Between 1880 and 1939 there was a decline in restrictive dress such as corsets, along with dress reform encouraging women to wear more natural, comfortable clothing. Unskirted garments such as trousers went from being frowned upon to being iconic of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and beyond. Shorter hairstyles were also favoured and fashions were mimicked by using paper patterns to create your own clothing. By the 1920s such patterns were widely available through women’s magazines and, with many working-class women having access to sewing machines, home dressmaking was a way for these women to access the latest, most fashionable designs.
In the eighteenth century tailoring was a skilled trade serving the upper classes. By the end of the nineteenth century the sewing machine had been invented, encouraging mass production by ‘clothing operatives’ who were often poorly paid and worked in sweated conditions. A number of trade unions were formed to try and improve the conditions of workers in the textile trade and to represent their interests. These included the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses (1866), Amalgamated Union of Clothiers Operatives (1881), Amalgamated Jewish Tailors, Machinists and Pressers Trade Union (1893) and the London Society of Tailors and Tailoresses (1905). In 1920, the Tailors and Garment Workers Union was formed (an amalgamation between the Scottish Operative Tailors and Tailoresses Association and the United Garment Workers Union). This was followed, in 1932, by the formation of the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers (an amalgamation of the Tailors and Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses).
Sweated Labour was typified by long working hours, poor working conditions (‘sweatshops’) with low pay. In 1906 the Daily Mail sponsored an exhibition exposing the sweated conditions of many workers. Photographs were displayed in the exhibition along with other trades, highlighting the stark contrast between the lives of working women and those who consumed fashion. The exhibition raised awareness among middle class reformers who campaigned for a minimum wage.