Dressmaking: Course Materials

The handicrafts that played such an important role in the education of girls were not limited to embroidery and sewing exercises, neither did dressmaking courses only cover sewing techniques. Pupils learned to analyse fashionable garments and to make patterns for them. They learned to draw fashion illustrations and studied historic costumes. All of this can still be found in the course materials used at dressmaking schools.

Maria Bellens-Verreydt, sleeve finish with a ribbon, 1930-35
MoMu collection inv. nr. T85/63
Mathilda van Deurne, diverse crochet exercises, 1865
MoMu collection inv. nr. T3693
Emmy Van Aken, decorative stitches, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/373
Maria Jacobs, album Méthode de coupe pour dames et enfants, 1890-1910
MoMu collection inv. nr. P63/2
Emmy Van Aken, asymmetrical skirt pattern study, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/366
Georgette Roan, fashion illustration from memory, 1940-50
MoMu collection inv. nr. T17/2
Mathilda van Deurne, diverse knitting exercises, 1865
MoMu collection inv. nr. T3693
Emmy Van Aken, slanted breast pocket, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/370
Louise Legrand, materials study and sewing exercises, 1907-08
MoMu collection inv. nr. T91/258
Mathilda van Deurne, diverse sewing exercises and miniature clothing, 1865
MoMu collection inv. nr. T3693
Emmy Van Aken, study in pencil, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/374

ALBUMS D’OUVRAGE

At some schools, pupils collected their handicraft exercises in needlework albums, or albums d’ouvrage. In 1865, for example, Mlle Tessaro, a pupil at the Pensionnat des Dames de l’Union du Sacré Cœur in Hoegaarden, made an album of various stitching, knitting, crochet, embroidery and darning exercises which she attached to blue paper. In the album, we also see a range of miniature garments, which allowed her to practice dressmaking techniques at scale: inserting a sleeve, finishing a collar, and using pleats and darts to create volume.

Mlle Tessaro, needlework album, 1865

Another handsome example is an early 20th-century album by Maria Bellens-Verreydt, filled with needlework and embroidery techniques for making underwear. These exercises reveal an evolution from basic skills to more complex techniques: from simple chain stitches to finely embroidered initials and motifs, from making buttonholes to inserting lace, from embroidering on cotton to embroidering on silk. It is also interesting that some exercises are left at various stages of completion, helping us today to understand more about the techniques employed.

Maria Bellens-Verreydt, large ‘English’ initial, 1930-35
MoMu collection inv. nr. T85/63
Maria Bellens-Verreydt, inserting ruffles, 1930-35
MoMu collection inv. nr. T85/63

By the middle of the 20th century, needlework albums were still popular in dressmaking education. Andrea De Block and Emmy Van Aken each filled their respective albums with exercises for smocking, buttonholes, sequin embroidery, cuffs, various pockets, incrustations and decorative stitching. Moreover, Emmy Van Aken added drawings to a number of her exercises, illustrating the application of a given technique on a garment.

Andrea De Block, smocking, 1946-50
MoMu collection inv. nr. T98/141
Emmy Van Aken, adapted technique, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/373
Andrea De Block, decorative stitches, 1946-50
MoMu collection inv. nr. T98/141
Emmy Van Aken, sewing on sequins, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/371
Andrea De Block, incrustations, 1946-50
MoMu collection inv. nr. T98/141
Emmy Van Aken, sleeve finish, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. 172334
Andrea De Block, sleeve finish, 1946-50
MoMu collection inv. nr. T98/141

CAHIERS DE COUPE

Drawing and cutting patterns was another essential part of dressmaking education. In a so-called cahier or album de coupe (a pattern notebook) the students kept notes about drafting and adapting patterns for fashionable articles of clothing. A number of examples from the MoMu collection were made around 1900 by Maria Jacobs, Rachel Keulenaer and Louise Legrand. These notebooks are not only a fascinating source about dressmaking education, but also about dominant fashions of this period.

This magazine page includes several elements typical of 1900s fashion: a bodice with high collar and long sleeves for daywear, the leg-of-mutton or gigot sleeve (centre), and the trumpet-shaped skirt (lower right) worn with one or more flounced petticoats.
La Mode Illustrée: Journal de la famille, vol. 46, n° 17, 23 April 1905, p. 204
  • Rachel Keulenaer, pattern study for bodice with high collar, 1904
    MoMu collection inv. nr. T11/229
  • Rachel Keulenaer, pattern study for a trumpet-shaped skirt or jupe cloche, 1904
    MoMu collection inv. nr. T11/229
  • Maria Jacobs, pattern study for a trumpet-shaped skirt or jupe cloche, 1890-1910
    MoMu collection inv. nr. P63/2
  • Maria Jacobs, pattern study for leg-of-mutton or gigot sleeve, 1890-1910
    MoMu collection inv. nr. P63/2
  • Louise Legrand, pattern study for leg-of-mutton or gigot sleeve, 1907-08
    MoMu collection inv. nr. T91/259
  • Louise Legrand, pattern study for a flounced petticoat, 1907-08
    MoMu collection inv. nr. T91/258
Rachel Keulenaer, pattern study for a sailor’s collar, 1904
MoMu collection inv. nr. T11/229

THE SAILOR SUIT

Sailor suits for young children were a fashion trend that originated in the mid-19th century, when the then four-year-old Prince Albert Edward, son of Queen Victoria, wore such an outfit on a visit to Ireland. The shirt with the rectangular sailor collar became a much-loved part of children's wardrobes through to the early 20th century.

Suit in washable fabric for a boy of six to eight years old (top right)
La Mode Illustrée: Journal de la famille, vol. 46, n° 16, 16 April 1905, p. 193
Louise Legrand, pattern study for a sailor’s shirt, 1907-08
MoMu collection inv. nr. T91/259
Maria Jacobs, pattern study for a dressing gown with Watteau pleat, 1890-1910
MoMu collection inv. nr. P63/2

DRESSING GOWN WITH WATTEAU PLEAT

During the last decades of the 19th century, luxurious dressing gowns and tea gowns were very popular. These garments were meant to be worn at home and often included historic elements, such as the Watteau pleat, inspired by the 18th-century robe à la française. Well-to-do ladies wore this type of garment during the afternoon, for example to receive visitors for five o’clock tea.

Reception gown (five o’clock )
La Mode Illustrée: Journal de la famille, vol. 40, n° 53, 31 December 1899

Where the mid-20th century is concerned, the notebooks kept by Andrea De Block and Emmy Van Aken are once again an interesting source. In their notes and drawings, we recognize elements from the fashions of those years: rounded shoulders, a cinched waist and a wide, voluminous skirt – the silhouette popularized by Christian Dior's New Look – as well as tailored suits and close-fitting pencil skirts. Coats and jackets had broad collars and lapels, and either fell loose from the shoulders or were belted around the waist to expand around the wide skirts.

Andrea De Block, short coat pattern study, 1950-55
MoMu collection inv. nr. T98/124
Emmy Van Aken, coat pattern study, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/367
Sewing course at the vocational school for girls, Bouwmeestersstraat 3, Antwerp, 1930-35
FelixArchief/Antwerp City Archives, 934#25511
Andrea De Block, skirt suit pattern study, 1950-55
MoMu collection inv. nr. T98/124
Emmy Van Aken, skirt pattern study, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/366

FASHION ILLUSTRATIONS

Drawing course at the vocational school for girls, Bouwmeestersstraat 3, Antwerp, 1948
MoMu collection inv. nr. T98/136

Not only fine sewing and skilled pattern drawing and cutting were considered important skills in dressmaking education, but so too was the representation of fashionable silhouettes. Girls’ dressmaking education, unlike that of boys, gradually increased the emphasis on fashion illustration. An anonymous folder dating from the 1920s, for example, contains illustrations of the fashions of the time, characterized by straight lines and loose-fitting, tunic-like dresses. Drawings from throughout the 20th century show exercises in copying fashion prints, studies of the human body and studies of materials, as well as designs for garments and their embellishment.

Andrea De Block, design for embroidery, 1949-50
MoMu collection inv. nr. T98/136
Emmy Van Aken, design for a textile motif, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/374
Georgette Roan, study of the human face, 1940-50
MoMu collection inv. nr. T17/2
Anonymous fashion illustration, 1920-25
MoMu collection inv. nr. T99/293
Emmy Van Aken, study from nature and stylization, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/374
Andrea De Block, pencil study of postures, 1949-50
MoMu collection inv. nr. T98/136
Emmy Van Aken, pencil study, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/374
Georgette Roan, pencil study of ribbons, 1940-50
MoMu collection inv. nr. T17/2
Emmy Van Aken, pen-and-ink study of lace, 1956-60
MoMu collection inv. nr. T02/374

Photograph at the top of the page:
The sewing department at the vocational school for girls, Bouwmeestersstraat 3, Antwerp, 1948
FelixArchief/Antwerp City Archives, 686#45

Author: Dries Debackere