Expense of Dress

This is a portion of our subject which awakens the liveliest interest in persons of both sexes. It is the complaint of many men of our times that the dress of women is a very costly affair. The complaint is often made apparently under a sense of wrong, as if they had been made to suffer from it. Some time ago considerable attention was directed to the subject by some letters which appeared in one of the leading journals of the day, in which grave reflections were made upon the exceeding costliness of dress at the present time. It was said to exceed that of any former age, and to be the reason why so many young men flinch from the idea of matrimony. Among these requirements dress occupies a prominent place. The style and variety of dress which is affirmed to be necessary for young ladies in the highest grade of society renders it no easy matter for them to find men both qualified and willing to afford them sufficient funds to procure what custom had created into a necessity. It may be owing to the quantity of material which the dressmakers require in order to make a dress, as well as to the variety which fashion has prescribed. At all events, let people say what they may, we believe that there is no doubt whatever that the expense of dress has become very much greater than it was thirty years ago. A dressmaker could then make a very first-rate gown, suited to any function at Court or elsewhere, for ten or twelve pounds, whereas now the most ordinary gown, suitable to wear only at a family dinner-party, cannot be made for less than fourteen or fifteen pounds.  A ball gown will cost eighteen or twenty pounds; and in Paris a thousand francs, (forty pounds,) is considered nothing out of the way; and evening and ball dresses often cost two thousand francs each.  It is not surprising then that, if this is the ordinary expense of a lady’s dress, men should hesitate before they embark in matrimony, and add so large an item to their expenditure. We remember to have heard it said that five hundred a year pin-money was a very small allowance for a young married woman; that it would require the most wonderful management to enable her to dress well and keep within her income.  Of course every one knows that there are many women who dress upon infinitely less; but we are speaking of those who profess to dress well, and whose position in society requires them to be well dressed.

What then is the reason why dress has become so expensive? Is it because the materials which are in use are costly, or is it because the needlewomen are better paid, and, wages being higher, dressmakers’ charges are also higher in proportion? We do not believe that either of these are the cause; but simply that a larger quantity is required, and that variety has become a “sine-qua-non.” Some years ago the cost of a silk dress was about half what it is now,--not because the price of silk has increased, but because a much larger quantity is required.  Perhaps of the two, silk is cheaper than it used to be; but where ten and twelve yards sufficed, twenty and twenty-three are scarcely sufficient. Then the variety that is considered indispensable adds to the cost of dress. Where three or four dresses constituted the wardrobe of many, three times that number are now considered a scanty supply. Some ladies do not like to wear the same dress twice at the same place; and, if they visit in the country, take with them luggage enough for a twelvemonth, and appear daily, and, in some instances, three times a day, in some fresh costume. It may perhaps be said that these are exceptional cases, but they are not so. Ladies-maids, servants, and even village girls have more gowns now than persons of the same class had formerly. This adds to the cost of dress, and makes it altogether a more expensive affair than it used to be. Our fore-mothers who rejoiced in farthingales had, no doubt, the most costly attire, but it lasted longer, and became the inheritance of children and children’s children; besides which their wardrobes were not by any means so expensive as that of a “grande dame” of 1875.

Materials are an important element in the matter of dress, and we propose, in the few remarks we shall make on the subject of expense, to offer some suggestions which shall tend to make it less.

In the first place every young lady is without excuse who spends a large sum annually upon her dress, for she possesses in her youth that which makes the most simple and inexpensive attire the most suitable and becoming. Everything is appropriate to youth. The freshest flowers of the garden, the plainest muslins, tarlatans and tulles do not come amiss. In the country fresh flowers are more admissible than those that are artificial. In London it is the reverse. The heat of a crowded ball-room soon makes the brightest flowers wither; besides which there would be an affectation in a young lady’s making her appearance in a London ball-room decked, like the goddess Flora, with real flowers; while all the world prefer the artificial as the least troublesome and the most enduring.

For the young, cheap and inexpensive materials are often the most effective. Heavy silks and satins are out of place. It is more a question of color and make than material. How often a bright green and white muslin, or even cotton, well made and well put on, worn by a pretty girl with a good complexion and graceful “tournure,” puts to shame and thoroughly eclipses a more costly and elaborate “toilette!” How often we have been charmed by the appearance, at the breakfast table, of a young fresh looking girl, who in her simple and unpretending, but well-selected attire, suggests all that is most beautiful in nature, the early sunrise, the opening rose-bud, encased in its calyx of tender green! Such a sight has refreshed while it has gratified the eye, and if the young only knew how very little is required to add to those charms which are the property of youth, they would not be at so much pains to copy those elaborate “toilettes” which seem to be invented only to repair the inroads and damages of years, and to enrich the dressmakers, and which are quite “de trop,” quite out of place with the young. Many are the materials which suit the young and which are inexpensive. Alpacas of various shades, muslins, foulards, tarlatan, tulle, light silks, light in texture as well as colors. These are not expensive materials. We remember at this moment an exceedingly effective costume, made of white alpaca with a narrow green stripe, which was worn with a crinoline bonnet trimmed with mauve. The bonnet and dress did not cost more than _L2 10s_., and scarcely as much. It was made at home, and all that was required for the gown was nothing when compared to the bills which the most ordinary dressmaker would have run up for tapes and buttons, and hooks and eyes.

But dressmakers have their fortunes to make, and it is well for them that there are people in the world who are rich enough to employ them.  Some dressmakers refuse to make up what is called “the lady’s own materials,”—that is, they require their customers to buy the materials of them, and therefore it is by no means difficult to understand that, under such circumstances, a dressmaker’s bill may reach any amount, and their profits become enormous.

Compared with the supplies of thirty years ago there is no doubt that the materials out of which ladies may make their selection have increased very considerable. The variety of foulards, of gauzes, of alpacas, of camlets, of poplins, poplinettes, and Japanese silks, and even of silks themselves, which vary from three shillings to eight and nine shillings the yard, of satins, of velvets, and velveteens, have brought dress within the scope of moderate incomes. Each year some novelty is introduced, and a clever hit in the name given to it makes it popular; just as that of “Japanese silk” made people run eagerly after a material of home manufacture, which is made of silk and cotton. There are a host of other materials cheaper still, which may be obtained for a few shillings the dress, some of which are not by any means to be despised. With so great a supply, it is strange that dress should be so costly; but the fact is, that this is an age in which people are more disposed to ape their betters than to dress according to their means. If, however, they desire to spend only a small sum, they must take some trouble about it, and must contrive how to produce a good result with simple and even common materials.

The great improvement in muslins and in calicoes—the good patterns which are printed on common linens—have made it quite inexcusable for people to dress ill. Some of the prettiest costumes that we have seen have been made in cheap materials, and persons who have admired them have been quite astonished to find that they have bestowed their admiration upon an “inferior article.”

For autumn wear there are camlets, alpacas, and serge of all colors, which are designated “Yachting and Sea-side Costumes,” but which are suitable for all places. Their effect is exceedingly good, braided or otherwise. They may be got anywhere, though Cowes boasts of having the best assortment. We have seen white braided with black, or with a pattern printed on it in black; blue, light and dark; brown; green braided in white, the effect of which has been good; and we have seen scarlet, which is very trying, and more suited for winter. It is effective when toned down with black velvet, but it looks rather heavy and overpowering.

For winter, there are droguets, reps in worsted and in silk, merinos, tweeds, linseys, and velveteens. We do not mention silk, because it is universally acknowledged that there is nothing so well suited to all seasons. It looks better than anything else, is the pleasantest to wear, and may be procured of almost any substance. Velveteens have a very good effect—better than most materials; and when they are braided well, they are very effective. The black looks the best, and is the most serviceable; and when worn with a mantle, or cloak, or jacket to match, it makes one of the best costumes for walking or driving. The brown velveteen is effective. It is considered warm and light,--two most important qualities for clothing; for, with the amplitude of modern skirts, it is absolutely essential that materials should be light as well as warm.

For spring and summer it is needless to specify more materials than have been already named. The only point to be considered is that in spring, dress should be, in our uncertain climate, suited to changes of weather, and temperature, and should be in harmony with the season when nature is putting on her best apparel, and woods and fields become hourly more green and full of vegetation. In summer, dress should be light and cool and quiet; because, beneath a glowing sun, bright colors do not please, unless they harmonize with the blue sky or green earth.

The second important point in matters of dress is the make or cut.  Upon this depends the question whether cheap materials can be worn. An ordinary stuff or calico well made, fashionably made, and well put on, is never out of place. It, not infrequently, puts to shame many richer materials which are not so well made nor so well selected.

This question of make or cut (call it which you please) is not sufficiently considered, especially by the young.

Some people think no one can be well dressed who is not expensively dressed, whose gown is not richly trimmed; but it is a great mistake.  Many persons are absolutely ill-dressed who spend a fortune upon their clothes.

The young should bear in mind that simplicity is what harmonizes best with youth, but care must be taken to avoid the simplicity of the school-room and of a “miss in her teens.” We can call to mind a young lady who made her appearance at an evening party in London, where “all the world and his wife” were collected together, and when it was necessary to be somewhat smart, in a rather skimp spotted muslin, with a black belt and a few black cherries in her hair. She looked, as the reader will easily believe, like a young lady in her teens, who, as Byron said, “smells of bread and butter.” She was much on the wrong side of twenty. By her side stood a young girl who had not passed nineteen summers, dressed in the freshest costume of plain white tulle, with bright turquoise blue flowers in her hair, the very impersonation of youth and loveliness. The cost of the dress of these two young ladies was about the same, but the appearance of the two was by no means the same. The one was fresh and simple; the other simple but unfresh. The one attracted; the other repelled. At the same time we saw two sisters, one a blonde and the other dark, dressed unadvisedly alike in dark blue tarlatan, with an infinite number of beads round the body, peplum, and sleeves. It was in the height of summer, and the costume looked fusty and oppressive; while not far off stood a young girl in a white and green tarlatan dress prettily trimmed with old lace and green ribbon, with one large white flower in her hair—the very type of spring and early summer. None of these costumes were expensive, but they had widely different results.

We return to our former assertion that it is the make which renders a common material wearable in any,--even the very best society.

It requires, of course, a knowledge of the prevailing fashion, which may easily be arrived at by the simple process of taking in “Le Follet,” or some good monthly publication on fashions. It requires also a correct eye and a good taste to select such materials as shall harmonize well with the style which is in favor. It requires, above all, a good workwoman, who knows how to cut out, how to put in the gores, how to arrange the breadths, where to put the fullness; where to make the dress full, and where tight, how to avoid creases, how to cut the sleeves, and how to put them in, how to give the arm sufficient room so that the back shall not pucker, how to cut the body so that short waisted ladies shall not seem to have too short a waist, nor long-waisted ladies too long a one. This important question of a good lady’s-maid is one upon which depends the probability of being well dressed and economically dressed. It is absolutely necessary for a person of moderate means, to whom the needless out-lay of a shilling is of real importance, to make her things at home. If she cannot make them herself, she must find a clever needle-woman who has learned her business, and knows milliner’s phraseology and the meaning of terms, and how to cut out to the best advantage. She will then be able to use common material, buy smaller quantities of them, and will always look well dressed. Her gown will always be ironed when it wants ironing; it will be mended whenever a stitch has broken loose; the collars and cuffs will always be clean and of the right shape and size; and no one will enquire into the quality and cost of the material of which the effect is so pleasing.

A lady’s-maid that is quick and efficient is the best friend a lady can have who wishes to be well dressed and at a small expense. She saves her wages again and again. But not so with a lady’s-maid who does not understand her business. If she is always requiring assistance, and cannot make the simplest gown without a needle-woman to help her, and will not attempt a smart dress at all, or who makes it so slow that either the occasion for which it is required slips by, or a much longer notice is necessary than the most fashionable dressmaker would demand in the very height of the London season, instead of being useful, she is an encumbrance. The dressmaker’s bill is not avoided. A steady lady’s-maid who is quick at her needle and quick with her eye, can always command good wages and a good place, and they who possess such a treasure will never be willing to part with her. Any one who has not thoroughly gone into the question would not believe what a saving it is to “make at home.” It is not only that the milliner’s bill is saved, but the materials which are used do not cost so much. Nor is this all, an efficient lady’s-maid can clean and turn and re-make dresses so as to give them the look of new. To those who have but small incomes, it is of great importance not to be under the necessity of making frequent additions to their wardrobes, and anyone who can, by good management, enable them to wear a dress longer than they otherwise would, saves them, in the end, considerable outlay.

We have heard ladies say that nothing has provoked them more than the way in which their maids can make up for themselves dresses which they have laid aside. They can, by dint of sponging and washing, and pressing, and ironing by turning, and many other ways known to them, make their ladies’ cast off clothes look as good as new, and many a lady has, before now, looked with envy upon an old dress which reappears in a new character, looking quite as fresh and attractive as ever, under the magic hand of a clever and practical needle-woman.

We maintain then, that, though the present style of dress may be expensive on account of the enormous quantity of material which is required, there is no real reason why it should be so costly as it is supposed to be. If ladies will give some attention to the make or cut and style of their dresses, the most simple materials will look exceedingly effective. It only requires judgment, good taste, and some forethought and contrivance.

We recommend as of primary importance, in order to be well and economically dressed, that people of slender means should have their dresses made at home, and should secure the services of a clever needle-woman who knows how to cut out and make, and has learned the mysteries of the art of dressmaking. With her assistance there is no reason why a home-made dress should not bear comparison with those of Madame Descon of London, or of Mr. Wirth of Paris. It is in the style, that first-class dressmakers excel. It is not in the actual needlework, which is often a very inferior affair. If, with the help of “Le Follet,” ladies will give some attention to the subject of dress, and will assist their maids with suggestions and approval, they will find themselves amply repaid, not only by their own personal appearance, but also by the small outlay of money.



Original text by George Routledge, edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 



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