Clients and Craftswomen: The Pursuit of Elegance


Susan Porter Benson
Associate Professor of History
University of Connecticut, Storrs

Two very different groups of women frequented the A. & L. Tirocchi dressmaking shop at 514 Broadway: the mostly Italian working-class immigrants and immigrant daughters who did the sewing and the wealthy Yankee women of the Providence elite who bought and wore the products of their hands. From one point of view, a vast gulf measured by differences in economic position, nativity, residence, religion, and language yawned between them. At the same time, they shared a small patch of common ground in a world increasingly given over to the impersonal transactions of mass production and mass consumption. Tirocchi seamstresses and clients alike had deep roots in a more old-fashioned world, one in which custom production and reuse of material goods testified to a more individualized and frugal sensibility. That world was certainly not egalitarian, but it was one in which a humble apprentice earning three dollars a week and the wife of a powerful industrialist shared certain values. Each could find satisfaction in fine workmanship and in the thrifty remodeling of an old but still serviceable garment.

The Tirocchi shop flourished during a transitional period in the manufacture and consumption of women's clothing. If the sisters had been plying their trade a century earlier in Providence, their business would have been typical of makers and purveyors of women's clothing. In early nineteenth-century America, women generally acquired their apparel in one of three ways: they made it themselves; they bought it second-hand; or they had it custom-made by seamstresses like Anna and Laura Tirocchi. Most well-to-do women relied primarily on custom dressmaking. During the first half of the nineteenth century, ready-made women's clothing was limited to cloaks and corsets, items that could be made in relatively standard ways. Underwear had joined this array by the 1870s.(1) Ready-made dresses, suits, skirts, and waists (blouses) were widely available by the turn of the century, but most were too crude and unfashionable for the tastes of the Tirocchi clientele. By the eve of World War I, however, manufacturers were offering women a combination of fashion and quality in off-the-rack garments. Ironically, it was just at this point in the development of the larger dressmaking world that the Tirocchi sisters established their business. They were clearly going against the tide of change, as the market for custom-made clothes was declining in importance. It is a testimony to the sewing skills, artistic sense, and business acumen of the sisters, especially Anna, that the enterprise flourished in an increasingly hostile economic context.

A new awareness of fashion, emerging in the 1920s, fueled the expansion of the ready-made women's clothing industry and had a mixed effect on custom dressmaking. Elite Americans had long been aware of the trends emanating from Paris and other fashion centers, but after World War I, haute couture received extensive coverage in the mass media as well as in high-end publications like Vogue. Custom dressmakers stood ready to provide wealthy women with wardrobes that would distinguish them from the legions who bought ever more fashionable clothes off the rack. At the same time, though, retail advertising and the fashion press urged upper-class ladies to change their costumes more often and to build larger and more varied wardrobes of garments suitable for every conceivable occasion. The higher price of custom-made apparel forced even wealthy women to choose between distinctive smaller wardrobes of custom-made frocks and larger wardrobes that mixed ready-made with custom-tailored



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