Intro Comments to Page Edited by Pauline Weston Thomas for Fashion-Era.com
Those of you who seen my webpage on A Woman's Place, may be under the
impression that if you had lived 150 years ago you might have been a lady of
leisure dressing in a variety of outfits to represent your husband as his public
acknowledgement of the niceties required of the new bourgeoisie society.
The reality is, that you like me, would more than likely have
worked hard for a living. Perhaps worked in domestic service, maybe toiled in a
dirty noisy mill or spent hours in a foul smelling brewery making beer or found
respectable employment in the dressmaking or needle working trades, whilst fighting
for recognition and approval in a male dominated society.
These were just a few of the 150 occupations that Helena Wojtczak lists in
her latest publication WOMEN OF VICTORIAN SUSSEX - Their Status, Occupations and
Dealings with the Law, 1830 ~ 1870.
Because this site is about fashion, costume and social history, Helena was
agreeable to my reprinting a short extract here. The extract below in the
about the social and working conditions of women working in Victorian
manufacturing and in particular trades that used the needle. I found this
particularly fascinating as my own great grandmother was a tailoress, and I only
found this out in the last few years when the census information was released. Her photograph shows her as
groomed respectable family person. Whilst many working women may well
have had a reasonable life, just as many will have had a tough existence in
female jobs way
beyond our imagination.
Here is the extract from Helena Wojtczak's Latest
Publication WOMEN OF VICTORIAN SUSSEX - Their Status, Occupations and Dealings
with the Law, 1830 ~ 1870.
OF VICTORIAN SUSSEX by Helena Wojtczak
Status, Occupations and Dealings with the Law, 1830 ~ 1870.
Helena Wojtczak's Latest
Publication pictured left, deals with the status, occupations and dealings
of women with the law, in late Georgian to mid Victorian England.
groomed woman of some substance seated in this
photograph is wearing a gown circa 1863-64. Note the banana shaped sleeves
and evenly domed crinoline skirt which did not become flat at the front
until 1865, when fullness also moved to the skirt back creating a more
triangular silhouette. The mature hairstyle is also of the early 1860s.
Image courtesy of Hastings Press website
where you can buy this book.
This work is a unique piece of research in areas so far neglected - women's
occupations and their dealings with the law as plaintiffs and defendants.
The author writes in a plain and straightforward style, which makes the book
suitable for any adult reader. A comprehensive introductory chapter tells
you all the background information you need to know about women's status in the
mid-19th century, so that the main sections of the book are put into context.
This book is highly educational, but at the same time entertaining. The
many illustrations will amaze people who thought Victorian women did not go out
to work or were not involved in business or trades. This book is a
microcosm of Englishwomen's lives in the mid-19th century.
Helena Wojtczak's erudite, well researched social history book shown above,
is available for sale directly from
Hastings Press. You can read much more in the book about the social
conditions of the working lives of ordinary women and how they made a life for
themselves, despite the hazards of their employment. At the Hastings Press
site, you can also read about other social history books which feature work in
the last two centuries.
WOMEN OF VICTORIAN SUSSEX - Their Status, Occupations and Dealings with
the Law, 1830 ~ 1870. By Helena Wojtczak
writes:- The clothing industry was the second largest employer of women
(the largest being domestic service). It encompassed a wide range of
different workers, including dressmakers, shirt-makers, makers of
underclothing, milliners, hatters, glovers, hosiers, straw bonnet makers,
collar-makers, tailors, patten-makers and shoe- and boot-makers.
Women also made accessories; among them were lapidaries*, embroiderers,
lace-makers and lace-joiners, gaiter-makers, furriers, curriers†
, and feather-workers. There were just under a million
British women working in the clothing trades in 1871. The greatest
number was concentrated in dressmaking and millinery, which occupied
267,000 women in 1851 and 300,00 in 1871.
In the mid-19th century, clothing manufacture was still
entirely in the hands of small traders. Milliners and dressmakers
occupied the higher end of female ‘needle-employment’ and at least one
operated in every village, while towns abounded with them.
Needlework was seen as a natural profession for women because it was
sedentary and was traditionally performed for the care and maintenance of
the family. Within this industry, a woman might be an employee, an
apprentice, a sole proprietress or an employer. A sole proprietress
would perform the work in her own home. If she prospered, assistants
would be engaged and, at some point, depending on the size of her house,
she might move out to a workshop or have one built on to the house.
She might also engage one or more apprentices.
Girls had been apprentices for hundreds of years, but the practise was in
decline. There were fewer apprenticeships for girls in all trades in
the 19th century than there had been in the 18th, partly owing to the
separation of work and home, and also because of the increased costs of
establishing a business1. Nevertheless,
some girls managed to secure apprenticeships in small workshops.
Millinery required an apprenticeship of up to seven years, during which
time a girl received no wages; in fact, fees were charged. It was,
therefore, a father’s decision whether to pay for his daughter to be
apprenticed. An apprenticeship offered a sense of belonging to a
trade, and gave women the opportunity to earn a reasonable living and the
skills to work for themselves in the future.
In the clothing trades, employment for
journeywomen (day-workers) was not lucrative. The problem was that
every girl was taught to sew, and needlework thus became the first resort
of any woman who had no special skills but needed to earn money. It
was also the kind of work that a middle class woman down on her luck might
easily take up. Because of the availability of labour, the hours were
excessively long and the pay pitifully low. In 1862 a lady
journalist warned, ‘All who are wise will avoid this profession, because
such numbers crowd into it, that the competition drives the payment down
to a point below that at which life can be sustained.’ 2
Thanks to the large number of well-to-do lady visitors
and residents of Sussex there was plenty of skilled dressmaking work
available, particularly in the summer months. Upper class ladies
dressed to impress and kept their dressmakers very busy creating,
ornamenting, mending and altering garments. Upper-crust lady
milliners took business trips to Paris and, on their return, placed
newspaper advertisements to advise customers that they were fully apprised
of the very latest French fashions, then considered the height of
As it was unthinkable to venture outdoors without a hat
or bonnet, manufacturers of headgear also did a roaring trade, selling
ready-made items as well as designing and making them to order. Even
the relatively small town of Hastings had 249 adult female milliners in
1851. As well as hats and bonnets, milliners made caps, cloaks,
mantles, gloves, scarves, muffs, tippets#,
handkerchiefs, petticoats, hoods and capes. With so much work
available, especially in Brighton with its numerous wealthy lady visitors,
it is intriguing that milliner Lucy Coats of that town was declared
bankrupt in 1868 with debts of £110 18s 6d and assets, nil. It seems
likely that she was beset by illness or other bad luck, for other
milliners were doing extremely well.
During 1834 there was a tailors’ strike and local
needlewomen quickly turned their hands to this traditional male skill.
When the men returned to work, some of the women failed to revert to their
former, ill-paid specialities; indeed, some married tailors and worked
alongside them. Making stays and upholstery were two more male
preserves which women were entering by the 1850s. Staymaking
required considerable physical strength and women in this line of business
may have employed male labour to assist with the heavier work.
Nationally, the skilled millinery and dressmaking
trades were damaged by the growing demand for cheap, ready-made clothing.
From the 1840s some garments began to be cut in quantities on a band-saw
and then given to needlewomen to finish off at home at very low
piece-rates. These ‘slop-workers’ became a cause célèbre after an
1843 report in the satirical magazine Punch shocked the public with
stories of their cruel exploitation, and of how they lived, worked and
died in miserable conditions, often resorting to the pawn shop,
prostitution, and even theft to keep themselves from starving.
Indeed, cases were brought before Sussex magistrates in which a milliner
or dressmaker had pawned the material given by a client.
In the 1870s, the sewing machine began to come into use
in Sussex as elsewhere; a small handful of machinists appears in the 1871
Census, working for dressmakers and tailors.
1. Alexander, Sally, ‘Women’s Work in
Nineteenth Century London’ in Mitchell, J., and Oakley, A., (1976) The
Rights and Wrongs of Women and Ivy Pinchbeck (1930). Women workers
and the Industrial Revolution.
2. Boucherett, J., (1862) On the Choice of
* Jewellery-makers. † Leather dressers. # A fur shoulder cape with hanging ends, often consisting of the fur of a
End of Helena Wojtczak's writing. Extract
Above Reprinted with Kind Permission of
Some points that may be of special interest to fashion-era visitors would be
the reference to men being staymakers and another reference to patten makers.
Please note patten is the correct spelling and the word is not intended to be
pattern. Pattens were worn on the outside of normal shoes as a form
of overshoe. They lifted the foot away from the street mud and muck, keeping feet
clean and dry. The sole of pattens was often made of wood, like a clog or
modern wooden Scholl sandal. It also had a small piece of leather that passed as
an upper and held the patten onto the shoe.
In the early days of making stays and crinolines real whalebone was used.
Cutting the whalebone would have been heavy and unpleasant work which is why men
were often employed to help women with staymaking.
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