The Art of Dressmaking During the Regency Era

I had another author recently ask me if I knew the time frame for a dressmaker to complete a gown. In the scenario explained to me, the gown was already embroidered and an initial fitting had occurred. So it is really be just a matter of making small adjustments after a final fitting. I said 3-5 days. However, the other author’s editor thought that was too short of a time, saying it would take two weeks, at a minimum.

In truth, the number of days would depend on a variety of issues: Is the modiste located in London? Or in a provincial town or village? Is the client one of the leaders of Society or a simple younger sister of a gentleman? A duchess, for example, would command more service than somebody unknown among the haut ton.  How many other clients is the modiste servicing at the time? Is it the beginning of a new Season in London? Or is it off season? When the London Season starts, everyone requires new gowns, so modistes are overrun with business.

Small adjustments after a final fitting can take less than an hour, depending on the amount of work that must be done—all measurements would have been made before starting the gown, so there would be only tiny adjustments.  A reputable, and, likely, a not so reputable, London modiste would have many seamstresses working for her.  In an emergency, they could put together a simple gown for an important client in less than a day from scratch. More than likely, they would work late into the night or through the night, if need be, to please a good client or a client of which they were very fond or they were being paid handsomely to product the gown in a short period of time.

The amount of work a dressmaker has and the number of seamstresses employed would determine how long it takes to make a garment. Of course, the trimming and such also matters.  A court dress could well take five days if the seamstresses worked on nothing else. If one required a garment made expeditiously, one could pay extra, and it could usually be done.

A London dress maker could usually make one faster than a village  seamstress, though even a village seamstress could finish a simple dress in three days, if she had no other work.

One must recall, there were no printed patterns, so the lady and the dressmaker would have to confer on which style dress she wanted and then choose the fabric. If the lady had never been to the store before, she would be measured  and a unfinished muslin or linen mock up dress made and fitted to her. The most skilled part of the procedure was drawing off the pieces and then cutting them properly. The dressmaker had to be able to see the pattern behind the fashion illustrations.

The muslin pieces would be used as pattern pieces when the material was cut. Then the fabric pieces would be pinned together. Next, someone would baste the seams. All this is the time consuming part. The customer was supposed to come for the final fitting wearing the stays she would wear with the dress. Dress makers did not usually make the stays. Usually, the mock up dress served as the lining for the actual finished product.

The dress would be tried on and any final adjustments made. Then seamstresses would sew all the seams and add any trimmings and tidy up the gown.

A slightly out-of-period side note. Around the middle of the 19th century, the average Parisian modiste employed 20 seamstresses. By 1870, when his business was really taking off, Charles Worth employed 1200, turning out thousands of extremely elaborate dresses a year. Even the most elaborate gowns I’ve seen in prints from the Regency era are nothing like as complicated as Worth gowns from the 1870s.

So, as to the answer to my friend’s question, the time for the finished dress could be adjusted to fit the plot and the circumstances. If it means that the adjustments are minor and the dressmaker employs half a dozen seamstresses, the dress could be finished the next day. 


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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5 Responses to The Art of Dressmaking During the Regency Era

  1. I keep reading about women who are forced to wear a dress that’s been “pinned” to fix a tear or alter a seam. Since safety pins weren’t around, how did that work? Were these pins different from the ones used to hold a pattern in place?

  2. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Great post! As I love to sew and have made quilts as well as garments I’ve always had a curiosity about dressmaking. I remember in 7th grade home-ecc we had to pre-shrink wool and put in a zipper by hand. Of course I’ve done hand sewing with making quilts from scratch and it is not fast. Thanks so much for your post. ♫

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