Dressmakers: unexpected feminist revolutionaries

When I was writing Mary Green, I wanted to have a character who was a mantuamaker, and I wanted the dressmaking to be a bit of a feature in the book. I had to do a bit of research about how one went about ordering gowns, and I discovered, rather by accident, that dressmaking, or mantuamaking, has quite a bit more to do with the history of feminism than I had bargained for. This was particularly problematic because I wanted my mantuamaker to be male. I wanted him to be handsome and charming and a bit of a dark horse, which was tricky once I understood how important this trade was for women.

Check out this ENORMOUS mantua, circa 1744, from the
Victoria and Albert Museum.
I discovered that, until the 17th Century, it was illegal for women to make and sell clothing, both male and female. (I have not been able to find the actual legislation which restricted economic activity to men, but believe it did exist. If anyone has a source for this law, please do direct me to it.) Then, in the mid to late 1600s, a new fashion came on the scene that would forever change the course of women in the workplace.

It was called a mantua, or a manteau, or mantle, and because of its construction it fell outside the prohibition. It was a loophole in the law, and it opened the gates to allowing women into the industry. The mantua was a less structured garment than the gowns of the previous era. It was worn over a structured stomacher and petticoat, and because of its lack of boning was somehow permissible for women to make and to sell. And once they were in, they did not let go their hold. They were the ultimate entrepreneurs and they weren't going anywhere. In fact, they branched out into millinery and jewellery and other associated trades.

And do not think that there was no push-back from the tailors! The gentlemen of the profession continued to make men's clothing, as well as stays and corsets and outerwear for women, as these tended to be more labour intensive and required more physical strength. But they lost their foothold and their ability to argue that women could not do the work of making soft-flowing robes.

Dressmakers Shop - 1775
The matter was hotly debated in parliament even, with the guilds arguing that these women were taking work away from men who had to support their families, failing to mention, of course, that women without husbands had no other means of supporting themselves and their families. Arguments were raised, even, as early as the mid-1700s that permitting women to enter into commerce in this way was was opening the gates to such horrors as women gaining the vote or standing for election. This slippery slope argument was dismissed as an absurd level of hyperbole and the women were left to earn their keep. And as the late 18th Century saw the advent of very unstructured gowns, chemises really, the mantuamakers came to be the fundamental clothiers of society ladies.

Up until then, the men were still a real part of the game, though not everyone thought they should be. Fanny Burney, for one, wrote of them as unnatural fops, knowing more about women's bodies than women did. She was writing in the second half of the 18th Century. By the early 19th Century, there were virtually no male mantuamakers left. I read on one blog that by 1810, there was not a single male dressmaker in all of New England, so that is something. However, I did find support for the idea that there were a few male mantuamakers about in England at that time, though they were rare.

My dilemma was that I wanted my lead character, Mary, to be snubbed by the high-end, popular dressmakers of Pall Mall, but not by the humble guy in the shop off the high street. I did not like the idea that these ladies, who were fighting tooth and nail to keep the men at bay, who were feeding their families with their own labour, would snub poor Mary Green because of the state of her shoes, while a man would be humble and kind.

In the end, I resolved to make my dressmaker, Mr. Graham, a linen-draper whose mother had been a dressmaker and who had learned the trade from her, since she did not have any daughters. In the later years of his mother's life, he was doing most of the work as her eyes and hands began to fail her. Linen-draping (or selling fabric) was a separate, male-only trade, though very occasionally, a linen-draper would have an in-house dressmaker. Consequently, it is the snobby, male linen-drapers who turn their noses up at Mary, and Mr. Graham who trusts her to bring his fashion skills to the ladies of London.

I hope you will like him as much as I do, and that you will not blame him for being male. Perhaps, if he is successful, he will give employment to many deserving women, and who knows? Maybe his daughters, or grand-daughters will one day fight for the vote, in memory of old Mrs. Graham and her determination and ingenuity.

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