‘This is how I dress’: Fashion before the age of mass production

advertisement for Necchi sewing machine, 1960s

advertisement for Necchi sewing machine, 1960s

Ever since I began a research project on dress and fashion in 1950s and 1960s Italy almost four years, I’ve wanted to learn how to sew properly. Reading through magazines filled with patterns, hand-drawn illustrations and advice about sewing new outfits and adapting old clothes, as well as interviewing people about their memories of fashion and dressmaking, gave me a much deeper interest and respect for these crafts. I did a short beginner’s course while I lived in Milan – and realised that the most challenging part is learning how to thread the sewing machine! – and now that I’ve moved back to Dublin, I’ve decided that I’m going to buy a sewing machine and teach myself how to use it properly, this autumn.

While I’ve been away though, it seems like everyone else has been catching on to the sewing trend too; there are sewing classes cropping up all around Dublin and new books on sewing and DIY fashion are on display everywhere. Knitting of course has been popular for quite a few years now, something that Australians didn’t quite seem to realise given the recent controversy over Knitted Kangaroo-Gate. Why is it that the idea of making, wearing and displaying hand-crafted clothes and home furnishings is becoming so popular again, at a time when mass-produced fashion is still readily available and affordable? Is it that several years of recession are changing our attitudes to dress, making us better attuned to the quality of a garment and how it is made and less appreciative of disposable fashion? It doesn’t really cost less to sew clothes rather than buy them, but it could be seen as the less wasteful, ethical choice. Most people presumably are also sewing as a hobby, and never intend to dress themselves entirely by hand.

In my research on dress in post-war Italy, people’s experiences of dressmaking were of course entirely different. Sewing wasn’t a pastime; it was an integral part of household management. Right up to the 1960s, the majority of households owned a sewing machine and even into the 1970s, it was customary in Naples for a woman to receive a sewing machine as a wedding present. Even then however, the majority of Italians didn’t actually make most of their clothes themselves, for the important things like coats, suits and outfits for special occasions, they went to the dressmaker. Several of the northern Italian men and women I interviewed, all from small villages or towns, described their childhood experiences of having clothes made for them each season or even every few years, going first to the fabric store to choose their material and then to the dressmaker to agree on a style or pattern. They might choose a pattern from a magazine or try to imitate a style they had spotted in a film or on a mannequin in a department store window display, but all of this had ultimately to be negotiated and decided with the dressmaker.

At home, women would continually mend and adapt old clothes as they got worn out, or as children outgrew them. As part of the general household management, sewing was of course one aspect of a highly gendered pattern of work. However for those particularly skilled in dressmaking, it could also confer a certain measure of power and independence. Being a dressmaker was one of the few skilled professions that was considered acceptable for girls before opportunities began to broaden in the 1960s. I read a fascinating book by the anthropologist Vanessa Maher on dressmaking in the northern city of Turin. Working-class and lower middle-class girls were often sent to be apprenticed to city-centre dressmakers where they learned the trade. While they were expected to give up work in the atelier on marriage, they were able to continue working from home, making clothes for their families and their neighbourhood. She described how the skills and fashion knowledge possessed by dressmakers gave them a certain power over their wealthy customers. Their craft and fashion sense could allowed them to pass for women of a higher social class and there was often severe punishment for copying the patterns of the latest French fashions themselves at home. If they continued to work at home after marriage, dressmaking could also provide a valuable second income, and potentially also a measure of financial independence. Angela Bourke, in her excellent book on Bridget Cleary, the Tipperary woman who was burned by her husband and his family as a fairy in 1895, describes how Bridget’s sense of style, as a dressmaker, was part of her threatening, transgressive image. It was unusual for a rural woman to dress so fashionably and this made her different.

Sewing was usually a much more mundane activity than this though; it was more often about mending hems and patching elbows in jackets and shirts than about transgressing social boundaries. However even within this, there was room for creativity and ingenuity. One of the magazines I looked at for my research on dress was a socialist women’s weekly, Noi Donne. Aware that their readers were often on a tight budget, the editors’ main concern was to provide practical and realistic fashion advice. They published patterns that advised readers on how to make new clothes out of old: a woman’s skirt out of a pair of men’s trousers or a woman’s or child’s jacket out of a worn men’s jacket.

How to make a woman's skirt out of an old pair of men's trousers. Noi Donne magazine, 1957

How to make a woman’s skirt out of an old pair of men’s trousers. Noi Donne magazine, 1957

A style advice column ‘This is how I dress’, also answered readers’ queries, giving them suggestions on how to make the most out of their old clothes, odd fabrics or limited budgets. Hand-drawn illustrations allowed readers to visualise the style solutions so that they could sew them at home. When a fifteen year-old girl wrote into the magazine in 1957 looking for ideas for a stylish skirt she could sew herself, she was given several different models, each with very minor variations showing how creativity could be introduced even into very simple patterns.

five variations on a flared, tea-length skirt

five variations on a flared, tea-length skirt

Often readers wrote in to ask for a pattern or suggestions for how to make use of leftover fabric. The fashion editors would illustrate numerous ways of making dresses or shirts out of limited amounts of material, but sometimes there was little that even they could do. One reader wrote in 1955, enclosing a sample of some fabric she wanted to make into a dress. ‘Throw it away and buy some new material’, she was advised, it was simply too horrible to work with according to the fashion ‘agony aunt’.

Everyday sewing in 1950s Italy was clearly as much about thriftiness and ingenuity as about fashion. However being able to create something stylish or even wearable out of left-over fabric or an old jacket or pair of trousers required a certain creative flair. Today’s knitters and dressmakers aren’t motivated by such necessity, but they are drawing on the traditional skills and crafts of everyday life.


7 thoughts on “‘This is how I dress’: Fashion before the age of mass production

  1. Sorry to be pedantic but surely “who was burned by her husband and his family as a fairy ” should be “who was burned by her husband and his family as a witch” (strega). No?
    Fairies are seen as pretty and very nice (and also not real) – whereas wiches were seen as wicked and bad and in the UK, in the 1600s, often burned at the stake.

    • Thanks for commenting! No, Bridget Cleary really was seen as a fairy – in Irish folk traditions, fairies are not always nice! One powerful folk belief was that fairies could steal people (mostly babies) and leave ‘changelings’ in their places. Bridget Cleary’s family thought that she was a changeling and performed a series of rituals that they believed would get rid of the fairy in her, but that ended with her being burned to death. If you are interested, Angela Bourke’s book on Bridget Cleary is a fascinating read on the themes of gender and the collision of peasant/folk culture and modern society.

    • My mum told me that when she was younger, she used to make a new dress for going out instead of buying one…

      Think her sewing machine might be in the attic too! You should take it out and join me in learning to sew 🙂

  2. Pingback: ‘This is how I dress’: Fashion befo...

  3. Pingback: The Sewing Machine, The Household and Times Past | Ciara Meehan: Historian, Author, Researcher

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