In 1923, The New York Times reported on the decline of the dressmaking business brought about by the increasing popularity of women's ready-to-wear. The reporter interviewed the executive chairman of the Associated Dress Industries of America, who spelled out the change in women's buying habits. According to him, it was no wonder that women faced with the need to acquire fabrics, trims, and notions used in making a garment; to find the time to work out the design of the garment with the dressmaker; to schedule several fittings and alterations; and finally to end up with a garment that "just screams 'home-made,' and does not bear that chic, natty air of a garment designed, cut, and tailored by experienced craftsmen and artists," would prefer shopping for a ready-made garment.

A woman buying a ready-made dress would have hundreds of garments to select from, in a variety of colors and sizes. She could try the garment on before committing to it, and there was no waiting or delay. It was "ready-to-wear."

At the turn of the twentieth century, advances in transportation, manufacturing technology, and communications made it possible to establish department stores that sold large quantities of a number of different items. Better manufacturing led to standardized production, thus lowering the cost of goods. Faster transportation allowed merchants to receive their inventory more quickly and frequently. The telephone enabled merchants to place their orders without delay, thus allowing them to control their inventory levels closely—a factor that was critical to holding down costs. Their reliance on new technologies let department store owners offer consumers more choices at affordable prices.

Store modelsThe new department stores wanted the business of the general consumer, but they also catered to women of wealth by offering high-quality and high-fashion dresses in lavish corners of the store that echoed the homes and clubs to which these women were accustomed. Small specialty shops arose to attract the same clientele. Both types of establishments offered alteration services and some custom dressmaking to meet customers' demands, but neither could offer the craftsmanship the Tirocchis could.

Anna Tirocchi had never aspired to serve the general public. Indeed, according to her niece Primrose, she turned away potential customers who "did not appreciate what she was doing." Nevertheless, she was alarmed when she realized that the new department and specialty retail stores were enticing her clientele.

The shop records reveal that in the fall of 1923, Anna Tirocchi made a critical business decision and began to offer her clients a wide range of ready-made garments and accessories, while continuing to provide traditional dressmaking services. On occasion, clients requested that a ready-made garment be copied. It is likely that many of Anna's older clients would have eased into the ready-to-wear trend in this way, having been accustomed to having more creative input in the choice of fabric, trimmings, and cut.

In shifting her business from pure custom dressmaking to a mix of custom and upscale ready-to-wear, Madame Tirocchi saved the shop. Her business flourished, in fact. By 1927, customer billings were triple what they had been in 1923, going from $22,706 to $62,221. The shop also continued to be a full-service operation, providing alterations, repairs, and make-overs and cleaning and pressing complicated garments.

This worked for a decade. By 1933, however, A. & L. Tirocchi was suffering. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression began to take its toll on the clothing budgets of the shop's customers. In reduced circumstances, clients found their dollars would go farther in department stores. Retail advertising had convinced a new generation that fashionable ready-to-wear could be found in the stores, and the daughters of Madame Tirocchi's staunchest clients found more choices there than in what must have seemed to them the outdated shop of their mothers.

Anna and Laura had successfully fended off the tides of change with imagination and determination, but they were unable to buck economic, generational, and retailing trends over the long term. In the end, the department stores, with their ready-made wares, won.

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Think about where your own clothes come from. Can you imagine the process of working with a dressmaker to design your garments, and then having them made just to fit you?