The Vanishing Art Of Dressmaking

Dress-making is an ancient art, though its modern expression may be very different from its historical origins. As a basic survival concern, the production of clothing was first a matter of simple life-or-death necessity, along with the search for food and safe shelter.

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The first clothes were likely made around 600 to 700 thousand years ago, when the quest for food led our primordial forebears into new, less hospitable climates. As our species sought out new territories with more resources to support their growing tribes, they protected themselves from the elements with utilitarian garments. Whether or not personal modesty was a concern is, at this point, largely a matter of conjecture. The archaeological record is silent.

Fashion and Dressmaking

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What we can state with certainty is that the clothing manufacture industry today has become one of the world’s largest. Numerous expressions of fashion and preference have been birthed under its auspices, and clothing choice remains the first and most direct method of personal presentation available to people today.

Most people do not make their own clothes anymore. Skills in sewing and leather-working are far from commonplace in the developed world, and this has contributed directly to the decline in dress-making today. After the advent of the oldest clothes, it is believed that the first weavers started at their craft around 40,000 years ago. Now, fine fabrics were available.

There were silks in China, and wool available all throughout European and Asian countries. These same materials are still available and widely used; a testament to their quality.

Though modern industrial methods have expedited the process, ancient dress-makers had to rely on the skill of their hands during every aspect of their craft. They developed all of the techniques on their own, and the skills of a tailor would be passed down through the years from Master to Apprentice.

But even amateurs had a hand in this craft, because professionally-crafted clothing was typically only available to the very wealthy. Most people had to rely on themselves or members of their family to craft their clothing from raw fabric. Most women at home had a set of needles, pins, threads, scissors, and measuring devices for making their own dresses. Through the process of making dresses, they would pass the art along to their daughters.

At the commencement of the Industrial Revolution, textile manufacture was one of the first industries to become mechanized. This was the first major step toward the decline of the art of dress-making. In the days that followed, professional creations became more accessible to more people, and it became fashionable to wear the creations of specific designers. Some dress-makers went on to become quite famous, hiring legions of tailors and seamstresses to produce their creations. This led to greater volume, faster production, and ultimately lower prices.

But this modern convenience came at a cost. Clothing is now so cheap and available as to make the once-lucrative and prestigious profession of dress-making economically obsolete. Now, the majority of dress-makers are found in either haute couture settings, designing one-of-a-kind creations for display on the runway, or in the few remaining indigenous and pre-industrial societies on earth. The plight of the modern dress-maker can be seen as a cautionary tale for all of us living in modern society: convenience and affordability do not come without a cost.

Recommended Read; Couture Sewing Techniques, Revised and Updated 2011

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