The designer-maker: A few years ago there was a BBC period drama called ‘The House of Eliott’, two sisters Beatrice and Evangeline Elliot decide to set up what was initially described as a ‘dressmaking business’ for private clients. It was a wonderful series – who would have thought that a house of Couture in London could contain so much intrigue!
There was an expression used in one particular episode that had me on the edge of my seat, and fuming at the television. A cad of a character called Ralph Saroyan who had swindled the girls out of their business earnings described the sisters as a couple of ‘frock makers’ for whom he had no regard. The cheek of it! Which is why I thought I would share with you some of the distinctions that go into the craft of dressmaking, designing, and a designer-maker, as they are all very different.
The term ‘dressmaker’ is often considered a lowly role, where little skill is required, but you could not be more wrong. A lot of distinguished designers Jean Muir, Vionnet, Chanel, Madame Grès to name a few, prefer the title ‘dressmaker/dressmaker technician’ as opposed to designer.
Before ready-to-wear and mass production became accessible to a wider audience, dressmaking was considered the norm. Women would collect images from international magazines to have their dressmakers duplicate the trending look for the season. With the advent of paper patterns clients had more choices, and a stylised design depicting their garment; the dressmaker would establish the appropriate pattern size and make adjustments to suit her client. Either way, without these nimble fingers and dexterity of mind, the Parisian couture gown as seen in Vogue or from a paper pattern would not have come to life.
Which moves me to the role of a ‘designer’: they are often celebrated as the creative genius behind all things, and whilst not to take away from their realm of creativity, the drawing of a great fashion design – with it being unable to take form in 3D – remains a great fashion drawing. The designer is the creative innovator behind a jaw-dropping dress/garment; but I do not feel that enough credit is bestowed upon the dressmakers, pattern cutters and others concerned who translate the designer’s vision.
There are some designers who can also make beautiful garments and appreciate the complex construction of clothes, and those who work alongside them. There are also dressmakers who prefer not to draw or don’t like to draw, however placing fabric in their hands is as liquid gold!
The designer-maker is a combination of dressmaker, and designer plus so much more; they are the pattern maker, fabric selector, cutter, fitter, presser and hand-finisher. In short they are responsible for the whole process of making the garment. Some work from a drawing, flat pattern cutting or draping on the stand conjuring up a design as they listen to the fabric speak to them.
The Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century promoted the importance of the artist-craftsman, a maxim even more relevant today, especially as fashion becomes more homogeneous as opposed to individualised style. I feel we are witnessing a resurgence of more hand-crafted items and not just clothing; it makes economic sense in the long-term for all concerned. Your hand-crafted garments will be the vintage of the future – now that’s an investment!