Sunday, March 23, 2014

Return Engagement: How Many Tradespeople Did It Take to Dress an 18th C. Lady?

Sunday, March 23, 2014
Isabella reporting,

Since today I'm in transit, returning home from the "Millinery Through Time" conference at Colonial Williamsburg, I thought this post from the archives seemed a good one to revisit. Look for more from my visit on Wednesday.

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 tool-making trades:
  • Pin maker
  • Needle maker
  • Thimble maker
  • Scissors maker
  • Pinking-iron maker
  • Pressing iron-smith
  • Spectacle-maker

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:
  • Stay-maker
  • Milliner (who made shifts and other undergarments)
  • Embroiderer
  • 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
  • Watchmaker
  • Ivory worker
  • Fan mount-maker, fan printer, & fan painter
  • Glover
  • Furrier
  • 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.


Karen Anne said...

With all that work, I wonder how much a dress like that cost in 2014 dollars? Or maybe a better question is, how much did a middle class woman's dress cost in terms of a (male presumably) person's salary? Ditto for a governess or milliner.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Karen Anne~ I can't say exactly how much this particular gown would cost - but I did write a post on another gown that the CW mantua-makers recreated, with all the figures about how many yards of silk & trim were used, and how many hours of labor, plus how that related to the salary of one of the seamstresses. You can find that post here:

Hope that helps!

Regency romance author, Donna Hatch said...

That's crazy. I can't even think of that in today's terms.
I may just have to have one of my heroines decide she must go shopping for a new wardrobe for the philanthropic reason of helping the working class :-)

Karen Anne said...

Thanks, yikes. Not only the cost, but the heroines who are always sewing up gowns in 2-3 days.

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