Dress Shopping, Victorian Style

january1843fashionsI do love a good makeover: That scene where the heroine discovers the perfect clothes to bring out her best features. They make me want to fist pump and say ‘Go girl! Bust out that bustle (or crinoline or redingote, depending on the era)!’

As in life, women in literature dress for other women – namely their female readers. But how did one actually go about putting together that killer outfit guaranteed to turn the hero’s head and bring him straight to one’s side? In 1840, the internet did not exist, Mr. Selfridge’s father was still a boy, and Mr. Harrod, having given up on the linen draper’s business, wouldn’t move his grocery and tea enterprise to Knightsbridge until 1849. Mr. Harvey did sell linens, but he had only hired clerk James Nichols the year before.

Until sewing machines were invented, every last hem, flounce, tuck and bead was stitched by hand. Ready to wear clothing consisted of shawls, simple hats and bonnets, smocks and the shoddiest of work clothes for the poor, referred to as ‘slop-ware’.

It amuses me when romance novels feature female characters going to the dressmaker’s or sending for one, as if buying several gowns at £200 – £300 apiece is no big deal.

 

Fashion Plate A

In an age where middle class income ranged from £100 – £1,000 a year, believe me, for most women this would be a big deal.

 

What you wore depended on what you could afford combined with what you knew how to make. The ‘slop-ware’ mentioned above was worn by the poorest working classes, for dirty jobs. As England had no compulsory education during the early Victorian era, girls in the poorest families could not count on coming into contact with textile crafts in sewing classes. They might learn to sew at home provided their mother or another female relative had picked up the skill. To avoid widespread public nudity, families depended on charity, or used clothing vendors.

Large numbers of Victorians wandered the streets in second-hand clothing. Even in the best families, new clothes were time- and money-intensive. Children customarily wore hand-me-downs. Even oldest children could find themselves in a cousin’s outgrown suit or dress. If the family had a trunk of grandma’s old dresses, that might be raided for free cloth.

A woman at the pinnacle of society, whose family income stretched into the tens of thousands of pounds or more, could afford new wardrobes of the latest fashions every year. She would customarily give her outmoded gowns to her lady’s maid to dispose of. The privilege of claiming her mistress’ cast-offs was a valuable benefit of that servant’s employment, and was often included along with her wages.

Once in possession of a second-hand garment, a lady’s maid could keep it, refurbish, or wear it. (Ideally not where her employer would catch her.) If she sold it, dealers would come to the mews or servants’ entrance and buy them for their shops or stalls. After going through multiple owners, used clothing ended up in places like Petticoat Lane, where vendors would pull goods out of enormous bags to present to working-class customers. Men and women alike found gowns, trousers, mantles, frock coats and more for a few shillings each. When a common laborer could expect to put by maybe one or two shillings a week for clothes, outfitting a family even in these dirty and worn clothes took a chunk out of his savings.

Daytime BodiceIn the middle class, women often did learn at least basic sewing, which enabled them to take advantage of new-fangled paper patterns, introduced in the 1830s. The wives and daughters of artisans and middle class perused fashion prints as enthusiastically as wealthy women did, though with the intention of using cheaper material and simpler decoration. Patterns often came with one skirt design and two bodices, one high-necked and with longer sleeves for a respectable daytime appearances, and one with a lower neckline and shorter sleeves for evening events. Thrifty women would make up both bodices to get more wear from their garment.

Once they had a design and a pattern, there were several steps between the page and the finished product. They would start at the linen draper’s (seller of general dry goods) or mercer’s (seller of textiles only). In the 1840s, the choice of dress materials ranged from wool and cotton to silk, velvet, satin, and lace. Within types of material, quality varied. ‘Wool’ encompassed everything from merino to cashmere; cotton ranged from cheap calico to fine batiste.

It was not unusual for a dress to require 20 yards or more, so once all that cloth was cut, it had to be hand-stitched.  Sewing women could be hired for this, some of whom might have workshops of their own. Some establishments could deliver a gown the day after it was ordered, for during the London Season, they would employ a workshop full of seamstresses that were required to work up to 20 hours a day.

Do you have any favorite makeover scenes in movies or books? Some of mine are Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Penelope Featherington in ROMANCING MR. BRIDGERTON by Julia Quinn, and just to keep in mind men can benefit from The Makeover as well, Philip Jettan in Georgette Heyer’s POWDER AND PATCH. (It takes place in the 18th century, not the 19th, and the heroine is decidedly childish, but it’s still entertaining.)

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