Research request: dressmakers by the day

Hi everyone, my friend Jenny-Lynn is seeking assistance with a new research project. She specialises in the sociological study of professional home dressmakers, and is looking for information about a particularly hard to find demographic.

She writes:

Seeking information for study: ‘Dressmaker by the Day’ in early twentieth century Australian society.

Throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century in Australia, the engagement of a ‘Dressmaker by the day’ was a practice utilised in the making and management of clothing by women, within the family home; the dressmaker would go to the home of her client to sew by the day, or over several days, and sometimes by the week. Some dressmakers worked in local neighbourhoods, others would travel further afield, particularly if located in regional or rural areas. In all cases the work was undertaken in the private homes of the dressmaker’s customers, and payment was usually calculated on a day’s work (9-5pm) often with the expectation that lunch/light refreshments would be provided, and travel costs or fares reimbursed.

This work is clearly visible—albeit it in varying amounts and descriptions—across the years spanning 1850-1950 in newspaper advertisements for ‘Situations vacant’ or ‘Seeking work’.  There is also occasional discussion and advice for both the women undertaking this work, and those wishing to engage such, in the newspaper’s ‘Women’s columns’ and in popular women’s journals. There is however very little information from the perspective of the Dressmakers. Indeed, very little is known about the women who did this work.

My specific interest is in finding the voices of the ‘Dressmaker by the day’.  I am therefore keen to speak with anyone who may have connections to women who worked in this capacity—a mother, aunt, Grandmother, family friend etc.—and are able to recall stories, experiences or events told to them or recorded in some way, or perhaps aspects of family history linked to this occupation. I am focusing particularly on the time span of 1890 – 1920, as this was when the practice of ‘Dressmaking by the day’ appears to have been most prolific, however I am still keen to hear from anyone who may have information from within the time span of 1860 – 1950.

This research builds on my previous PhD study: ‘For Fun or Profit: Women working as Home Based Dressmakers in Post War Australian Society” (La Trobe University, 2014).  My intention is to further improve the visibility of women’s work in this creative field; to give voice to women’s stories and experiences; and provide recognition of their contribution to Australian society.

If you feel you may have something to contribute and are happy to share this, I can be contacted via email:

Jenny-Lynn Potter biography

Dr Jenny-Lynn Potter is an interdisciplinary Academic with experience in teaching and research across the fields of Sociology, Health and Behavioural Sciences, and Gender and Sexuality. Since completing a PhD in Gender and Sexual Diversity Studies (La Trobe University) Jenny-Lynn’s research interest has focused on the lives of women working at the nexus of the public and private spheres, within the creative fields of fashion and dress in twentieth century Australian society.

Potter, J-L. (2019) “Ease to Fit”: Managing the intersection of ‘public’ and ‘private’ in Dressmakers lives, Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography. DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2019.1693348

Potter, J-L and Reiger, K (2017) Suits and frocks: Dressmakers and the making of feminine identity in post war Australian society, Journal of Australian Studies 41, no. 1 (March 2017).

’The fitting’ by Mary Cassat, 1890-91

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