D is for Dressmaker

Wherever you look in the Victorian censuses, whether it be the urban metropolis of London, or the sleepiest villages in deepest Norfolk you will always find women recorded as either ‘dressmaker’, ‘tailoress’, ‘shirt maker/sewer’ or ‘needlewoman’. Mid-century, estimate placed the number of dressmakers in London alone as being in the region of 15-17,000 women. In most communities, certainly those the size of an average village and above, you will find all four occupations. This may at first seem confusing; that women are giving themselves a range of different title for the same basic occupation, but in Victorian England this was not the case – a dressmaker is not a tailoress, and a tailoress is most definitely not a shirt maker or, insult of insults, a buttonholer.  In this post, I will consider the role and experiences of the tailoresses and the more lowly shirt makers under their own letter of the alphabet, but here want to focus on the dressmaker – arguably one of the most ubiquitous of the Victorian occupations carried out by women.


Dress, 1861-63 Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At a time when the racks of clothes we are used to viewing in stores was unheard of, dressmakers were responsible for the creation of the stunningly beautiful dresses of the age and each tuck, each pleat, each minute piece of decoration on a garment that would be made of several metres of material had to be done by a dressmaker, in later years using a rudimentary sewing machine, but with much of the work being carried out by hand. It goes without saying that the work was very skilled, even a basic day gown would involve many hours of work cutting and sewing the panels, fitting the bodice,  hemming and finishing the garment.  Dressmakers would normally serve a two year apprenticeship, for which they were unpaid, prior to becoming ‘improvers’ and then, finally, being able to call themselves ‘dressmaker’. Such a skilled profession, it would be thought, would carry a high premium and a salary to match the skill needed for  the work, but, as you may suppose, this was not the case for the majority of women.

Dressmakers were normally employed in one of two ways:

  • As young women they would, if they were fortunate enough, find work in a fashion ‘houses’ (glorified factories, frequently set up in grand locations) where they would have board and lodging, or a placement in the homes of the wealthy employer where a dressmaker would be a member of the domestic staff.
  • For the majority, and certainly for the married women, the option was only that of having day work – working at home on a piecework basis, working independently for themselves, or working in ‘houses’ as out-workers.

In 1863, in ‘The Sanitary Circumstances of Dressmakers and other Needlewomen in London’; 6th Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council,  Dr William Ord described how dressmakers in all situations would be expected to work from around 8.30 in the morning, until eight or nine at night out of season, and during the season – March-July and November-December, when the society ladies were ‘in town’ and wishing to wear new ball gowns, the hours would be even greater.  For out-door workers Dr Ord complained how their hours were ‘limited’ to only 12 or 13 a day and were paid a shocked 3d an hour for extra work. The standard wage for most of the married dressmakers, and the single out-door dressmakers was around 9s a week in 1863 – an amount which Dr Ord condemns as shockingly low.

With these nine shillings they have to find dress, lodging, fire, and food. Girls who live with their parents or friends, casting their earnings into a common stock, and girls who club together, can manage fairly upon this wage; but for those who live alone the amount is not sufficient to provide proper food after dress and lodging are paid for. They must pay 2s. 6d. or 3s a week for lodging, and out of the remaining 6s. or 6s. 6d. find dress and food…  My conclusion, after careful inquiry, is that girls living alone and without other means of support, cannot obtain proper nourishment upon 9s. a week. Many without doubt find means of increasing their earnings, mostly by taking work home, or by taking in work on their own account, or by less praiseworthy means, but in all cases by en­croaching upon their hours of rest.  The position of girls going home late at night, say, 9, 10, or 11 p.m., to cold garrets, is full of discomfort. If they can afford fuel they light their fire, and cook what is often the only real meal of the day, and after that they have their own needlework to do, so that they have to stay up till 12 or t o’clock. But if, as has more than once been described to me, they do not or cannot light a fire, they must go to bed, even in the nights of winter, cold, supperless, and often imperfectly clothed. That under such circumstances many girls should be tempted to habits of dissipation and prostitution is not surprising.

As with all professions, some dressmakers did enjoy a better income, the most skilled of the fitters at times earning as much as £250 a year, or so Arthur Sherwell in Life in West London suggested. But these were few and far between, the majority of the women earning less than 8s a week, a very lucky few 18-20s a week during the height of the season, with minimal income during the quieter months of the year.

So a dressmaker’s lot frequently was not a happy one. Beyond the financial hardship which many of them faced, there was the added concern addressed in many pamphlets of the time, newspaper reports and reports to government, of their health being seriously affected by their working conditions.  C. Turner Thackrah in the snappily titled ‘The Effects of Arts, Trades, and Professions, and of Civic States and Habits of Living on Health and Longevity, with Suggestions for the Removal of Many of the Agents which Produce Disease and Shorten the Duration of Life,’ 1832  explained how:

Their ordinary hours are ten or twelve in the day, but they are confined not infrequently from five or six in the morning till twelve at night! The bent posture in which they sit tends to injure the digestive organs, as well as the circulation and the breathing. Their diet consists too much of slops, and too little of solid and nutritive food. From these causes collectively we find that girls from the country, fresh-looking and robust, soon become pale and thin. Pains in the chest, palpitation, affections of the spinal and ganglionic nerves, and defect of action in the abdominal viscera, are very general. The constant direction of the eyes also to minute work, affects these organs. Sometimes it induces slight ophthalmia, and sometimes at length a much more serious disease, palsy of the optic nerve. The remedies are obvious,–ventilation, reduction of the hours of work, and brisk exercise in the open air. The great cause of the ill-health of females who make ladies’ dresses is the lowness of their wages. To obtain a livelihood they are obliged to work in excess. Two very respectable Dress makers, who charge more than the generality, state that they earn but 12s. each per week, though they sew, on the average, fifteen hours per day. The sempstress who goes out to her work rarely receives more than a shilling a day, in addition to her board. 

This concern about the health implications of working as a dressmaker was spread widely and social activists of the time worked hard to encourage women to not use their ‘sisters’ so readily, and to understand how much work was involved in their dresses. In 1842, James Grant in Light and Shadows of London Life, described how women could work for 72 hours with no break other than to quickly eat, in order to fulfil the request of their upper-class patron’s desire for a ball gown to be completed.

The Broken Contract1

Mary Ellen Edwards, The Broken Contract, (ca1885), for ‘The Girls’ Own Paper’

He condemns the way in which dressmakers, the most skilled of the ‘needlewomen’ were pushed to the point of hysteria and serious ill health to meet the demands of the ‘mistress’.   He describes how, in the West End of London in particular, the mistress dressmakers lived in great splendour, renting and furnishing properties in ‘great magnificence’ to match that of the aristocratic families using their services. Of course, this was not the case for the women they employed.

Many of the dressmakers living in the villages and provincial towns had been trained in the large towns and cities of their area. Most of the social commentators of the time discuss how girls would come up from the countryside to be apprenticed in a fashion house, leaving after serving their time and perfecting their skills, to return home to their families. Many of the married dressmakers in rural communities were well trained women, extremely skilled and dexterous, and able to possibly even earn better money than those subject to the vagaries of the season in the cities, and London in particular.  At this time all women, even the poor, were expected to wear long, fitted dresses, and somebody needed to make them. Of course, many had learnt to sew in their youth and could use a machine or just a needle and cotton, but still, from the sheer number of dressmakers found in villages, it would appear that they would buy their clothes, or pay to have them altered, by a ‘professional’.  The middle and upper-classes were encouraged by commentators in the press to patronise the working-class dressmakers and to not impoverish them further by removing their custom. In December 1888, in an edition of ‘The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper,’ a correspondent described how women of the higher classes were ‘sacrificing others, driving others to starvation and to perhaps sin in the mere pursuit of personal vanity [learning to sew and making their own dresses], whilst at the same time squandering God’s own gifts of time and intellect on one of the least of enobling tastes.’[1]

Dressmaking was an essential service in Victorian Britain, no community could really be without a dressmaker, and those who were trained and skilled had a job for life. They could work in ‘houses’ as young women, and continue to work well into their old age until their eyes or hands gave out, either self employed, working from home, or as an out-door pieceworker. As such, it could be suggested, dressmaking was a worthwhile occupation for a girl to follow, but, it can also be seen, it was a job, like many of the others we will look at, which was rife with exploitation, stress, and doing little to alleviate the poverty of those women needing to earn those extra pence with their needle.

[1] Thanks to Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive Blog – 23 September 2013

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