Stitching the fashions of the 19th century

In class-conscious 19th-century society, fashion was key as a way of demonstrating social position and wealth. Only the very poor or the very rich would dare stray from the dictates of the time. But how much did it cost to remain à la mode and who were the people who made these clothes?

Writing for History Extra, Pam Inder shares the stories of those who dressed the 19th-century elite…


“Poverty must, above all things, avoid the appearance of poverty,” the author ‘Sylvia’ warned her readers in How to Dress Well on Shilling a Day, a book published in 1876. Of course, ladies who had a shilling a day (or £18 5s a year) to spend on clothes were certainly not poor by 19th-century standards. Many women – governesses, ladies’ maids, dressmakers and the wives of tradesmen, for example – were expected to dress respectably on a fraction of that sum and were equally anxious to “avoid the appearance of poverty”. 


Outfits had to fit and flatter, demonstrate to the world the social position of the wearer – or at least the position to which they aspired – without being unnecessarily gaudy or showy. At the same time, they had to conform to the latest fashion as illustrated in a host of magazines and fashion plates, while giving the impression that the wearer was not so shallow as to be overly interested in what they wore; it was a careful balancing act. Dressmakers, tailors and shopkeepers had to guide and advise their customers, tactfully steering them away from making inappropriate choices and helping to disguise their ‘bodily imperfections’ by careful styling and judicious padding.


Victorian women had to conform to the latest fashion as illustrated in a host of magazines. Illustration shows women modelling fashionable hats and gowns of the time, c1830. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

À la mode

Throughout the century, fashions – particularly in women’s wear – changed markedly from decade to decade, but at any given time there was remarkably little deviation from the style that was deemed to be à la mode. 

If a lady in 1820 or 1850 or 1880 had written about ‘my new black silk day dress’, her contemporaries would have had a very clear idea of what that dress would have looked like. Dresses were very different in 1820, 1850 and 1880, but in any one of those decades all day dresses would have been very similar; any variation would have come in the trimming and detailing. Only the very poor, the very rich or the very famous dared ignore the dictates of fashion. To do so was ‘social suicide’. This meant that in the course of their working lives, garment makers, especially dressmakers and tailors, would continually have had to be learning new ways of cutting out and making up.

Of course, at the bottom end of the social spectrum there were always individuals for whom new clothes were an unattainable luxury. They were dependant on second-hand clothes dealers when they had a few pence to spare and on charitable donations when they did not; they accepted whatever clothes they could find, however incongruous, and wore them until they fell to pieces. For everyone else, however, new clothes and shoes were nearly always bespoke.

Two Victorian women sit on a park bench in England, ca. 1900 (Photo by Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images)

All day dresses of a certain decade would have been very similar; any variation would have come in the trimming and detailing. (Photo by Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images)

Creating the garments

Garment making was slow, laborious work, but nonetheless 19th-century customers were led to expect unbelievably speedy service. Working extraordinarily long hours, even all night, when there was an order to be completed was an accepted practice.

In the 19th century, even the comparatively well-to-do had fewer clothes than do their 21st-century counterparts. This was partly because many fabrics were of a higher quality than we see today so garments lasted longer and could be altered and remade as fashion changed, and partly because clothes were comparatively costly. A new pair of men’s boots, for example, cost more than most labourers earned in a week.

We are today accustomed to the idea that labour is expensive, even when materials are relatively cheap. In the 19th century, the reverse was the case. A tailor or dressmaker’s profit was often the same as the price of just one yard of the fabric they were making up for their customer. 

Wages in the clothing trades varied enormously according to the experience of the worker, the size of the firm and the type of clientele for whom they catered. The average female weekly wage in 1888 was around 12s 8d, and by that measure wages in the garment-making trades do not look too bad. The wage for a skilled dressmaker – a ‘first hand’ or workroom supervisor – in an elite establishment could be up to £120 a year, though in a less prestigious firm she would have been lucky to make £70. Assistants’ wages ranged from £30 to £70 for live-in workers (who would work longer hours but did not have to pay for their keep) and between 8s and 12s a week for workers who lived out. Wages in the tailoring and shoemaking trades were only slightly higher, even though the workers were usually male, and all the clothing trades relied very heavily on the work of apprentices who were usually unpaid and had had to pay a ‘premium’ up front – anything between £3 and £50 – for the privilege of receiving a training.


In the 19th century employers paid their work force as little as they could get away with and had them work unreasonably long hours. A young woman sewing, circa 1860. (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Little pay and long hours

Regardless of how good a service they provided, the people who made our forbears’ clothes had to contend with a problem that is still with us today; customers were unwilling to pay the market price for their garments. Today, firms outsource production to countries where labour is cheap, plentiful and compliant. In the 19th century employers paid their work force as little as they could get away with and had them work unreasonably long hours. Even so, wealthy customers were often tardy in paying their bills, sometimes with disastrous consequences for the firms they patronised. In just one example, in Leith in 1816, society milliner Magdalene Dunbar went bankrupt with a staggering £2,549 2s 6 ¾d worth of bad debts from her rich and titled clients. 

Between 1800 and 1850 the clothing trades changed very little. There were some attempts to improve the lot of dressmakers after the Children’s Employment Commission Report of 1843 was published with its litany of complaints about long hours, poor management and low wages, but these were largely unsuccessful. The tailors and shoemakers – in the big cities at least – were more militant and organised than their sister dressmakers. Both tailoring and shoemaking had been guild occupations since the Middle Ages, so there was a long history of mutual support. They organised strikes and campaigned vigorously for better wages and conditions, but there were usually too many men desperate to fill the strikers’ places for agitation to have much effect. 

However, by the 1870s England was changing. The death rate fell and the population grew. More and more people lived in towns and an increasing number of them belonged – or aspired to belong – to the middle classes. And the rag trade began to change too. Most importantly from the employees’ point of view, the Workshop Acts (when they were enforced) limited the number of hours that female workers in any workshop with more than five staff could be expected to work. It also became easier to get a proper training. For years, there had been criticism that many employers did not teach their apprentices properly, they simply used them as dogsbodies to do boring jobs like making buttonholes and sewing hems, but failed to show them how to assemble garments or fit customers. In an overcrowded market, many employers feared that a fully-trained, able apprentice might eventually set up a business in competition to their own. 


In this cartoon from 1877, ‘Punch’ takes one of the journal’s regular digs at the world of ladies’ fashion with a look at the spirit of competition between two young women. (Photo by The Cartoon Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The rise of the department store

One important factor in improving this situation was the rise of the department store. By 1870 most towns of any size had at least one. Most department stores had started out as drapers, and even in their expanded form most concentrated on the sale of clothing, shoes, millinery, fabrics, household textiles and furnishings. The establishment of workrooms for tailoring, dressmaking, millinery, upholstery and so on was thus a logical extension of the department stores’ services. Conditions in them tended to be better than with private firms. Working hours were usually in line with those of the stores’ other employees, the purpose-built workrooms were relatively comfortable and well-lit, and the stores did not fear competition from their employees and so provided a better and more complete training than apprentices in small firms received. Furthermore, department stores did not charge premiums for training and many provided boarding houses for their work-people.

The improvements in training may have started in the department store workrooms, but by the end of the century most towns also had technical schools which offered classes in sewing, dressmaking, tailoring and pattern cutting. 


Sewing machines began to come into use in the 1850s. Tailoring workshop, East End of London c1900, showing seamstresses with their machines. (Photo by Jewish Chronicle/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Little by little, the trades also became more mechanised. Sewing machines began to come into use in the 1850s, though to begin with they were awkward to use and the trickier parts of a garment – setting in sleeves or stitching flimsy fabrics, for example – would still be done by hand. Within a little over a decade, however, sewing machines were in use in most dressmaking, tailoring and shoemaking workshops. Commercially-produced paper patterns came into general use in the 1870s, though many experienced tailors and dressmakers still preferred to make their own. A whole industry developed supplying dressmakers’ and tailors’ dummies, ‘kilting machines’ that would do permanent pleating, buttons, woven name-bands and a whole host of other goods and services. Trade magazines came into being – The Drapers’ and Milliners’ Gazette of Fashion, The Milliner’s, Dressmaker’s and Warehouseman’s Gazette both in 1870, and The Tailor and Cutter in the 1860s. 

The growth of the railway network allowed salesmen from wholesale firms in the big cities to travel the country, bringing catalogues and brochures and offering to supply fabrics, partly-made shoe-uppers, caps, bonnets and a host of ready-made goods that could be delivered by rail to remote stations at surprisingly moderate prices. 


Historian Pam Inder has worked as a curator of costume and textiles in various museums and is the author of The Rag Trade: The People who Made our Clothes (Amberley, 2017)