Marissa’s new series on fabrics got me to thinking about how a lady in the nineteenth century went about choosing her gowns. I will admit that a large percentage of my closet was built from other people’s castoffs. Goodwill, Value Village, Bargain World, and the local Methodist Church rummage sale have decked me out in fine style for many years. In nineteenth century England and America, a lady had several choices for finding the perfect outfit.
If she had enough money, she might hire a seamstress, taking designs in her favorite ladies magazine to show the seamstress what was wanted and picking out fabric and notions. If the seamstress was sufficiently famous or the lady and seamstress had a longstanding relationship, the lady might allow the seamstress free rein in coming up with both design and fabric, and spend the requisite amount of time being pinned and fitted so the gown was exactly what she wanted.
If a certain amount of economy was required, and the lady was handy with a needle, she might instead make the gown herself, perhaps going by patterns handed down from mother to daughter. If new material was too costly, she might pick apart an older gown and repurpose the pieces. This exhibit from Carlyle House in Alexandria shows how easily a heavy-skirted gown from the late eighteenth century might have been made into the more narrow-skirted fashions of the early nineteenth century.
Though “store-bought” clothing was still a ways away, a thrifty lady might consider going to a second-hand shop to purchase a used gown. We've talked before about how ladies maids might sell their mistress’s castoffs for extra income. If she was certain she ran in different circles from the lady in question, she could feel free to purchase a gown and refurbish it as needed.
But I bet she didn't get as good a deal as the five-dollar-a-bag sale at the local Methodist Church rummage sale.