Summer Dresses a Hundred Years Ago

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

Wednesday, May 8, 1912:Did some sewing this afternoon. I have so many things to fix over and a dress I want to get made, but it is slow about getting there.

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

A hundred years ago, Ladies Home Journal featured patterns that could be used to make dresses and other clothes. Did Grandma sometimes browse through the magazine and dream of gorgeous outfits that she might make?

Photo Source: Ladies Home Journal (June, 1911)

31 thoughts on “Summer Dresses a Hundred Years Ago

    1. These dresses look so complicated. I never did much sewing beyond jr. high home ec classes. It’s hard for me to imagine where one would even begin making some of these dresses.

  1. There is a part of me that wishes pretty dresses like those were still in style – I’m not terribly fond of the body-hugging styles we have now. There is something very appealing about a flowing dress…

    1. I don’t think that today’s styles are designed for middle-age women. There is something very appealing about the old dresses. They are beautiful.

  2. The Edwardian era has always been one of my favorites for style. Lots of yardage to buy there. I learned to sew in the era of miniskirts–lucky for my pocketbook!

    1. I also learned to sew in the era of miniskirts–though I remember that one of the first projects in jr. high home economics was to make a gathered skirt. All of the students were convinced that the teacher was totally out-of-touch with reality and we just rolled our eyes as we worked on the gathered skirts.

  3. I learned to sew during the mini skirt period. I remember that the maxi had a brief visit during the early 1970s. I made a maxi in my 9th grade home economics class. I am working on a long black sun dress, no sleeves, which grandma would probable find shameful.

  4. I learned to sew before the mini skirt and we started with gathered skirts. I remember getting quite a lot of wear out of it. I agree, flowing suits my figure these days.

    1. It’s funny–but after all of these years I think that I could still make a gathered skirt. We didn’t use a pattern and just learned how to tear the cloth and waistband into pieces of the appropriate width, sewed the seams, gathered the cloth, sewed into the waistband, etc.

  5. There was a time when every girl knew how to sew what she needed to wear… many knew how to knit and crochet and some even knew tatting. I learned to sew from my Mom, and also learned a bit of tayloring too. But these days, it’s difficult to find good material at a reasonable price…so it’s off to the store.

    1. People used to have so many skills. My maternal grandmother (not this one) used to do a lot of tatting. She made beautiful edgings on sheets, pillow cases, and handkerchiefs, etc. I always wished that I’d learned how to do it.

      1. My Mom used to tat also…but I never learned. I found knitting and crocheting was all that was practical. But I have had friends who find tatting a great pass time while going through chemo therapy or other long hospital procedures.

  6. Thank you for this memory! My best friend and I sewed all summer during our high school years. We made dozens of voluminous “Hawaiian muu-muu’s” – all from one pattern that we shared until it shredded! We took our colorful “tents” off to college for dorm-room lounging. I don’t recall them “making the cut” by sophomore year.


    1. It sounds like so much fun. I remember when “tent’ dresses were in style–It must have been right before (or maybe after) the mini-skirts.

  7. If she says the linen came from India it probably did. there was a lot of international trade, and labour and materials there were incredibly cheap. In fact you can blame the southern states for this. The industrial towns of northern england were almost completely dependent on cotton from there for their mills. But during the war of independence, the south threatened to cut off supply. So England turned to India for their cotton. Once they changes suppiers of course they never went back. Bit of a home goal, and the loss of cotton sales probably helped them lose the war.

    1. I hadn’t realized how interconnected trade was throughout the globe a hundred plus years ago. It’s kind of like the thing about how the flap of a butterfly’s wings half a world away can lead to a hurricane on the other side of the globe. 🙂

      (Note to other readers: This comment refers to the the mention of Indian linen in the May 9 post.)

      1. The American colonies were all about trade – providing Europe with raw materials. The problem with the northern colonies was their climate was so close to Europe there was very little high profit trade from there. The money was in the caribbean – sugar, indigo etc. Tobacco could also be grown here and for a time it was but to protect trade in America it was banned and led to rioting.

        1. It’s really interesting to think about the role of trade in the early history of the US. We talk today so much about the globalization of the economy; yet there has been trade across the globe for centuries, and it’s had a huge impact on social and political issues, and how countries developed.

  8. With slight adjustments to the styles, all three of these dresses could be used as a basis for dresses for today. For example, the top photo, with a V-neck and short sleeves, and the bottom layer removed would be great! Even the sash around the waist would look nice. 🙂

    1. I hadn’t thought about it; but you’re right, these dresses could provide ideas for dresses today. There were some really nice designs back then.

        1. I’ve definitely seen advertisements for dresses–and for waists (blouses) and women’s suits– in department store advertisements from a hundred years ago. They may have anticipated that the purchaser would need to make alterations (kind of the way it is with men’s suits now.)

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