Friday, 13 November 2015

TROUSSEAUS AND VINTAGE SEWING MANUALS, AND THE SOCIETAL EXPECTATIONS THEY PERPETUATE

BY: ANYA BAKER

I bought my first sewing manual in a little antique shop in small-town Southern Ontario--Dorothy Moore's Pattern Drafting and Dressmaking, 1968, drew me in with its groovy, groovy cover and $3 price tag.


That anecdote was a false start, because the only reason I bring up sewing manuals at all is to introduce you to the jewel of my antique sewing guide collection: Sewing Made Easy by Mary Lynch, 1950.

Moreover, the only reason I bring up Sewing Made Easy is because it is a goldmine of information on prescribed dress practices for women in the mid-twentieth century. I say "prescribed" because sections of the book read like contemporary "Fashion Police" columns, outlining the faults of different figure types and the means of rectifying them through dress. According to the book's diagrams, I am "pear-shaped," and so I was disconcerted and a little peeved to read: 'that "hippy" look is the saddest thing in life' (p. 17). Sixty-five years after this book was published, this sentiment is eerily similar to judgment I've read in contemporary fashion magazines. Intense scrutiny still lingers on women and their aesthetic choices, and numerous industries benefit from pushing onto consumers the products and fashions that uphold prescribed notions of how women ought to be appear.

Tall women can wear the "striking, unusual clothes shown in fashion magazines" (p. 15) but not tall hats, apparently.
From Sewing Made Easy, 1950. 

But, flipping through this 1950s version of "What Not to Wear," I was struck with one thing that has changed: the concept of preparing a trousseau. The process of preparing a trousseau, as described in Sewing Made Easy, is when a woman (or her mother) collects a bunch of personal items, linens, and household items in the expectation of the woman's future wedding. Trousseaus were popular in 19th-century Europe among the middle and upper classes. Home Dressmaking--A Complete Guide to Household Sewing by Annie E. Meyers, 1892, suggests that for "a young woman in moderate circumstance, moving in a modest circle of society," they be designed to contain "just enough clothing to last the bride one year, at the furthest," as the "old fashion of stocking a bride with clothes enough to last her the remainder of her natural life has passed into history" (p. 213). Meyers suggests (p. 214):

- 6 night dresses
- 6 drawers, undervests, corset-covers and dressing sacques
- 6 petticoats (one being black silk, two of them being short flannels)
- 6 pairs of hose
- 2 pairs of walking boots
- 2 pairs of house shoes
- 6-10 pairs of gloves
- unlimited handkerchiefs
- 3 wraps for different seasons
- 3 hats of varying levels of fanciness
- 2 woollen street dresses
- one evening dress
- 2 house dresses
- 1 wrapper
- 1 teagown

When I was a teenager, my mother would occasionally joke that she was putting something like a kettle or some sheets in my "hope chest" for when I moved out. The driving force behind my moving--the "hope" part of the "hope chest"--was always understood as the university education I was working towards. In reading these seemingly innocuous manuals about stitches and how to sew a hem, it is impossible to overlook pointed reminders that marriage and wifehood was a woman's inevitable role. Presumably, these trousseau lists are a reflection of what women wanted to read, but in providing authoritative guidance these books also justifies the presumed need for such advice in the first place. Especially when presented alongside prescribed standards of dress, this casual governance of women and their bodies is uncomfortable. These are the eras that are so readily romanticized in contemporary entertainment (i.e. Austen- and Brontë-mania, Mad Men, etc.), and whose fashions are constantly recycled and held up as idealized visions of femininity in women's wear (for example, Raf Simon's entire tenure as creative director of Dior).

I wasn't expecting a mid-century book to be exceptionally progressive or match contemporary marketing tastes for subliminal, rather than overt, societal messaging. It did force me, though, to reflect critically on women in society and the forces that pressure us into conforming to certain aesthetics, when I was just looking for instructions on how to set a sleeve in its armhole. Sewing Made Easy is slightly less condescending in its recommendations than Home Dressmaking; Lynch focuses on the materiality of the garments (useful for a sewer!) and the chapter is geared towards building a wardrobe (sensible!). Still, it prefaces the useful bits of the book with overt reminders that the sole purpose of all this sewing is to look a certain way and follow predetermined social roles. My disappointment with this isn't so much a criticism as an acknowledgement that fashion history is not all satin and lace.

I know you just want to know what a 1950s housewife requires in her underwear drawer (Lynch appears to recognize that unmarried women also wear clothes, and so her general wardrobe advice does not assume marital status), so in closing, here are Lynch's suggestions for a trousseau from Sewing Made Easy (p. 250):

- tailored slips, nightgowns, panties, pajamas, and bed jacket (of nylon silk, rayon or cotton)
- lace-trimmed or embroidered slips, nightgowns, panties, and bed jacket (of rayon, nylon, silk, or sheer cotton)
- full-length evening slip (of nylon, rayon, or silk)
- tailored hostess gown and house coat (of cotton, quilted cotton, wool, or corduroy)
- dress-up hostess gown, house coat, and negligee (of silk, rayon, velvet, or sheer wool)
- lounging pajamas ["...if you're the type who looks glamorous in them" (p. 250)!]
- bathrobe (terry cloth, candlewick cotton, or wool)
- brassières (of cotton, rayon, nylon, net, or lace)

Sources:
Lynch, Mary. Sewing Made Easy. USA: Nelson Doubleday, 1950.
Meyers, Annie E. Home Dressmaking--A Complete Guide to Household Sewing. Chicago: Charles H. Sergel & Company, 1892.

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