The way people get their clothes has always reflected the technology
of the day. Up to the early nineteenth century, there was no way
to mass-produce clothing. So women got their clothes in one of three
ways: they bought them used; they made them; or they had them made.
There were no stores offering new ready-made clothing in the way
stores do today. Seamstresses offered custom dressmaking services
to those who could afford them. Men went to tailors or, like the
women, bought used clothing or had clothes made by female relatives.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, some garments began to
be offered ready-madegenerally cloaks and corsets, adjustable
items that could be standardized in their sizing. By the 1870s,
ready-made underwear was also available. Other ready-made garments
were still pretty crude, however, so there was not much market for
ready-made dresses and other fine clothing. As the nineteenth century
progressed, however, new machinery improved the manufacture of clothing;
extended rail systems made distribution of ready-made clothing easier;
and the telegraph and telephone streamlined the ordering process,
thus allowing the rise of department stores that could control the
costs of inventory while offering the latest merchandise to their
customers. At the turn of the twentieth century, retail trade in
ready-made clothing was poised to take off.
1900, fashion dictated that a womans body be tightly corseted
and that her gownsas dresses were then calledbe tightly
fitted over the corsets. Ready-made dresses could not provide the
perfect fit, so women who aspired to be among the most fashionable
and who could afford it still sought the services of custom dressmakers.
The complex draping of the fabric and the elaborate trim and ornaments
used to create these gowns also required the expertise of professional
These were definitely services for the wealthy. The average woman
might dream of having a single gown made for her, but could hardly
imagine having her entire wardrobe outfitted by a custom dressmaker.
The new department stores filled the need to clothe an increasingly
active group of working women without the resources to afford custom
work, but also lacking the time to sew there own clothes. The Tirocchi
clients prefered the environment of their shop to the developing
A custom dressmaker provided the most personal of services to her
clients. She took the clients measurements and recorded them
in a book for future use. If the client was a good one, she might
even have a dress form made to her specifications to aid in fitting
the gowns properly. At least once during the process of making a
gown, the client would have to come in for a fitting, in which the
partially completed garment would be tried on and adjusted for the
right fit. Women of the wealthier classes preferred that these intimate
transactions take place in comfortable settings, with dressmakers
they knew. The idea of going Downtown to a new department store
with unknown fitters and seamstresses was out of the question.
This personalized service was expensive. The Tirocchis clients
felt the expense was necessary to ensure that their clothing fit
perfectly, was personally flattering to them, and was unlike any
other gown they could see on their friends. The latter point is
important to realize. Madame Tirocchi stocked luxurious fabrics
and trims and decorations and worked with her customers individually
to choose the most flattering combination of these materials, then
pick a design for the gown. She would never duplicate a gown for
another client. Clients might choose similar designs and fabrics,
but their gowns would be unique.
Because clothing was so expensive, even wealthy women economized
by having gowns re-made after a year or two. They would take a dress
back to the Tirocchi shop to have it re-cut into a different style,
or to have new trim and buttons substituted for the originals. By
refreshing their wardrobes in this way, they could extend their
investment in very expensive materials while achieving a new look.
The practice of having gowns re-made was more than a matter of
expense alone, however. Consumers at the beginning of the twenty-first
century are accustomed to a "throw away" society in which
clothes are disposed of when they lose their appeal or fit. Early
twentieth century consumers would have disapproved of such a careless
attitude. Even these women, who could well afford new garments every
year, subscribed to a general frugality in their purchases.
It was during the late nineteenth century that Anna Tirocchi was
trained as a seamstress. Many women learned to sew, but she clearly
showed the talent in design and craftsmanship to become a custom
dressmaker of the first rank. She reportedly apprenticed with a
noted Roman dressmaker whose clients were Italian royalty and aristocracy.
And though ready-made clothing was improving in the United States
by the time she arrived in 1905, wealthy American women still relied
on talented dressmakers to design and make their gowns. Anna Tirocchi
and her sister Laura, also trained as a seamstress, vowed to serve
these elite women, ignoring threats to their livelihood from changing
fashion and retailing.
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