June 15, 2017

The Victorian Seamstress

Posted in Uncategorized, Victorian at 2:40 pm by historywardrobe

How easy it is to take our clothes for granted… and to forget those who labour making them. I’m always eager to hear tales of the dressmakers, tailoresses and seamstresses from the past, so often lost to history, or surviving only in the vintage garments that remain.

“…a very elegant, kind, loving woman”


Eleanor c. 1895

A History Wardrobe fan recently shared images of her grandmother Eleanor, born in 1867, and married, aged 30, to a Younger Man (only 23 – heavens!). Before her marriage Eleanor worked at Pennington’s Department Store in Spalding, Lincolnshire.  The original shop opened in 1850, and only closed when it was hit by a bomb in 1941.  I came across a lovely memoir about a dressmaker’s apprentice at Pennington’s in the 1930s.

Back in Eleanor’s day, customers usually bought their fabric first – a dress length or a costume length – then it was made up by the seamstress.  Designs could be chosen from a shop display, or from commercial fashion illustrations and patterns.

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Afternoon outfits from the Girls’ Own Annual 1889


Conditions in Victorian workrooms varied from friendly and tolerable to Spartan and unpleasant. It seems that Eleanor enjoyed camaraderie with fellow workers at Pennington’s. She is picture here with other workroom girls, sporting the fabulous puffed sleeves of the mid 1890s.

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Pennington workroom girls c. 1895


Professional dressmakers were distinguished from the truly impoverished sweated labourers by their higher wages and smarter outfits.  They could almost be walking adverts for their employers, as seen in this final portrait of Eleanor (standing, left). Aren’t these winter ensembles magnificent? I love the frogging, the gloves and the muffs.

Penningtons girls

Eleanor with friends


If you’d like to know more about the life of working women in Victorian times, why not join us for a History Wardrobe presentation – A Very Victorian Lady? We feature all-original 19th century garments, and explore the lives of milliners, mill workers, mothers and even emigrants. You can find all event details on our website diary: