] Ibid., 285 n. 2.

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