Fashion is often dismissed as a frivolous non-necessity, but in 18th c. Paris and London, it was big, big business. Even simple clothing employed literally dozens of skilled tradespeople to create a single garment.
On my recent visit to Colonial Williamsburg, I sat down with Janea Whitacre, mantua-maker in the Historic Trades Program and mistress of the Margaret Hunter millinery shop, and together we came up with this list of all the different trades necessary to dress a fashionable lady c. 1770.
Trades were highly specialized, requiring different skills – the maker of straight pins didn't also make needles - and each one supported a tiered system of workers that ranged from apprentices to journeymen to masters. We're sure there are probably many more trades, too, but this does give you an indication of why fashion was so important to the 18th c. economy.
The haberdashery trades that made the "ingredients" for garments:
• Thread spinner
• Tape weaver
• Cord weaver
• Baleen processor (for whalebone stays)
• Ribbon weaver
• Artificial flower maker
• Lace maker
• Linen spinner & linen weaver
• Silk processor, silk designer, & silk weaver
• Cloth fuller & dyer
• Gauze weaver
• Foil ornament & sequin maker
• French floss trimming knotter
• Bead maker
• Carved button makers
• Wrapped-thread button makers (which, as Janea noted, could simply be called "children.")
The construction trades that assembled the garments:
• Milliner (who made shifts and other undergarments)
• Mantua-maker (the master dressmaker who designed, cut, & fitted gowns)
• Seamstresses (lesser skilled stitchers)
The trades that created accessories:
• Jeweler, silversmith, goldsmith, & paste (faux stones) maker
• Stocking weaver
• Ivory worker
• Fan mount-maker, fan printer, & fan painter
• Shoemaker, shoe heel carver, & shoe last maker
• Garter weaver
• Buckle maker
• Milliner, straw plaiter, straw stitcher, & plume maker (all for hats)
• Wig maker
Above: Robe à la française in white & pink plaid silk taffeta; double flounced pagoda sleeves; stomacher with échelle of ribbon; engageantes; quilles and lappets of Argentan lace. All French, c. 1760s. The Kyoto Costume Institute. Click here for the KCI's zoomable image - the details of the handwork are incredible.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.