Fashion thrived with the growth of cities across Europe during the nineteenth century. This weekend, I look at a selection of paintings showing both sides of the fashion industry as it grew in the last couple of decades before the end of that century. Today starts with the many women who sewed garments for money, those seamstresses and dressmakers who were paid a pittance to decorate the wealthy, and tomorrow I focus on milliners.
For centuries, garments were stitched by hand, and large numbers of women laboured with needle and thread. By the middle of the nineteenth century the first sewing machines were revolutionising the work of the seamstress.
Given the dramatic reduction in time to make garments, among the most enthusiastic early adopters of these machines were professional seamstresses, who could reduce cost and increase throughput once they had become adept with their machines. Wenzel Tornøe, a Danish genre painter, shows the effects of this in his Seamstress, Whit Sunday Morning of 1882, his best-known work.
This seamstress had been engaged in making costumes to be worn for the Danish festivities of Pentecost (Whitsun), when many Danes rise early to go out and see the sun dance at dawn. By the time the festival morning has arrived, she has fallen asleep over her work, exhausted.
The Norwegian Naturalist Christian Krohg may have been inspired by that painting for his Tired in 1885. This was part of his longer-term exploration of the theme of fatigue and sleep, particularly among mothers. The young woman seen here is no mother, but a seamstress, one of the many thousands who worked at home at that time, toiling for long hours by lamplight for a pittance. At the left is an empty cup, which had probably contained the coffee she drank to try to stay awake at her work.
Home work as a seamstress was seen at this time as the beginning of the descent into prostitution, another theme in Krohg’s work, and an echo back to the painted stories of William Hogarth. The paltry income generated by sewing quickly proved insufficient, and women sought alternatives, all too often leading to prostitution. In some countries in Europe during the 1880s the sewing machine was seen as a precursor to a woman’s moral downfall, the top of a slippery slope.
Eva Bonnier was a fine Swedish portraitist, whose Dressmakers (1887) explores the effects of backlighting. Two women are collaborating on the making of a dress for a special occasion, although here they’re working independently, each almost oblivious of the other. The woman to the right wears a thimble, and sews with orange thread, her scissors left open on the table in front of her.
The Austrian genre painter Moritz Stifter’s New Dress from 1889 places the sewing machine in the safe almost wholly female setting of the dressmaker’s. Every face is smiling here, some perhaps a little vacuously, as an affluent young woman tries on a new dress, with its incredibly small waist. Although this room is full of fabric and the trappings of dressmaking, including the mandatory sewing machine, no one actually appears to be making anything.
Judging by the sheer volume of garments in Hans Best’s undated Sewing Women in the Room, these two women are professional seamstresses working at home, sharing the single sewing machine. This effect is exaggerated by the multiple curtains at each of the windows.
Izsák Perlmutter’s undated Rákospalota Seamstress shows a Hungarian version of a homeworking seamstress.
Anna Ancher makes the most of the light in her Sewing a Dress for a Costume Party of 1920. These three women look rather older than the average seamstress, and they’re working with the materials for a single dress, destined perhaps for a cherished daughter or granddaughter. One of them performs the larger-scale sewing at the machine, while the others progress the manual work.
With sewing machines, clothing could also be made on a more industrial scale. When sewing by hand, homeworking had been the order of the day, and there’s no value in pooling those workers into a factory. Once seamstresses were working with sewing machines, the situation was reversed, and many came to be employed in factories or sewing mills.
Karl Armbrust’s Interior of a Sewing Mill with Seamstresses at Work from 1927 shows what became commonplace in garment manufacture. These women didn’t need the skills of those sewing by hand, and were consequently paid a pittance.
With the new sewing machines, fashion houses or couturiers flourished in cities like Paris. Among the best known of these was Maison Paquin, the first major couturier to be run by a woman fashion designer.
Henri Gervex’s Five Hours at Paquin’s from 1906 shows its crowded interior and brisk trade in both clothing and hats.
Jean Béraud’s Workers leaving the Maison Paquin (1907) shows the ladies who worked in Jeanne Paquin’s highly successful fashion house in the Rue de la Paix, Paris, as they left work at the end of the day. Jeanne Paquin went on to open a furrier on Fifth Avenue, New York City, in 1912, and employed as many as two thousand staff before she retired in 1920.