The Advent of Ready To Wear Clothing

11 Aug

The invention of the sewing machine during the 1860’s allowed women to make their own clothes at home which resulted in the mass production of ready-to-wear clothes for the middle classes. After the 1860’s, ready-made articles of clothing became more popular,[1] Debenham and Freebody stating that ‘“[t]he increasing taste for Made-up Costumes, in every material, has compelled us to enlarge our Costume Room since last season.”’[2] Ready-made clothes prescribed a figure with which women had to accord, and thus shaped women’s behaviour and the way that they perceived their own bodies.

Since home-made garments required patterns, there was more exposure to a pre-constructed and delineated female form. In 1850 ‘the World of Fashion began to include, in each month’s issue, a collection of patterns “in order that ladies of distinction and their dressmakers may possess the utmost facilities for constructing their costumes with the most approved Taste in the Highest and most perfect Style of Fashion”’.[3] It was not only ‘ladies of distinction’ who used patterns, however, as shortly afterwards they were made available to the masses. These patterns were versatile and could be altered to suit a range of dimensions: the Young Ladies’ Journal (1885) included free paper patterns that ‘unless otherwise ordered, are supplied a medium size and are so perfectly cut that they can be readily adapted to suit any figure.’[4] Le Follet (1888) describes the dimensions for sizes in bodice patterns:

[w]ith these four patterns, a dressmaker will be able to fit all her customers with at most some slight alteration, instead  of having to cut a new pattern for each…The sizes are: small, 23 waist, 36 bust; medium, 25 waist, 39 bust; large, 29 waist, 43 bust; very large, 33 waist, 46 bust.[5]

Measurements that were more or less than the stated sizes were perceived as significant deviations from the normal standards for the nineteenth century female figure.

With the advent of ready-made clothing, a fundamental change occurred in the relationship between women and their apparel. Clothing came to shape the woman, rather than the woman’s body dictating the measurements of her garments. The introduction of ready-made clothes and corsets designed in specific sizes indicated the presence of an ideal that the female body should aspire to reach. This ideal was associated with moral and aesthetic concepts in which slenderness was associated with beauty and passivity and a small waist with delicacy. Failure to meet these standards, or to select the most fashionable clothing had the potential for social disaster, as reflected in Hardy’s hyperbole when describing Lucetta’s difficult sartorial decision: ‘[i]t was finally decided by Miss Templeman that she would be the cherry-coloured person at all hazards.’[6] Clothing was the shaping force of the body with a power to alter individual identity so great that Miss Templeman deems it potentially costly for her to decide upon the wrong gown.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] J. Flanders, Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (London: Harper Press, 2006), p.65

[2] Adburgham, Shops and Shopping 1800-1914, p.135

[3] Adburgham, Shops and Shopping 1800-1914, p.115 quotation from World of Fashion, August, 1850

[4] Adburgham, Shops and Shopping 1800-1914, p.121

[5] Anon., ‘To Professional and Amateur Dressmakers’, issue 505
Le Follet: Journal du Grand Monde, Fashion, Polite Literature, Beaux Arts &c. &c. (London,England), 1st September, 1888

[6] Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge, pp.155-6

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  1. Brooks Brothers and Singer Sewing Machines | North Against South - February 15, 2012

    […] during the American Civil War. Due to the vast number of men who needed uniforms so quickly, ready-to-wear clothing became necessary to meet the demand. Despite the military seamstresses that were employed at […]

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