Dressmaking at the Turn of the Last Century

dressmaking class, 1899

Dressmaking class, 1899

A well equipped college level dressmaking class. The students are wearing shirtwaist dresses and pinafores. On the left side behind the treadle sewing machine operator are two half scale dress forms with arms. It is possible these were made by the students as part of their course work. There is a three way mirror to check fittings. The chalkboard is being used to work out a problem in pattern drafting with the aid of a tailor’s square. There is a flat table with drawer for drafting rulers and curves, tracing wheels and pencils and chalk. The table top could be used for drafting the pattern in paper, then a test muslin would have been made for the half size mannequin. The large patterned carpet makes an attractive addition to the classroom which appears to be a working model of a dressmaking establishment.

The book used for pattern drafting may well have been an earlier edition of S. S. Gordon’s “The Standard Work on Cutting Ladies’ Tailor Made Garments”.


By the time they graduate the young women in this class will be able to make their own patterns. For a graduation party, one may choose to construct a costume similar to this circa 1903 day dress from the Kyoto Costume Institute’s collection.


Or this 1905 scale model day dress from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


In dresses of this era, the “mono-bosom” bodice often has an interior bodice that is lined and boned, with a hook and eye closing at center front. The outer bodice is gently gathered and may close on the side, concealed in the gathers, or at the back. The silhouette is achieved with a corset giving the appearance of an hourglass. There is an S curve to the bodice in front and the back of the skirt does not have a bustle, but does have the S curve effect. The full length skirt is provided with hooks to hold the skirt in place to matching eyes sewn on the bodice. The waist is lower at center front. The sleeves are puffed or there are lacy flounces. The neck is high for day dresses and often held in place by stays at the sides and back.

In a few years the young dressmaking students of 1899 may choose to make a wedding dress like this one for their own wedding or for that of a family member, a friend, or a client. The off the shoulder low neckline, yet still “mono-bosom” bodice, was favored for ball gowns. This wonderful dress has the best of both day and evening bodices, a sheer material being used for the upper bodice and high neckline.

wedding dress, 1905

Woman in wedding dress holding flowers

Detroit Publishing Co., publisher

Created / Published between 1900 and 1910



A class in dressmaking, Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia

Created / Published 1899

There are no known restrictions on the photographs taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston.


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