Back to top

Custom Dressmaking, 1880–1920

Contributor: 
Lizzie Ehrenhalt
  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
Reception gown worn by Mary LeDuc

Gown worn by Mary LeDuc at a White House reception in October 1877. Made by dressmaker Jane E. Turner in September 1877.

Throughout the nineteenth century, custom dressmaking was one of the few socially acceptable professions for women of multiple ages and classes, including immigrants, young farm girls, wives, and widows. Dressmaking establishments—run and staffed primarily by women—provided creative labor, living wages, and career advancement opportunities for businesswomen and skilled workers alike.

In Minnesota, as in other states, the dressmaking industry grew in proportion to the local population and economy. Minnesota Territory experienced rapid growth after it offered land to settler-colonists in 1849, and many newcomers strove to create an urban environment that equaled the Eastern cities they had left behind. Their wealth, leisure, and desire for culture eventually created the museums, parkways, orchestras, and clothes that fashion demanded.

Of the 77,000 white women counted by the 1860 Minnesota census, 124 were employed as seamstresses. By 1890, when the total population of Minnesota had reached 1,300,000, over 5,000 women in the Twin Cities alone identified themselves as seamstresses, dressmakers, or milliners. Also by 1890, Minnesota led the nation in women working away from home; by 1895, the numbers of dressmakers in the Twin Cities had reached an all-time high.

Minnesota dressmakers worked in various settings. Some, like Matilda Lilleby McReynolds, set up shop in their own homes, enlisting help from teams that included family members. Others opened businesses in locations convenient to their clients, such as downtown office or retail buildings in St. Paul (Mary Molloy) and Minneapolis (Hattie H. McGahn). Still others rented space in prominent department stores, including Mannheimer’s (Mary G. Worley) and Dayton's (Helen Gjertsen). The most exclusive dressmakers, like Rose Boyd and Lina Christianson, operated from their own salons and employed as many as 100 seamstresses, tailors, cutters, and fitters.

Dressmakers’ clients participated actively and extensively in their own wardrobe selection and production. As a writer for the Minneapolis Saturday Evening Spectator observed in 1882, "With many women, dress in all its details and necessities of shopping, fitting, etc., is a business requiring an average of three or four hours daily." This remained evident in the early twentieth century. The diaries of Louise Weyerhaeuser (Mrs. Rudolph Weyerhaeuser), daughter-in-law of timber magnate Frederick Weyerhaeuser, detail her shopping habits and record seven visits to four dressmakers (including Rose Boyd) and one millinery shop in the month of May 1914 alone.

Cutting the intricate pieces of a garment and fitting them to a particular body shape challenged even the most skilled dressmakers. Custom clothing, moreover, required repeated visits for fabric and pattern selection and multiple fittings as the garment was created. Mary Hill visited Mrs. George F. Hall in Chicago on March 11, 1902, and noted in her diary, "We found Mrs. Hall all ready for us although her shop opened only yesterday. Spent all forenoon selecting materials, the afternoon talking over designs and some fitting." Rose Boyd’s establishment, called Madame Boyd’s, billed Hill for the time of three staff members who attended to her fittings at her house on Summit Avenue.

Clients expected their dressmakers to provide them with exclusive patterns and the highest-quality fabrics. In 1903, Mrs. Peavey, a customer of dressmaker Lizzie Morrissey, paid her thirty dollars--the equivalent of a month's wages for many workers--for an exclusive dress pattern. Clients also asked dressmakers to reproduce the trends that appeared in fashion magazines while interpreting them in their own styles. Former debutante Bessie Pettit Douglas recalled, "If one bought a model dress before it had been copied the price was high but one could be sure there would not be another dress like it in the city."

To keep up with changes in European fashion, Minnesota dressmakers relied on periodicals like Godey’s Lady’s Book (in circulation as early as 1830) and, later, Gazette du Bon Ton (founded in 1912). They made annual and even semi-annual buying and scouting trips to Paris and London. Dressmakers like Mary Molloy, Hattie McGahn, and Rose Boyd publicized their Paris connections in local newspaper reports of their trips as well as their advertising in theater programs and the Dual City Blue Book, the local social register. Many used "Madame" in their labels and professional titles to emphasize their European outlook.

Traditionally, dressmakers had learned how to cut and fit custom garments professionally through an apprenticeship system. Seamstresses who had no opportunity to work under an experienced dressmaker, however, attended dressmaking schools. Madame BuChane's Northwestern Dress Cutting School on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis advertised in 1903 that it had provided seventeen years of training in the "French and English Tailor system of actual measurements and graduated scales."

BuChane’s school offered several levels of instruction. The most advanced included a complete course in drafting, cutting, basting, boning, sewing, designing, and trimming, as well as management. Students could work off a portion of the tuition at the rate of $2.00 per day for experienced dressmakers and $1.00 per day for beginners. Beginning students without any sewing skills were discouraged from applying, since they “would require too much attention." BuChane claimed to run the only dressmaking school in the Twin Cities with a dressmaking establishment on the premises. The arrangement, she emphasized, promised practical experience that would lead to "a living for the earnest” and “a fortune for the capable."

Seamstress jobs in the late 1800s and early 1900s were demanding, low paying, and seasonal. They required women to work six ten-hour days per week, with overtime common during the peak seasons―fall and spring. Business dropped over the summer months, putting many out of work. Employers paid wages that ranged from 85 cents per day to $2.50 per day, depending on skill level. Seamstresses employed by dressmakers like Rose Boyd, Lina Christianson, Mary Molloy, and Mary G. Worley were part of a large group of women who lived independently in large cities, earning incomes to support themselves (and sometimes their families). They migrated from rural homes to work in the city and developed their skills beyond those required for at-home sewing, occasionally advancing in the profession to open their own shop.

By the early twentieth century, the rise of department stores and the marketing of fashionable ready-made clothing had reduced the number of clients looking for custom pieces, cutting into dressmakers’ business. Mary Brooks Picken, an educator who trained sewers, observed that although the ready-made industry did not influence American fashion until 1890, its growth was rapid. By 1911, Picken wrote, it “superseded in every way the custom dressmaking and tailoring industries.”

After 1910, the same seamstresses who had worked in custom trade became machine operators in ready-to-wear factories or clerks in department stores. Fewer women worked as seamstresses as demand for women’s labor multiplied in these new professions and industries. Factory and department store jobs, moreover, often offered women more appealing opportunities, better wages, and regular hours. As its available workforce diminished due to these forces, the custom dressmaking industry declined in Minnesota and throughout the United States.

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Clark, Clifford Edward. Minnesota in a Century of Change: The State and Its People Since 1900. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989.

Colburn, Carol Ann. The Dress of the James J. Hill Family: 1863‒1916. Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1989.

Davison's Minneapolis City Directory. (1886‒1926).

Diaries of 1902–1905. Mary T. Hill papers, 1858–1960. Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00718.xml

Douglas, Bessie Tabitha Pettit. Call Back Yesterday. Minneapolis: B. P. Douglas, 1949.

Gamber, Wendy. The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860‒1930, Women in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Gray, James. You Can Get It at Dayton's. Minneapolis: N.p., 1962.

Hale, Louis Antoine Godey, and Sarah Josepha Buell. Godey's Lady's Book. Philadelphia: L.A. Godey, August 1849.

Louise Lindeke Weyerhaeuser diaries, 1914 and 1917. Box 246 of the Weyerhaeuser family papers (P930). Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/P930.xml

Mary Dibble Peavey estate files, 1902‒1904. Box 53 of the Peavy Company records, 1870‒1984. Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00037.xml

McShannock, Linda. “The Business of Dressmaking: Custom Clothing at the Turn of the Century.” In Minnesota Creates: Fashion For A Century, edited by Marilyn Revell DeLong, 67‒71. St. Paul: Goldstein Museum of Design, University of Minnesota, 2000.

"Minneapolis has Famous Modiste: Madame Boyd's Establishment Recognized Headquarters for Stylish Dressmaking." Minneapolis Journal (Greater Northwest edition), March 31, 1910.

Minneapolis Saturday Evening Spectator, August 19, 1882.

Minnesota Bureau of Labor. Biennial Report of the Bureau of Labor of the State of Minnesota, 1899‒1900. [St. Paul]: The Bureau; Pioneer Press Company, State Printers, 1900.

Minnesota Bureau of Statistics. "Wage Earning Women, 1887‒1888." In Biennial Report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the State of Minnesota for the Two Years Ending 1887‒1888. [Minnesota]: Thomas A. Clark, 1888.

Northwestern Dress Cutting School flyer, ca. 1903. Dressmakers research file, Collections and Exhibits Department, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Picken, Mary Brooks. The Dressmaker and Tailor Shop. Scranton, PA: International Educational Publishing Company, 1917.

Tracey, Jane. “A Study of Minneapolis Dressmakers at the Turn of the Century.” Typescript, 1980. Gale Family Library, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
https://mplus.mnpals.net/vufind/Record/001600301

US Bureau of the Census. Population of the United States in 1860...Eighth Census. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1863.

——— . "Table 118: Total Males and Females 10 Years of Age and Over Engaged in Selected Occupations..." In Report on Population of the United States at the Eleventh Census, 1890, Part 2. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1895.

——— . "Table 2: Increase in Population of States and Territories at Each Census: 1790-1890." In Report on Population of the United States at the Eleventh Census, 1890, pt. 1. Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1895.

——— . The Statistics of the Wealth and Industry of the United States. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1872.

——— . Twelfth Census of the United States, Taken in the Year 1900, Part 2: Population. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1902.

——— . Thirteenth Census of the United States, Population. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1910.

Related Images

Reception gown worn by Mary LeDuc
Reception gown worn by Mary LeDuc
Gown with bustle and train
Gown with bustle and train
Wedding cape
Wedding cape
Wedding gown
Wedding gown
Mary O’Keefe Molloy
Mary O’Keefe Molloy
Dressmakers in Owatonna
Dressmakers in Owatonna
Mary Molloy's dressmaking shop
Mary Molloy's dressmaking shop
Evening dress bodice
Evening dress bodice
Wedding gown
Wedding gown
 Bodice
 Bodice
Seamstresses
Seamstresses
Sewing class
Sewing class
Linen dress
Linen dress
Wool traveling suit
Wool traveling suit
Evening gown
Evening gown
Lavender satin dress made by dressmaker Caroline Mundahl, St. Paul, 1910–1913.
Lavender satin dress made by dressmaker Caroline Mundahl, St. Paul, 1910–1913.
Evening gown
Evening gown
Satin gown
Satin gown
Rose Crelley Boyd
Rose Crelley Boyd
Bodice
Bodice
Net and Satin Dress
Net and Satin Dress

Turning Point

Around 1890, ready-to-wear American clothing companies begin to attract large numbers of customers and workers, weakening the dominance of the custom dressmaking trade with which it competes.

Chronology

1849`

By August, four residents of Minnesota Territory subscribe to the fashion-plate magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book.

1880

After Paris-based designer Charles Frederick Worth begins including labels in his dresses, prominent European and American dressmakers follow suit.

1886

Madame BuChane's Northwestern Dress Cutting School opens on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.

1890

The ready-made industry begins to influence American fashion. More women work outside the home in Minnesota than in any American state. Dressmaking and millinery are the largest occupational categories for women, surpassed only by domestic service.

1895

The number of custom dressmakers in the Twin Cities reaches its peak.

1903

A customer named Mrs. Peavey pays St. Paul dressmaker Lizzie Morrissey thirty dollars for an exclusive dress pattern.

1911

By this year, the ready-made clothing industry has overtaken custom dressmaking and tailoring.

1914

In her diary, St. Paul resident Louise Weyerhaeuser records visits to four dressmakers and one milliner during the month of May alone.