Women had narrowly defined roles in the 19th century with few employment options. Custom dressmaking was one occupation that provided an opportunity for acceptable employment for immigrant women, young farm girls, married women or widows. This work had possibilities for advancement, creative labor, and provided a livable wage for skilled work. Dressmakers and their businesses run and staffed primarily by women, provided employment for an expanding immigrant population, opportunities for advancement for the business owners and their skilled workers, and a secured social status through fashionable garments for their clientele who desired to be as stylish and up-to-the-minute as their eastern counterparts.
The growth of Minnesota's dressmaking industry corresponded with the growth in population and industry as Minnesota grew from a sparsely populated territory to a booming economy. Minnesota experienced rapid growth as soon as the territory opened for settlement in 1849, and they were eager for fashion. As noted by Godey’s, “four subscribers from this rather remote settlement” sought the latest fashion information. The population of the state increased 78% between 1870 and 1880 and 67% between 1880-1890. The new inhabitants chose to create a cultural environment equal to that of the cities they left behind. Their wealth, leisure and desire for culture eventually created the museums, parkways, orchestras and opera houses that fashionable wealth demanded.
By the early twentieth century, the rise of department stores and the marketing of fashionable ready-made clothing reduced the number of clients, cutting into the dressmaker's business. Mary Brooks Picken, an educator who wrote curriculum to train sewers, observed that the ready-made industry was not an influence in American fashion until 1890, but its growth was rapid. By 1911, it “superseded in every way the custom dressmaking and tailoring industries.” Increased opportunities for working women reduced the available workforce of seamstresses. Factory and department store jobs offered women more appealing opportunities, better wages and regular hours. As the available workforce diminished, dressmaking as an industry declined.
The work of twenty-nine dressmakers survives in the Minnesota Historical Society's collection and represents the more prominent dressmakers in Minnesota between 1880-1920. These garments provide the evidence needed to follow the thread between the clients who purchased and wore the dresses, the dressmakers who ran the businesses and the seamstresses whose skilled hands sewed the seams and embellishments.
For excerpts regarding Sabra Long, a Minneapolis dressmaker in the early 1880s. High Time to Tell It, Mary Alves Long, Duke University Press.
For more about Minnesota dressmakers:
A Study of Minneapolis dressmakers at the turn of the century, Jane Tracy, 1980The Business of Dressmaking: Custom Clothing at the Turn of the Century, Linda McShannock.” In Minnesota Creates: Fashion For A Century, by ed. Marilyn Revell DeLong, 67-71. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000.