Dressmaking – Rethinking Fashion in the 1930s

Spring Styles from Roma's Fashion, 1936

‘A Spring Medley’, from Roma’s Fashion, 1936

I’ve been sorting out my 1930s magazines and found three lovely mid-decade sewing journals that are a wonderful way to see how trends were disseminated – and re-fashioned – for a wider range of women.  Although high fashion magazines included columns on dressing on a budget, especially during the Depression, the amount of money needed to obtain such a wardrobe would still have been out of reach to most.  So titles such as Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal and Roma’s Fashions filled a gap in the market and enabled women to deploy their skills in dressmaking.

Women were keen to emulate the styles they saw in magazines, in newspapers and at the cinema – both in feature films and in newsreels that covered society events, and the latest fashions.  As one woman commented in the Mass Observation survey for 1939:

‘I always study fashion articles, advertisements, women’s magazines to keep my ideas up to date.  I never discuss with friends, but I take note of what well-to-do people wear, and notice photographs of the Queen or Duchess of Kent as naturally the fashion houses who dress those people should know what is coming in.  I take every chance of studying the displays in the best shops though I could not afford to patronize them.  Fashion in this locality [Burnley] lags behind the fashion in a large city like Manchester so I like to see the shops there.’

Magazines including those pictured here, therefore encouraged women to transform what they saw into reality, and to look to a variety of sources, as well as considering occasion and figure type when translating ideas into clothing.

Although ready-to-wear fashion was developing apace, there was still some prejudice against it – as middle class women were unsure how respectable such garments might be.  Women’s anxiety about the ways fashion was procured could be assuaged by reassuring magazine articles, and letters pages where readers could ask for advice anonymously.  Patterns could be made up at home, or taken to a local dressmaker.  Barbara Burman has written convincingly about the creativity involved in home dressmaking.  She argues that it allows women to adapt fashion or ignore it, even to pass off garments as shop bought and thus subvert the value system attached to how and where fashion was acquired.  She offers this description of the process as:

‘…a sort of autobiographical practice, home dressmaking is an intimate process. The garment made at home is not so swiftly had as the ready-made.  In its measuring, cutting, assembling and fitting, the form and realities of the maker’s own body must be met again and again.  Home dressmakers using a dressmaker’s dummy see their own body shape from all angles, as seen by another person or in a three-way mirror.’ 

So this gives the pages from my 1930s magazines a new perspective – not just a glimpse at earlier visions of femininity and domesticity, they in fact offer ways to rethink women’s agency in the period, and their approach to self-fashioning.

(L) Selection of 1930's Dressmaking Magazines, (R) 'How to Dress for Jubilee Year', Weldon's Ladies Journal, 1935

(L) Selection of 1930’s Dressmaking Magazines, (R) ‘How to Dress for Jubilee Year’, Weldon’s Ladies Journal, 1935

(L) Looking at Hollywood styles, Weldon's Ladies' Journal, 1935 (R) Knitting and Crochet, Roma's Fashions, October 1934

(L) ‘Looking at Hollywood Styles’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal, 1935 (R) Knitting and Crochet, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934

(L) C(entre L)

(L) ‘Dressing the Fuller Figure’, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934 (Centre L) ‘Styles for Business’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal, 1935 (Centre R) ‘A Dress Stand That Moulds to Your Figure’, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934 (R) ‘How to Dress like a Parisienne’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal 1935

Sources:

Barbara Burman, ‘”What a Deal of Work there is in a Dress!”  Englishness and Home Dressmaking in the Age of the Sewing Machine,’ in Christopher Breward, Becky Conekin and Caroline Cox, eds., The Englishness of English Dress (Oxford: Berg, 2002)

Catherine Horwood, Keeping Up Appearances: Fashion and Class between the Wars (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2005)

Denis Diderot, ‘Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps, contenant vingt-quatre planches,’ extract of Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (c.1771)

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Summary

“Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps” (tailor and corset maker) is part of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, assembled by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783). This ambitious and scandalous project, that comprised twenty-eight volumes by specialists in the sciences, arts and crafts, was published between 1751 and 1772. “Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps” was it fact largely extracted from François-Antoine de Garsault’s article “L’art du tailleur” in the Description des Arts et Métiers (1769). The presentation of free knowledge to a large public, with its emphasis on observation, reason and analysis, was a feature of the wider Enlightenment project. Yet such freedom and scientific empiricism disputed the authority of Church and State leaders in Ancien Régime France. The Encyclopédie was thus published clandestinely after its royal privilege was revoked in 1759. Eighteenth-century France, torn between different modes of government and systems of knowledge, was undergoing a period of uncertainty. The notion that order and meaning could arise from somewhere other than the will of God triggered a chaos of sorts, which the Encyclopédie’s systematic ordering and classification of knowledge could remedy. The “Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps,” which resembles a manual, attests to this. It attempted to shed light on the tailor corporation, a remnant of the Medieval guild system, during a period that witnessed changes in business practices and advances in textile production. It is also revealing of fashion, politics and thinking in the immediate years leading to the revolution.

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Response

“Tailleur d’habits” discussed the trade pictorially through twenty-four plates of engravings by the architect Jacques-Raymond Lucotte, which Berard copied onto copperplate. The first plate showed the interior of a tailor’s workshop, “where several workers are employed”: it portrayed an animated group of men who “stitch and assemble the fabrics […] take measurements, and […] cut.” The eye is led to the view outside a window, and the reader thus connects the scene to the wider city. The following plates deconstructed the scene and presented its elements: tools for all levels of production, current fashions, such as the waistcoat and abbot’s mantle, patterns, stitches, and ways of cutting drapery. Only the last four plates, which described the corset maker, concerned women consumers.

At the time of the Encyclopédie’s publication, literacy was increasing and the printed word, in the form of books, pamphlets and newspapers, flourished. The Encyclopédie resembled journals such as Courrier de la Mode (1768-1770) and La Gallerie des modes (1778-87), in that both types of publications acted as repositories of information. It also anticipated the encyclopaedic study of dress by early historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Recently rebound, the book’s new exterior belies its age. Touching the old, soft paper within, however, transports readers to another time. They connect to the many individuals that might have handled it in the past, immortalised in pencil and ink markings in the margins. As they absorb the text, they take part in a project that involved many – from engravers and writers, to publishers and booksellers.

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