Seamstresses of 1900 London
During the Edwardian era there were few activities in which
wealthy ladies could become involved. They became increasingly disinterested in
church work and some upper class ladies chose to cultivate a hobby. Retail
trade, no matter how flourishing was quite unacceptable in society.
A few society hostesses boldly disregarded convention and
busied themselves in the clothing trade. This was out of humanity, not merely
boredom. Amongst these ladies Lady Auckland owned a millinery shop; Lady Rachel
Byng opened an artistic needlework shop; Lady Duff-Gordon established a fashion
house called 'Lucilles' and Lady Brooke ran an underwear shop.
Lady Brooke acquired a sewing workroom at Eaton Lodge. She
wanted to help alleviate the misery of some delicate village girls. Generally
speaking, the life of a seamstress was exhausting and poorly paid, but at Eaton
Lodge a fortunate dressmaker would have found good working conditions and an
opportunity to develop needlework skills.
The scheme proved to be successful and received Royal
patronage. Princess May of Teck who was later called Queen Mary, had her trousseau embroidered at Eaton. As a
result it became the vogue to order thin white cambric lingerie from Eaton. It
was thought a novel idea that lingerie could be hand stitched at Lady Brooke's
Later Lady Brooke opened a business in Bond Street, but her
shop sign, 'Lady Brooke's Depot For The Easton School of Needlework', aroused
contempt and mockery. The combination of trade and underclothes was frowned upon
in society circles. For the dressmaker who toiled under her patronage life was
very much sweeter than earning a living in other sweat shop establishments.
The choice of occupation for the working class girl was
limited to either domestic service, prostitution, shop work, the stage or
dressmaking. Dressmaking was honest employment and appealed to many. It promised
long hours and hard work in every field.
The life of a dressmaker varied according to the place of
employment. There were nearly as many different types of dressmaker as there
were strata of society. Basically there were five main categories of dressmaker
beyond Couturiers like Charles Worth who were a fairly new phenomenon.
Left -The Salon where ladies attended for dress
Firstly, the high class court dressmakers. Secondly, those who
worked in the workrooms of large stores such as Harrods or Peter Robinsons.
Thirdly, the many hands who worked in the East End of London where labour was
'sweated' out of them. Fourthly, the 'little dress-makers' who worked privately
in various types of accommodation. Finally, the more or less incompetent
dressmakers who were employed almost as an act of charity by private households.
None of these dressmakers was well paid for her labour,
although some were employed in more tolerable conditions than others. Their
roles were impossible to envy and almost always in complete contrast to the
roles played by the society hostesses. The more impoverished seamstresses worked
to eat, and ate to work, and they were very lucky if they could fulfil even the
most basic of human needs.
The different worlds of West End society hostess and East End
seamstress were linked by commerce. In the East End one section was devoted to
the tailoring trade. Most work was done at home on the sweating system on
average for fourteen hours a day. You are reading an original Edwardian
Seamstress article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
The East End seamstress could expect to take home a pitifully
low wage. In the Report of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the
Sweating System 1888-1890, Miss Beatrice Potter (a most famous female Fabian
socialist reformer) and others, gave evidence of the atrocious working
conditions and meagre pay. Mrs. Lavinia Casey made shirts at 7 pence a dozen. She
normally worked from seven in the morning to eleven p.m. at night. After
deducting time devoted to her children she averaged twelve hours work a day.
In that time she normally made two dozen shirts. Her total
daily wage amounted to one shilling and two pence. From her weekly earnings she
had to deduct two shilling and sixpence for the hire of her Singer sewing
machine plus one shilling, to one shilling and three pence for sewing machine oil
and sewing thread. She could barely keep her family on this income. She was in
arrears with her payments to the Singer Company, but her livelihood would be
threatened if the sewing machine were taken away.
Above right - The Victorian East End of London sweated
labour system - overworked, malnourished seamstresses.
Like Mrs. Casey, Mrs. Isabella Killick, a trouser finisher,
only managed to clear one shilling a day after she deducted the cost of
trimmings which she paid for herself. For this she worked some fourteen hours a
day, from six a.m. to eight p.m. Her main diet on this wage consisted of a daily
herring and a cup of tea. Meat was a food she ate only once every six months.
More rarely it was estimated that a button-hole maker could earn as much as four
shillings a day. A Miss Rachel Gashion, an experienced buttonholer often
took home a weekly wage of twenty six shillings such was her expertise.
On such low incomes these women were hardly able to
afford to eat, and could only dream of wearing the sumptuous clothes that
sometimes must have passed through their hands. Most of their clothes were
fifth hand and they were often trapped at home because their boots had been
pawned for food. Like other lower class workers, the London seamstress obtained
most of her clothes from one of the second hand markets held in London. You can
read more about these markets in the section in Shopping In The Past.
Working conditions for dressmakers in the larger stores were a
little better. After serving a two year apprenticeship to a Court Dressmaker a
typical trainee dressmaker received no pay throughout training. When her training
was complete she was offered a weekly wage of two shillings and sixpence.
Distressed at the low offer, the seventeen year old trainee dressmaker found a
job in a department store workroom in London for seven shillings and sixpence
per week. Later she became a chief bodice hand before moving on to another
department store and finally marrying.
The wages were obviously not enough because she and her workmates all still lived at home and small economies were essential. To save
pennies all the dressmakers from one area travelled to work on an early
workman's train. They arrived in London at 8 a.m. and wandered around Covent
Garden until work began at 9 a.m., working then until 7.30 p.m.
In the department store they wore white overalls and worked at
long cloth covered tables. Those who did machine work were called machinists and
their job was mainly to stitch linings. Dressmakers worked on made-to-measure
dresses doing nearly all the sewing by hand. Only a few dresses were ready-made
and these were for window display. You are reading an original
Edwardian Seamstress article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
After marriage many women who were fully trained dressmakers
would set up as the little dressmaker who could interpret the latest mode at an
insignificant price. The answer was to select a dress design from a glossy
magazine, then turn to a local dressmaker with a manual Singer sewing machine.
The local dressmaker would run up a new gown very cheaply. Her establishment was
likely a room in East London in Bethnal Green where she worked
alone. Her client would pay a previously agreed price of between five
shillings and five shillings and six pence for the creation.
In comparison a Court dressmaker providing a Madame
dressmaking service would have charged some eighty guineas for a ball gown. Her
clients, of course, would have been offered superior viewing facilities at her
mirror filled establishment in Bond Street. Behind the lavish fitting room the
conditions of work for the dressmakers were still very bad. The 'sweated' trade
was as prevalent in the West End as the East End.
Because the work had a seasonal nature for months men and
women could be unemployed. Then as the season picked up they worked night and
day. In the dressmaking and millinery West End trade, English girls were part of
the sweated labour. The drawn blinds and work-rooms appeared closed for the day
so that dressmakers could work on long beyond the hours allowed by the Factory
Acts during the society season.
Many dressmakers in such establishments were employed solely
to work on blouses. With its profusion of lace and intricate details the blouse
was a perfect example of conspicuous waste and conspicuous consumption. Usually
the principal fabrics of the blouse were net and lace, cleverly pieced together
with faggotting and lace insertions. This was then further trimmed with satin
strappings and velvet ribbons. Right - Tucked and trimmed Edwardian blouses.
After 1905 cotton net was sometimes embroidered with small
designs of leaves, flowers or spots and since the blouse was so fashionable,
machine embroidery both commercial and domestic flourished until 1914.
Descriptions of blouses in magazines such as Chic Parisian
(1905) indicate the degree of ornamentation in vogue at the time for example:- 'Fig. 4029 -
Evening blouse of white silk with black silk dots and strips (sic). White maline lace
and application of black chantilly lace form the trimming.' You can see some lovely examples of blouses as shown in The
Ladies Realm in the Page called Edwardian
The picture of the East End seamstress is perhaps the saddest
of all. Working at beautiful blouses elaborately tucked, trimmed, lace
embellished and finely gathered into bands, she served to emphasise the two
extremes in the life-styles of Edwardian England.
For this poor woman, life must
often have seemed one long drudge. It may seem surprising to us today that the
majority so meekly accepted Edwardian working conditions with little or no
The retail price of a blouse garment would have been from
eighteen to twenty five shillings, but the maker would get only ten shillings
for the whole week despite making more than a dozen intricate blouses. The
maker, a skilled young woman could not make two fine tucked and lace insertion
blouses in a day. At ten pence a garment blouse work, was more poorly paid than
standard dressmaking despite the skilled sewing expertise needed.
You are reading an original Edwardian Seamstress article by Pauline Weston
Photographs of East End seamstresses display a
certain uniformity in their personal attire. Their clothes have a wilted,
crumpled, droopy look as shown in the header. Their costume invariably consists of a plain skirt and
a limp pouched blouse with sleeves pushed up to the elbows as they press on with
their hard work. The workers pictured probably worked from home as a team.
Many dressmakers arrived at work wearing a bonnet and shawl
and this appears to be a traditional form of dress among lower class textile
workers. Beatrice Potter describes their arrival at an East End sweat shop:-
women and girls are crowding in. The first arrivals hang bonnets and shawls on
the scanty supply of nails jotted here and there along the wooden partition.
The shawls were sometimes paisley ones, the fashion for these
having died amongst the upper classes as the shawls became widely available to
J. B. Priestley also recalls the textile girls in '...their
clogs and shawls' arriving for work some two hundred miles North of London.'
The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) marked the end of the
shawl as a covetable fashion. In the same way that the Pashmina was cast aside
in the late 1990s (albeit frequently retrieved when no other cover up would
suit), the abandonment of the Paisley shawl by Edwardian upper
class circles was due to its popularity among the lower classes.
By 1870 a
Jacquard woven Paisley shawl could be bought for £1, and the identical printed
cotton version for mere shillings. The previously exotic, exclusive and rare Kashmir Shawls
style beloved since the Regency, became vulgar and everyday as a result of its popularity.
Left - Victorian shawl emporium.
A hostess's life was not in fact one of freedom, but rather
one of formal leisure highlighted by moments of sexual intrigue. It contrasts
vividly with the life of the impoverished Edwardian dressmaker who was actually
responsible for producing the lavish gowns that projected the image of her
wealthy patron. Her every waking hour was devoted to activities that barely kept
her fed and clothed. The dressmaker is a significant representative of the
Edwardian poor, whose sweated labour was essential to maintain the image
presented by high society.
If the First World War would change society life it could just
as easily change the rôle of the Edwardian dressmaker. History has
proved the downtrodden dressmakers of the Edwardian era soon moved on to
pastures new. The munitions factories beckoned. Few chose to relinquish their
new found freedom when the Great War ended. Fewer still would be prepared to
toil away their lives for a minority who thought the golden age could begin anew
and be revived in all its former glory. You have been reading
an original Edwardian Seamstress article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Page date 2001.
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Footnote:- This page was partially based on content I
updated from a dissertation I first wrote in 1979. The
dissertation a Comparative Study Between the Rôles of the Edwardian Hostess
and the Edwardian Seamstress looked at the symbolism behind Edwardian dress
and the rôles of women in Edwardian society. In particular it examined the rôle
and high lifestyle of Edwardian society hostesses compared with the degrading
working conditions and impoverished lifestyle of the seamstresses that made
clothes for hostesses.