I was hoping that at this time this spring I’d be taking my mill girl presentation to libraries around the state, but alas! Instead I am confined to the types of work I can do at home as we all wait out the coronavirus pandemic. However, this does mean that I have time for another project I’d been meaning to do: putting together a list of the online costuming resources I gathered while working on my working-class mill girl impression circa 1920.
I’ve gathered a number of dress making manuals and catalogs from the teens and twenties which are available free online. These will be useful to historical costumers, as well as dress researchers, or anyone interested in the clothing trades, or even women’s general or vocational education of the early 20th century.
Catalogs of the Sears Roebuck and Company:
I consulted Sears Roebuck and Company catalogs extensively during my research because of the amazing detail and variety they illustrate. These catalogs are also great for looking at more than just dress styles. They allow you to compare the relative cost of buying the same garment in different styles and materials. You can also get a sense of exactly how many different choices were available for something such as, say, women’s undergarments. You will also find sections covering shoes, hats, knitwear, jewelry, furs, etc. I found it interesting to look at the yard goods section as I was determining what fabrics might be suitable for different garments.
The one drawback of using these catalogs is that they are not organized for efficient online searches. Often north of 1000 pages, you will need to spend a good deal of time “flipping” through pages to find what you are looking for. Once you find the section you are looking for, note down the page numbers to save yourself time next time. (Note: If you know of other digitized mail-order or dress catalogs from this era, please let me know, as I’d be glad to add them to this list.)
By Laura Irene Baldt. 1916.
- A comprehensive manual for women’s clothing. It includes wardrobe budgeting; information on design and color; basics of pattern drafting (the standards of this era being patterns for shirtwaists, skirts, and underthings. These are found in most books of this type); basic sewing instructions; instructions on how to do lace insets. It also includes detailed instructions for the construction of corset covers and petticoats, blouses, shirtwaists, and skirts. A wide variety of specific techniques for things like pockets, hems, plackets, and collars are described and illustrated, as are decorative techniques such as tucks, piping, and embroidery.
By Mary Brooks Picken. 1923.
- In-depth instruction into dress patterning and construction. This book illustrates many different 1920s styles, cuts, and construction methods. It also has a section on making ribbon flowers.
Tailored Buttonholes and Buttons, Tailored Seams and Plackets, Tailored Skirts, Tailored Pockets, Miscellaneous Garments, Tailored Suits, Coats, and Capes
By Mary Brooks Picken. Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences. 1923.
- This volume is set up to walk you through making tailored women’s garments. Each of the topics mentioned in the title is handled in its own section. “Miscellaneous Garments” includes things such as the wedding trousseau, sports and bathing costume, and some basics of men and boy’s clothing, including shirts and, inexplicably, santa suits.
The Secrets of Distinctive Dress: Harmonious, Becoming, and Beautiful Dress, Its Value and How to Achieve It
By Mary Brooks Picken. 1918.
- A book on how to dress, rather than on how to make clothing.
Needlecraft Publishing Company, 1918
- Knitting and crochet instructions and patterns for sweaters and winter accessories for children, women, and men.
By Helen Kinne and Anna M. Cooley. 1916.
- This book really is a textbook. It is divided into two sections: one on the home and the second on clothing. The latter discusses textiles, dress history, how to use a sewing machine, patterning, sewing, how to budget your wardrobe, and the care and maintenance of clothes. If you are looking for information on what a young woman ought to know about clothing in the mid-1910s, this would be a good place to start.
By Martha Van Rensselaer, Flora Rose, and Helen Canon. 1919.
- A manual specific designed for rural homemakers. This book covers household management, and includes a pretty significant cookbook section, in addition to the section on clothing construction and maintenance.
Bonus Content! Since the project I did this research for was about working-class women’s clothing, including work-specific garments, here is a British pamphlet describing various types of protective clothing for women – from waterproof aprons to boiler suits. It includes a table for which types of work require which types of gear. Illustrated with photographs:
Great Britain. Home Office. 1917.
If you have suggestions of other digitized primary sources I should add to this list, please let me know in the comments!