As some of you know, my interest in fashion studies stems from my long-time hobby turned obsession of making clothes. While I never went to school for fashion design (except for one pattern making class) and I have not been “formally” trained, I have been sewing since I was little (thanks mom!) and always used and altered paper sewing patterns. I have a ton of them in a box in my apartment, thanks to some vintage stores and the $1 sales at Joann Fabrics, along with a huge stash of fabric calling out for me to finally make it into something… someday I will have time to sew again.
As a graduate student of fashion and textile studies, naturally, I was drawn to the history of paper patterns, and the history of sewing and people making their own clothes in general. When I saw Butterick’s Company History page I realized that sewing patterns (and developments in sewing patterns, like using tissue paper and patterns in different sizes) were a huge deal in the nineteenth century, allowing women all over the country to make their clothes at home (or have their dressmakers make them) according to fashionable styles without actually needing to travel, causing a democratization of sorts. I became really interested in the early history of paper patterns, and learned that while many people think Ebenezer Butterick was the first paper pattern maker, another name now forgotten today, Madame Demorest, actually made them first. Butterick was the first to copyright paper patterns, and to create graded (sized) patterns. The two were competitors in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, both publicizing and distributing their patterns through fashion and lifestyle magazines, Butterick with the Delineator and Demorest with Madame Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions. I was so curious as to why Butterick’s name continues on today, but Demorest’s is nearly forgotten. I wanted to know more about their competition, what made one more successful than the other, what did they do differently. I actually wanted to write my qualifying paper (i.e. master’s thesis) on this, but due to limited sources and the incredibly well-researched book by Joy Spanabel Emery, A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), that covers much of what I wanted to write about, I decided otherwise. Maybe I’ll come back to it eventually. I still wanted to learn more, though, and I hadn’t even looked at any primary sources yet. When I made an appointment at FIT’s Special Collections and Archives (SPARC) this past week to do some research for a paper I’m writing for our upcoming symposium this May, I decided to take a look at their Demorest holdings as well. I’m so glad that I did!
FIT only has two issues of Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions, but much to my surprise and delight, one of the issues actually had an incredibly well preserved and intact paper pattern! These patterns were included as supplements to the magazine. Paper patterns this old are quite rare, as the tissue is thin and the ink of often fades, and of course, these were meant to be cut up and used.
Isn’t it amazing that the tissue is exactly the type that is used for paper patterns today? And yet it is over 140 years old… incredible.
The magazine also included songs, fashion plates (below), articles on various topics, and advertisements. I thought the one for an “Electro-plated water set with tilting stand” was particularly interesting. Specialized kitchen gadgets to make everything easier are not a 20th century phenomenon. They may not have had different utensils to cut their apple and avocados, but they did have an ice pitcher that made it unnecessary for them to actually pick anything up to pour it! Magazines from the nineteenth century (of which there are many!) are so interesting just to give a glimpse into the way people lived.
I also really loved the biography of the Demorests, Crusades and Crinolines:The Life and Times of Ellen Curtis Demorest and William Jennings Demorest (Ishbel Ross, New York: Harper & Row, 1963). Learning more about Madame Demorest (who, by the way, was not French, but called herself Madame for the French “caché”) and her husband makes the content of these magazines even more interesting. Madame Demorest and their contributing writer Jenny June were early women’s rights advocates, and were involved in forming the first women’s clubs. Madame Demorest also co-founded one of the first businesses owned and run only by women, a tea shipping and selling company. She went on trips to Paris to see the latest fashions, but always adapted them to American tastes (which were apparently more conservative), creating original designs rather than merely copying. Mr. Demorest was the editor of the magazine and extremely involved politically. He was a major advocate for the temperance and then the prohibition movements. As his views and calls for action became more extreme, and he started to use the magazine to promote his ideas, making it more biased, the business suffered. This, combined with more competition from other publications and paper pattern companies, seem to be the main reasons behind the Demorest empire’s decline in the late 1880s and 1890s. The couple was getting older, and Mr. Demorest turned the magazine over to his sons in 1885 in order to pursue politics, while Madame retired from the pattern making business in 1887 (although not without drama – they had sold the name for the pattern business to advertising agents and were appalled to find that the Demorest name shared the same page as a liquor advertisement – God forbid! They sued and won). The magazine ended in 1899, a year after Madame Demorest’s death.