Sewing and Construction Skills of the 1890s and 1920s

“La Mode Francaise,” fashion plate
“La Mode Francaise,” fashion plate showing two well-dressed ladies, January 1894. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Watsonline record #b17520939)

How did these fabulous fashions find their way into women’s wardrobes? The evolution of dressmaking and sewing skills over the decades reflected women’s changing roles as did the fashions they wore. In the 1890s, affluent women selected their desired toilettes (attire) from the many French fashion magazines with the latest Paris styles. Here in the United States, The Delineator, first published in 1873 by Ebenezer Butterick, featured color fashion plates (illustrations) as well as printed patterns. Armed with these elaborate illustrations and patterns, fashion-conscious women met with their dressmakers to select just the right fabric, laces, ribbons, braids, buttons and trims to customize the garment to their style and taste. Even though women, then as now, followed fashion, no one wanted their gown to look exactly like another.

The lavish design and embellishment of 1890s gowns was echoed in the intricate fitting and tailoring needed to customize the garment for the client. Working from a pattern without printed style details or instructions, seamstresses needed excellent craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail to execute the many steps required to cut, fit, assemble, tailor and decorate the gown. Sewing machines, introduced by Isaac Singer in 1851, made quick work of assembling the garment, but much of the fitting and detail work was still done by hand.

The picture of the elegant green wool bodice from the 1890s shows the detailed inner construction that creates a perfect fit for the wearer:

bodice deconstructed
Forest green wool fitted bodice with leg o’mutton sleeves and embroidered lace on the crossover front closing, 1890s (Gift of Polytechnic School, 83.9.26)

1) The stand-up collar is finished on the inside with brown satin to prevent chafing.

2) A small watch pocket is hand stitched onto the inner flap of the bodice.

3) The velvet trimmed hemline ends in a shaped point at center front and center back and is hand finished on the inside with brown satin ribbon.

4) The bodice is interlined to shape the garment’s silhouette, and to extend the useful life of the garment. Each piece of lining material has been cut to match the corresponding outer fabric. The pieces are pinned together smoothly, then seamed together.

5) The seams are notched at strategic points to fit the garment to the wearer’s shape, then bound and hand finished. Casings for whalebone inserts that shape and fit the garment are hand stitched on top of the seams. (Whalebone stays are made from baleen, a keratin-like substance found in the mouth of the whale used to filter food from sea water. By the 1890s metal stays had replaced whalebone.)

6) A Petersham band (waist tape) attached at the center back, is fastened around the waist at the center front by a hook and hand-sewn eye. It anchors the garment in place and helps to define the waistline.

7) Hook and eye closures are sewn alternately to keep the bodice securely closed.

8) A large hook attached to the lower edge of the waist tape and a ribbon loop stitched vertically below the waist tape serve to hold up the heavy skirt.

1920s Green silk crepe de chine dance dress
Green silk crepe de chine dance dress with metallic hand-beading and a waterfall side panel, 1920s (Gift of Margaret Hill, 80.8.10)

In the 1920s elaborately beaded, embroidered and fringed flapper dresses were the rage in night clubs and on the dance floor. Art Deco inspired beading embellished the iconic Jazz-era dresses that fell straight from the shoulders with little shaping. The heavy beading helped maintain the straight lines of the dress. Sadly, many of these gorgeous dresses have fallen victim to their own beauty as the weight of the beads caused the delicate chiffons, crepes, silks and laces to tear and shred.

These intricately beaded gowns were costly as the bead work was all done by hand as it still is today in the couture fashion industry. A beading pattern is printed or drawn onto the fabric first, then beads are attached prior to assembling the garment. The sheer fabric is stretched onto a tambour frame then beads and sequins are attached one-by-one by hand with a tambour hook. (See photograph below). Decorative embroidery can also be added in this way.

These beautiful flapper dresses were intended to sparkle and glitter on the dance floor as daring young women shimmied their way through the latest dance steps with sleekly-groomed gentlemen who were equally skilled at dancing the night away. Flashing legs were adorned with dainty garters which held stockings in place…and often a small flask of whiskey as well!

So how did these fabulous fashions find their way into the collections of Pasadena Museum of History? Our collections are the repository of many examples of elegant 1890s and 1920s garments. These expensive gowns are typically the types of garments that would be saved by a family and, fortunately, end up in museum collections; whereas everyday and work clothing usually wore out or was cut up and repurposed into another garment.

By Susan Stevens

Ms. Stevens is a co-curator of the exhibition Fabulous Fashion, Decades of Change – 1890s, 1920s, & 1950s.