View Full Version : Another 1880's Fashion Question

09-06-2011, 01:29 AM
Can I tell you how wonderful it is to have you guys as a resource? Thanks so much for any information you can throw my way.

I've noticed in the biographies I've read about rich San Franciscan men that their wives had their wardrobes sent from Paris. And while the women did travel to Europe, it was like once every ten years, not seasonally. I'm wondering how the women selected / ordered their clothing in the years where they stayed in California. I'm also curious about how long the process of sending in an order and receiving the new clothes would take.


09-06-2011, 03:51 AM
Off the top of my head, I'm not sure when Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward started catalogue sales, but it's something you might want to check into for an answer. I think that might be it, at least for some. Puma

Alessandra Kelley
09-06-2011, 05:36 AM
The first Sears catalogue was 1888. But that would not have sufficed for rich women. A lot of times they would have dressmakers order dresses from Paris, then copy them as exactly as they could in the women's actual sizes. There was on the east coast at least a feeling that Paris was a little too fashion-forward, so you'd get your Paris dress and then wait a year or so after it was delivered and it would be perfect.

Paris couturiers were set up to make dresses fast. It would probably take a lot longer for the dresses to ship than it would to have them made in the first place.

There was a whole industry in copying Parisian dresses from original models and fashion plates.

09-06-2011, 04:21 PM
Montgomery Ward was 1872. I think there's a place on line that has that catalogue viewable and they were offering fashions and exotic items to families in the American West. Puma

Alessandra Kelley
09-06-2011, 09:58 PM
There's a gorgeous, readable online scan of the spring and summer 1875 Montgomery Ward catalogue here (http://www.archive.org/stream/catalogueno13spr00mont#page/n3/mode/2up), but it is typical of mail-order catalogues in that it does not carry ladies' fashions. It has men's suits and ladies' underwear and accessories, but no dresses or the like.

Most women would make their own dresses or rely on a local dressmaker. Fitting was just too fussy, and no mass-produced clothing could accommodate women's different shapes.

(You'll notice that today mass-produced clothing is either utterly shapeless, like t-shirts and oxford shirts, or made of stretch material, or generally shaped without being nearly as snug and well-fitting as Victorian womens' clothing)

If a woman had been to Worth or another Parisian dressmaker, he would have her measurements to make more garments on order. Or she could have something copied.

By 1876 Butterick was selling paper patterns based on Parisian fashions. A talented local dressmaker could do a lot with one of them.

But if it has to be Worth or something like that, they kept clients' measurements on file to make more dresses for shipping in later years.

09-07-2011, 01:42 AM
I love the link to Montgomery Wards (how weird that there are no pictures - how do you order stuff without knowing what it looks like?), but the women I'm reading about wouldn't have purchased from there.

So would it be correct to say that a super-wealth woman would have had to have visited Paris and met with the dressmaker to start ordering from him (say Worth for example). And then going forward the dressmaker would design her clothing, so that she wouldn't know exactly what she was getting until the cartons arrive?

Thanks again!

Alessandra Kelley
09-07-2011, 03:52 AM
The Montgomery Ward catalogue didn't have pictures because men's clothing was cut to standard shapes and didn't need to fit all that closely. Your standard MW catalogue shopper would more or less know what a "Blue, fine Beaver cloth double-breasted Frock Overcoat" was, and wouldn't worry that there wasn't a picture of it.

Clothing wouldn't be shipped in cartons, but rather in cases or trunks.

Yep, the ladies wouldn't know exactly what they were getting until they got it. I don't know about other dressmakers, but Worth was a control-freak Artiste of the worst kind. Women were lined up for his gowns, and he picked and chose who he deigned to make them for. He designed each gown and decided how it was going to be. I'm not sure his clients had much say at all.

I'm not sure, but I think other designers at least let women pick fabrics and colors.

I do have to say, unless your character was fabulously wealthy she was unlikely to have more than a small handful of those fancy Paris dresses. Yes, those biographies may say they had entire wardrobes sent from Paris, but -- ahem -- this may be a pretty fiction. Every town of any size had talented dressmakers, some amazingly so, many of whom themselves traveled to Paris to study and copy the latest fashions. I have a pattern for a dress of "the Mayoress of Hull (http://www.nsct.org.uk/docs/20/Pattern%20Packs/)" from 1896 which is "associated" with the name of Madame Clapham, a prominent dressmaker in Hull. But Paris was so much the epicenter of fashion that everybody preferred to say her dresses were from Paris, or (spoken in hushed tones) were from Paris (mutter: designs).

Of direct relevance to your story, I'd like to bring your attention to this link (http://www.fashionhistorian.net/page/history_baer.htm) about Madame J. Baer, who apparently was a major dressmaker to the San Francisco upper-crust from the 1880s through WWI.

Oh, and here's the complete scan of the 1880 San Francisco Business Directory (http://www.archive.org/stream/sanfranciscooakl1880sanf#page/n3/mode/2up), a sort of proto-phone book of all the businesses in SF at the time. May be too much minutiae, but isn't it fun? :D

Tsu Dho Nimh
09-07-2011, 05:54 AM
There were fashion magazines showing the latest from Europe, including patterns for dressmakers.

There were newspaper articles about what the fashiobnable of London, New York, and Paris were wearing, with illustrations.

Patterns were available.

Top-notch seamstresses still subscribed to "fashion dolls" ... they got dolls dressed in the latest styles with extremely detailed wardrobes and fabric swatches.

And, between visits, they wrote letters to the seamstresses who had worked for them before, asking for whatever they needed. Or sent letters to their overseas business representative asking for whatever it was. Enclosing measurements.

09-07-2011, 06:34 AM
Thanks everyone. I'm thinking of having my rich secondary character have a SF Seamstress (thanks again for another link) copy Paris fashion plates. Then it is her life dream to go to Paris to be dressed by Worth himself - which fits so perfectly with the rest of the plot it's a bit scarey.

09-07-2011, 07:36 AM
Here's another question to throw out there...

Let's say my rich woman had a bunch of dresses made by a seamstress in SF. The dresses arrive in trunks. What happens to the trunks after they are unpacked? Do the trunks go back to the seamstress for reuse? And if yes, does that mean they are labelled?

I'd imagine the trunks of clothing shipped from Paris would be retained by the woman, right? I wonder if these would be marked with the designers name on the outside of the trunk or if they'd be plain for privacy's sake. (just curious about this last question).