Dressmaking During the Regency

Often in a Regency book, we find a situation where the woman requires a new day dress, gown, riding habit, etc. I was reading a book of late where the modiste finished several gowns in two days, but was that possible, especially as the gowns were all hand sewn?

nfball.jpg In reality, the answer is not as clear cut as one might imagine. It depends on so many variables; therefore, no exact answer can be had.  Is the modiste in London or a provincial town?  How important is the client? For example, a duchess would command more service than somebody unknown.  How many other clients is the modiste dealing with at the same time? When does the London Season begin? Everyone would be looking for new gowns with the onset of the Season, so modistes would be overrun with business. In A Touch of Scandal, I have Lady Eleanor Fowler and Miss Velvet Aldridge arrive in London several weeks in advance of the Season so they may have new gowns made. In other books where urgency is required, I have the heroine purchasing what she can, but that is usually from a female proprietress in a village shop. 

Small adjustments after a final fitting likely took less than an hour, depending on the amount of work that needed to be done. All measurements would have been made before starting the gown, so there would be only tiny adjustments.  A London modiste would have MANY seamstresses working for her. [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.] In an emergency, they could put together a simple gown for an important client in less than a day from scratch. And they would would late into the night, or through the night, if need be, to please a regular client or a client of whom they were very fond.

1816-princess-charlottes-3.jpg  The amount of work a dressmaker has and the number of seamstresses employed determine how long it took 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 needed 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.

There were no printed patterns so the lady and the dressmaker would have to confer on the dress’s style and the choice of fabric. If the lady had never been to the store before, she would be measured  and a unfinished muslin or linen mock up dress would be 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.

c1f673a18a025b2d39290203a086cd9a--regency-dress-regency-era.jpgThe muslin pieces would be used as pattern pieces when the material was cut. Then the fabric pieces would be pinned together. Many seamstresses then basted 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. 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. The dress/gown was customarily pressed by the woman’s lady maid, not by the modiste’s workers.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, commerce, fashion, Georgian England, Living in the Regency, Regency era and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Dressmaking During the Regency

  1. Donna D Krug says:

    Thank you for all the research into this. I have often wondered about dressmakers and seamstresses (modistes) and that profession. It seems like they had to be highly skilled business women if they owned such a shop. I know workers were not the same.

  2. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Before JAFF I sewed all the time, espeically hand quilting. Now, it’s only when I need to wip out a baby quilt or new book bag or do a repair. Having done hand quilting, I can appreciate the long hours it took many women to assemble a dress. Loved this post. Jen Red

  3. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Love these pictures. The Regency clothes are so lovely and I’m glad that we have many images to remind us of the Jane Austen era and all we love about her. Thanks for your article.

  4. Deborah Ehrlich says:

    The method of making garments is no different today – except for using a sewing machine. The linen tryout garment is called a ‘toile’ from the French word for ‘work’. FYI, I use Trace & Toile for the fit & a cheap fabric for the ‘drape’ that can still become a garment for home. Once you have the fit, variations are easy.

    BTW couture garments are all hand sewn for precision fitting. People specialize in different parts of the garment, so more than one person works on it. This was probably true back then too.

    If you’d like to see what goes underneath, I recommend Prior Attire at youtube. Not much on Regency, as Isabella prefers the elaborate, but well worth the time.

    In this video she makes a gown c.1770 by hand – no sewing machine.

    If you’ve been an amateur sewist for a while, you can look at a photo, or a garment in a store, & know how it was made. You need a 3D imagination. I’m not up to drafting a pattern, but I look for one or more that are similar at McCalls etc.

Comments are closed.