Lecture Stump topics are a topic or topics about which one is particularly passionate. Ones on which they are apt to lecture on at length at the merest hint of provocation. For me, it is the history of how persons of the past acquired their clothing. Dear Friends of mine will visibly cringe when a Gentle Visitor to one of my events dares to enter the verbal minefield with the question, "The women made all the clothes at home, right? ...only the rich could afford a dress-maker or tailor, right?" I set in to correct their dear-held misconceptions with as much gentleness as I can possibly muster. Well, since I want to be able to consider you all Dear Friends who would avoid such a verbal minefield, I put forth what I know of the many (and often subtle) ways people acquired their clothing.
In the 18th century, clothing acquisition fell into two categories, Custom-Made and Second-Hand. Beginning in the 1830s, another option Ready-To-Wear began to be an option to some folks. Each category can be further broken down into more specialized descriptions, each with specific customers and artisans.
Custom-Made (sometimes called Made-To-Measure) is just that... made to the customer's specifications. The owner of the garment will have chosen the pattern stylings, fabrics, trimmings, and details for the garment. The garment will be made with only their measurements in mind. Notice I said measurements, not sizes. In this time period, sizes as we know them are a thing of the near future.
The first category of Custom-Made garments are Draped Garments. Draped Garments are made by the artisan holding pieces of fabric up to the customer's form and pinning and basting them into place to achieve the desired fit. This was the earliest method of fitting a garment. By "our" time, dresses and gowns were the garments most commonly made by a draped pattern. The professional artisan hired to make such patterns was a Mantua-Maker (18th cent. term) or Dress-Maker (19th cent. term).
The second category of Custom-Made garments are Drafted Garments. Drafted Garments are made by the artisan using the measurements of the customer, with a knowledge of geometry and fabric physics, to draw the pattern pieces in flat form. The common garments made by such a pattern system in "our" time include overcoats, coats, waistcoats/vests, trousers, and breeches. The artisan responsible was a tailor.
Each level of society had dress-makers and tailors catering to their specific needs. Those catering to the wealthier folks naturally carried fancier fabrics and trimmings and were more familiar and practiced with the most up-to-date fashion needs. Those catering to the working folks naturally focused their stock on the sturdy fabrics and simple patterns needed by their clientele. Those catering to the "middlin' sort" would be practiced in achieving fashionable garments on limited budgets.
The final form of Custom-Made garments is the first practiced, Home-Made. Because most women were taught sewing basics in "our" time, many families were able to produce some garments at home. Most who did so focused on the simpler, less precisely fitted garments, such as shirts, drawers, underpinnings, and accessories and on the garments that would readily take fancy-work, such as slippers, caps, and handkerchiefs.
When the women of the household had more "plain sewing" than they could accomplish, they had the option of hiring a seamstress to help. Seamstresses were often young women needing to support themselves until something else came along or widows needing to get by.
One of the ways dress-makers, and less often tailors, would seek to get more-fashionable clothing into the hands of the less wealthy is by offering to make Partially-Made Garments. The artisan sell a garment where the more complex portions had been made-to-measure for the customer; the customer would then take it home and finish the easier parts themselves. As recently as the 1920s, women's and children's garments were offered this way. Men's trousers are still often offered un-hemmed and the customer is expected to have them hemmed to measure by a seamstress or tailoress.
Another way to gain a pattern without paying for an entire garment was to take a pattern from an existing garment. Such projects were often referenced in diaries and memoirs, especially among those living a distance from a clothing artisan.
Second-Hand garments encompasses a broad range of situations for many economic levels. A practice that will be very common to most folks is for a younger family member to wear the clothing an older family member wore previously. This practice extended to all family members and often friends as well. Estate sales and Debtor's Auctions were another source of second-hand clothing in period. Documents of these sales are some of the best sources modern historians have for exploring the wardrobes of average persons of the past. In a time when most social action was done through a religious organization, another source of second-hand clothing came through religious charities. Clothing Artisan's Customers would often leave garments un-claimed for a variety of reasons, these would often be sold second-hand to a likely customer. Many vendors of second-hand clothing could be found in an average town as well.
One thing almost all second-hand clothing had in common was a need for the customer to make it their own. This was done in many ways.
A garment from a clothing artisan would be re-fit to the new owner. It also might be trimmed differently or re-made to include different style elements at this time.
A garment may need the services of a renovator. A renovator is a type of seamstress who makes garments over in several ways. They may handle complex projects such as "turning" or simple projects such as altering a hem or minor adjustments to fit. "Turning" a garment means taking the garment apart, turning the pieces either upside down or inside out, and stitching the garment back together. This was done to lessen the wear to parts of the garment that take abuse, such as hems. Often a renovator offered dyeing services as well.
A garment might be re-purposed, if the fabric was still good but the garment as a whole had past it's usefulness. The example we are most familiar with today is using fabric scraps for quilts. Another example is a garment being cut down to fit a much smaller person. The skirt of Mother's dress becoming Toddler's tunic or a worn as a protective petticoat when doing dirty chores are other examples. Fabric scraps also became bags, sacks, handkerchiefs, toys, and other useful household items and accessories. Many projects are included in Lady's Magazines and Children's Project Manuals.
The most recent addition to the ways persons of the past acquired clothing is Ready-To-Wear. Ready-To-Wear clothing began as the brain-child of tailors catering to the sea-going trades. They began to make up their most requested garments ahead, to the measurements they thought most useful. This concept caught on among other tailors catering to working class and then finally on up the social ladder. It certainly came into it's own with the Emigration West and the Industrial Revolution. Because it began with tailors, who handled menswear predominately, it was men and boys dressed in men's styles who first benefited from the Ready-to-Wear concept. Women's and Girls' underpinnings, coats, and inclimate weather garments followed.
Ready-To-Wear clothing was sold in a variety of places by the 1850s and 1860s. The most prominent were the Clothing Emporiums. These often started life as a tailor shop that expanded. They would offer the largest selection of men's and boys' garments and often imported furnishings as well. "Furnishings" is a term used to describe the accessories, toiletries, jewelry, headwear, footwear, and inclimate weather gear needed to augment a wardrobe. Because cutting to a variety of standard sizes was not usually a consideration, many Emporiums would have a tailor in shop to handle those customers who could not be accommodated by the offered "sizes."
The Local General Merchandise Store would often stock ready-to-wear clothing, especially in some of the newly established towns in the expanding west. The Steamboat Arabia Museum is filled with examples of the ready-to-wear clothing that was being shipped for sale in the West.
Finally, a few Rental shops did exist, mostly catering to a specialized clientele. The most common would have been Mourning Warehouses. These shops would rent the trappings and attire associated with Mourning Tradition for those who couldn't afford to and those that didn't care to buy the trappings themselves. Rental Shops for Fancy Dress attire also can be found. Often these would be found in the larger cities and those known for costumed festivals.
Which method of garment acquisition persons used to acquire which pieces of their wardrobe will vary with the person and their situation. The average wardrobe would have garments acquired by Custom-made, Second-Hand, and Ready-To-Wear.
I prefer to read smooth prose, so I have not made direct quotes from my research materials. I will, however, list a few sources that one can read for further information on the subject.
The Needle's Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution by Marla R. Miller
Ready Made Democracy: A History of Men's Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860 by Michael Zakim
The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930 by Wendy Gamber
A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati's Golden Age by Cynthia Amneus, Marla R. Miller, Anne Bissonnette, Shirley Teresa Wajda
Treasure in a Cornfield: The Discovery and Excavation of the Steamboat Arabia by Greg Hawley, Debra Shouse, Dave Orf, Harry Barth
Modernity and the Second-Hand Trade: European Consumption Cultures and Practices, 1700-1900 by Jon Stobart, Ilja Van Damme
Historic Accounts by Virginia Mescher