Can You Call the Cloth Used to Make a Dress, a “Dress”?

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Saturday, May 24, 1913:  Ma started to make my dress I got for a graduation present. I want it finished by May 30th.

Source: Ladies Home Journal (July, 1912)

Source: Ladies Home Journal (July, 1912)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Sometimes Grandma worded things differently than I would.

If I had written the first sentence I would have said something like, “Ma started to make the cloth that I got for a graduation gift into a dress.” Instead it seems almost like Grandma was referring to both the cloth used to make the outfit and the finished product as a dress.

“Dress” can be used both as a noun and a verb–and has multiple meanings; but I think that the noun “dress”  had a broader meaning in 1913 than it does now.

This is the second time in the diary that Grandma referred to the materials used to make a dress as a “dress”. On March 29, 1913 she wrote:

Ma and I went to Milton this morning. The chief object of which was the buying of me a graduation dress. It is a plain white batiste to be trimmed with lace insertion and edging.

Then on March 31 Grandma wrote:

Took my dress up to get it made this morning.

38 Responses

  1. Interesting word usage. If I had only seen the diary entry for today I would have thought that the promise of a finished dress was the gift.

    • You’re right–today’s entry could be interpreted that way. It’s the combination with previous entries that makes the meaning of the word more intriguing.

  2. How interesting to see the word dress used in that way. We also dress a chicken! And we dress a window so I guess ‘dress’ is a very versatile word.

  3. I wonder if dresses came “partially made”??? Just a thought! Maybe ladies just had to put finishing touches on them….?

  4. I remember that post and it was confusing how she worded it. I think it’s a metaphorical use of the word dress where the part (the cloth) is referred to as the whole. Sort of a reverse of saying the part when you mean the whole, like calling a car “wheels.”

  5. I think it was used in the way in one of the Little House books (by Laura Ingalls Wilder). I don’t know which one off the top of my head, but it just seems that I remember reading it that way.

    • It’s interesting to know that dress was used the same way by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It must have been a relatively common way to use the word years ago.

  6. Love your perceptive comments on the change in the language. I can think of several other current usages where the name of the potential product is used to the material that will be used to create it. I go to the store to buy dinner — but I’m buying the fixings. I might refer to a model airplane kit as “the plane I got for Christmas.” Or, refer to “my book” when it’s still in the writing stages. Or maybe I just do this because I was raised by my grandmother, and I think it’s normal, when the modern usage has actually changed?
    By the way, the dress illustration you chose is gorgeous!

    • You’re right– I’d also refer to a book I was writing as “my book” or to a model plane kit as “my plane.” I probably should be thinking about this in a broader way.

  7. One of the historic ways of referring to fabric or cloth that will be used in making a dress is “dress goods”. Sorry for sounding a bit pedantic, but I’m a retired museum registrar/collections manager, and textiles have always been one of my interests.

  8. I posted before I was finished! I imagine common usage at that time simply shortened “dress goods” to “dress”–she knew what she meant, and I’m sure other folks did, too!

  9. Debbie and Laura and Susan all make great points about useage. I think it would be the case that because making a dress was such a big process, and most people only had a few–each with a specific purpose (“Best” “Second-best” “work” “school” “Sunday” etc.)–that the fabric, findings and trim were selected with extreme care and planning. You don’t want to end up with a piece that you end up disliking!
    Since I present in first-person circa 1895, I can tell you that the process can be rather complicated and there are many considerations when choosing fabric which go far beyond color or pattern. The specific fabric and its weight are a big factor. In your Grandmother’s case here, batiste being her fabric tells us that this is going to be a very delicate and extra-special occasion dress because the fabric itself is incredibly lightweight and must be sewn using specific techniques to prevent damage to the fabric. It is so close to gauze that wearing it is an exercise in manners! I have a corset cover of batiste and it is gorgeous but after many wearing is so stretched out that it is threatening to tear…and it was just made a year ago! Not a practical material but certainly beautiful and your Grandmother, being able to participate in the trend of that time of young ladies wearing the airy and ethereal white dress, probably felt very privileged to have such a special garment that was guaranteed to be impractical!
    Oh, and Dianna, as far as I know dresses did not come partially made. There were certainly ready-made clothes in shops, but those would have to be altered to fit right, as women were still very picky about fit. If you were well-off, you may have a dressmaker make your clothes, but you selected the dress goods and findings, trim, etc elsewhere in most cases. Thus the dress planning was done before the dress was made ;). Most women still made their own clothes, at least their house/work clothes and much of their underwear. Readymade clothes at this time were starting to be more accepted but still viewed as “cheap” and “poorly made” by many women. The slang of the time included phrases that referred to the wearer of readymade as somehow inferior!
    Wow, Debbie, if you were worried about sounding pedantic I can only imagine how awful my rambling sounds!
    Apologies everyone. I just am so excited to find a blog with such great discussions. I’m so bogged down with a project right now that my own blog has lain fallow for a while…

    • Your description of batiste really helps me imagine what it was like. I bet that Grandma felt very special when she wore the dress.

      I also enjoy the great comments and discussions. I have some wonderful readers and I learn so much from them.

  10. I was going to suggest that maybe “dress” referred to the fabric as well as the pattern, but the above comments about “dress goods” make sense.

    Interesting to me that she has a deadline in mind for the dress to be ready! Is something important going to happen on May 30th I wonder? :)

  11. Ha! language continues to change too! Grammar and spelling have changed since I went to school. I remember being taught to use an apostrophe for possessives like it’s, her’s – now they’re just its and hers yet it’s still used in sentences like, We met at Diana’s house…

    • It’s amazing (at least to me) how grammar and language evolves over relatively short periods of time. For example, I’ve noticed that people are much less likely to use commas to separate clauses in a sentence than they once were.

  12. I did a lot of sewing for myself when I was young, and I sewed clothes for my 3 daughters until they were into high school. I always would say “I am making a dress” or ” I am sewing a dress” once it was cut out and beginning to be constructed. I suppose the “potential” dress “is” a dress? Hm, making me think!

    • You’re making think, too. You’re right. There is a continuum that goes from the uncut cloth to the finished outfit–and at some point it goes from being a “potential dress” to a “dress”.

  13. Simply put, I think she wanted the dress so much that to her it was already an accomplished fact!

  14. Not only is the post interesting but I totally enjoyed reading all the comments.

    • The readers of this blog are really special–and I’m continually amazed by the wonderful, informative, thoughtful comments. Thank you all!!

  15. Wow, what a great seamstress to be able to take material and do that. I really admire that and probably on one of those treadle machines too.

    • If the family had electricity in the house, they may have had an electric machine. Or, (gulp!) the alternative to human power and electricity at the time was that there were many household appliances run with gasoline motors. You can imagine the hazardous nature of those. But, for a time, many appliances in the home used a gasoline power source. It’s just another reason the good old’ days weren’t so great.
      Of course, many people kept their human-powered treadle machines, since they were rather simple in design and relatively easy (I.e.inexpensive) to maintain, not to mention less expensive to acquire in the first place. When I was a child, my own grandmother (b. 1912) had 2 machines. One was her own mother’s Singer treadle with the beautiful painted floral design on the main body and in a hardwood (maple or walnut?) case-table with wrought-iron legs. The other was a boring mid-century electric that rivaled the typewriter stand in ugliness with its wood-grain laminate surface which happened to coordinate with the paneling on our Caprice station wagon. :)

      • When I was a child Grandma had a treadle sewing machine in her attic, so I assume that she used a treadle machine in her youth.

        I’m almost sure that they didn’t have electricity. According History in McEwesnsville by George Wesner, “In 1918 the Northumberland County Gas and Electric Company ran a spur from the line going to Turbotville into the town.” If the nearby town of McEwensville didn’t have electricity in 1913, I don’t think that a farm would have it–though I guess that there is a slim possibility that they may have had a generator that produced electricity.

        • Yes, it definitely sounds as though they would not have had electricity yet. What state were they in? I’m sorry; you have probably said this before but I can’t recall.

          • Never mind; I see at the bottom of the page your town tags are listed below “Central Pennsylvania.”

          • No need to apologize. There’s a lot on this blog–and it’s not always easy for people to know how to quickly find something.

  16. I love this post – and all of the insightful comments that follow! Great discussion about language as well as dressmaking! :)

    • Thanks for taking a moment to write a note. It’s always wonderful to hear when someone especially enjoys a post and the comments.

  17. […] sounds like the day got off to a rocky start, but ended nicely. Did Grandma wear the new dress that her mother made? Who brought her home from Watsontown? . .. . anyone […]

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