Over many years of researching, making, and sharing the fashions of the past, I have given fashion talks, workshops, and full-blown fashion shows. One of the questions that people often ask is, “How many dresses would a woman have?” Of course, there is no easy answer! So much would depend on the decade, the woman’s social status, her stage of life, and many other factors.
In my alter-ego persona of Maggie Lynde, I am exploring the wardrobe of a typical middle-class, middle aged woman in a small Oregon town. By making and wearing these items myself, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of how her wardrobe functioned; how fast could she add new items? How did the old ones fade and wear out? And how would the latest styles mix with the garments from seasons gone by?
Our character, Maggie, has always been interested in fashion, so she might have purchased a copy of the guide by Mrs. Eric Pritchard, The Cult of Chiffon, first published in London in 1902. One the topic of how many garments to include in your wardrobe, here is Mrs. Pritchard’s advice:
“I would add that I think the girl about to invest in a trousseau should profit by this advice. Lingerie, as I have said, is by far the most important part of the wardrobe; it is, therefore, a mistake to buy a great number of dresses if our underwear has to suffer in consequence. … Two dozen is a good all-round number for each type of garment, except petticoats, of which you can do with far less. You should endeavor to have a pretty day petticoat in brocade to match your corset, and another, of some pale shade, for evening wear. Petticoats, with the exception of brocade, can be picked up at shops as cheaply as you can make them at home.”
Mrs. Pritchard was writing for upper-middle-class Englishwomen, not for a small-town American, but her descriptions and suggestions were still so tempting! Mrs. Maggie Lynde would have loved a brocade petticoat to wear under her best dresses, back in 1902. As it was, she couldn’t afford such elegance, and she “made do” with a pale blue cotton sateen petticoat instead. Of course, seven years have passed since the book was published, and Maggie Lynde no longer covets a brocade petticoat. They are now completely out of fashion! She does have a length of black silk taffeta, though, and she plans to make herself a nice silk petticoat with that distinctive rustling sound of quality.
But Mrs. Pritchard makes a very good point about proper lingerie. Maggie must admit that her underpinnings are woefully shabby. She firmly intends to make some new chemises and drawers as part of the new 1909 wardrobe.
She is pleased that she has two good corsets, made in the new, slimmer style. One is her white cotton “everyday” corset; the other is a recent purchase, now that she has some funds and is no longer in mourning. It’s a pink silk brocade corset with lace and a ribbon bow! She feels positively pretty in it. And she has made a new corset cover, dainty with insertion designs and pale pink baby ribbon, to wear over it.
Mrs. Pritchard talked about dainty nightgowns and tea dresses in her book, but Maggie Lynde is not a newlywed, and she has decided to remain practical in the matter of sleep wear. Her white cotton nightgowns will do quite well.
And, as for tea gowns! None of her American friends has time for such things. If she wore a tea gown when her women’s society met, she would feel quite ridiculous.