29 June 2018

In Germany, tailors made women's clothes

For a long time, tailors made outer clothes for both men and women, while female seamstresses and home sewers made linen undergarments. Then in late 17th century France and Britain, female couturières and mantua makers got the right to sew mantuas and other women's clothes. The tailors continued to make stays, stiff-bodied court gowns, and riding habits for women, in addition to menswear.

Similar changes took place in Germany and Sweden too, but the tailors there hung on much longer to the privilege to make women's clothes, so the transition from tailors to dressmakers was delayed for a century or more. In the meantime, tailors in the German tradition continued to develop cutting methods for women's clothes as well as men's; J.S. Bernhardt's two-volume book from 1810‒1811 is the earliest and the most well-known printed example. Sewing techniques also differ between extant garments, depending on if they've been made in a tailor's or dressmaker's tradition. 

Published research

Fashion researcher Pernilla Rasmussen first published her research on the differences between tailors' and dressmakers' cutting and sewing methods in Swedish*), but later she's written an article in English for the anthology "Fashionable encounters—Perspectives and Trends in Textile and Dress in the Early Modern Nordic World" (2014). Her chapter is called "Creating Fashion: Tailors' and seamstresses' work with cutting and construction techniques in women's dress, c. 1750-1830", and you can read it on Google Books.

She discusses several German tailoring books from the first half of the 19th century, where drafting of women's clothes is taught using equally advanced cutting methods as in cutting men's clothes. She contrasts this with Claudia Kidwell's treatise from 1979, "Cutting a Fashionable Fit. Dressmakers' Drafting Systems in the United States", which argues that early cutting methods for women, unlike systems for male clothing, depended on using specialized tools for scaling patterns (Kidwell's examples date from 1842 and on).

In her 20 page article, Rasmussen also discusses a number of period approaches to cutting clothes, and how tailors and dressmakers used different construction techniques which can be studied in extant clothes.

If you're interested in period clothing from Central and Northern Europe, or simply curious about how the making of fashion clothes varied between different manufacturing traditions in the same period, do check out the link above, and read the entire text!

*) "Skräddaren, sömmerskan och modet", Nordiska Museet förlag, 2010


  1. This is such a fascinating subject! I recently bought the Fashionable Encounters and became absolutely obsessed with learning more about the women's tailors. Lately I've been more interested in making Finnish/Swedish 18th century garments (I was into English and French fashion before and not particularly interested in local stuff). I also got Skräddare, sömmerskan och modet but unfortunately my Swedish isn't that great so reading it is slow going. Riitta Pylkkänen also wrote about these tailors in her book Dress of Gentlewomen in Finland in the 18th century but she didn't research the techniques used by women's tailors in detail so the book isn't helpful in how to actually make garments. But I'm really excited to dive more deeply into this subject in the future and, especially, start making garments more accurately once I have learned enough to be able to do so!

  2. I'm delighted to see more Nordic costumers becoming interested in local fashion, and look forward to seeing what you'll make! If you get stuck on any of the texts in Rasmussen's chapter on sewing techniques, I'm happy to help out by translating the bits you need.

    I've got Riitta Pylkkänen's book too; I just wish there was a Swedish book like it, so I could actually read it... I love how she's hunted down and photographed so many different garments and accessories. Her excerpts from period sources (in Swedish) are great too.