Tailoring vs. Dress-making

I asked this earlier and got some good answers: “Pop quiz! What are the differences between tailoring and dressmaking skills? Extra credit for citations or explaining the history of the two traditions.”

Here is my understanding of the major differences in the 16th century and the implications for historical costuming. If I’ve missed anything or gotten something not quite right (or just mucked it all up), feel free to comment.

Generally, tailors were always men and seamstresses were always women. I’m sure there were exceptions to that – and all of this, but they were exceptions. There were laws at various dictating which garments each type of worker could make, so the women couldn’t just decide to start selling doublets on a whim because that was outside the purview of their guild.

Tailors created outerwear (i.e., not underwear) like gowns (for men and women), doublets, pants, and cloaks – things that needed to be cut or altered to fit a particular body. They used interlinings, quilting, boning, and/or tailoring stitches (e.g., pad-stitching) to give shape to their garments – not a lot of floppy clothes here. This tradition evolved into the modern tailoring field that specializes in garments like bespoke (custom made) suits – still focusing on garments that needed to be cut and shaped with many of the same techniques to fit the person’s body.

Seamstresses made garments like shirts and smocks that did not require the garment to take on a shape of its own – it conformed to the shape of the person wearing it. They used different stitches (and even different thimbles!!!) and construction techniques for their garments – none of the tailoring techniques that are needed to make a correctly stiffened doublet or gown. This tradition evolved (and here I’m a bit shaky because I don’t know jack about the 18th century) when women were first allowed to make mantuas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mantua_(clothing)), which were draped and pleated dresses that were popular in the 18th century (y’all jump in here if you have more to contribute or something to correct. I am way outside my area of knowledge!) These were softer dresses that didn’t require the stiffening the needed a tailor’s techniques to achieve. This in turn evolved into the more modern dressmaking tradition, which is what our mothers taught us and/or we or they learned in home-ec class.

So – how does all of this relate to historical costuming? I submit that one of the biggest barriers to achieving historically accurate 16th century clothing is the fact that most modern costumers were trained in the dressmaker tradition of sewing, and most of us know very little about tailoring techniques. I think Mathew Gnagy has talked about this, but I don’t know if it’s in any of his printed materials. (ETA: it’s in the Modern Maker! Go read it!)

Have you ever seen a “homemade” jacket that was sewn by a competent person, but has floppy lapels and *looks* really homemade? It probably has a bag lining and no or little interlining. The lapels are left to their own devices and expected to behave with no pad-stitching to keep them where we want them. Standing collars don’t stand very well. The body of the jacket gets wrinkles or creases in places where a floppy jacket would be expected to wrinkle or crease on a human body.

Now think about all of the floppy doublets you’ve seen (full disclosure – I’m including all of mine in this category, although the red one is at least an improvement over the earlier ones). You’ve probably seen all of the above-mentioned problems in these doublets too. There *were* some softer doublets in various times and places, and some of the methods that you see in doublets in the SCA are accommodations to SCA rapier fighting needs (e.g., people wanting to be able to throw it in the washing machine, which you can’t/shouldn’t do to a tailored doublet). Many of them, though, are simply made with different techniques from what were used for that garment in that period, so you get a result that might look good, but doesn’t behave (e.g., standing collars consistently stay standing, doublets don’t wrinkle, etc.) like an extant garment behaves.

I know folks who are using tailoring techniques to great effect, and I’m hoping to see that spread. I haven’t done my first garment yet, but I’m happy to show anyone how to pad-stitch (feel free to holler or PM me if you’re interested), and I’ll likely put together a tailoring class for University after I finish a garment using the techniques. Challe H (Margaret) and Ann B (Sydney) know more about this stuff and live closer to some of you than I do.

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