Catalogue of the Sweated Industries' Exhibition of 1906
Sponsored by the Daily News and held at the Queen's Hall from May 2nd to 29th.
Museum of London Archives
‘Dressmaking’ by Mary Neal
It is difficult to describe in a short article a trade in which so many grades of workers are employed, for there is a world of difference between those employed in a first-class West-end house and those who make dresses for working folk, or are employed by firms turning out ready-made articles.
For the purposes of this article, therefore, I shall confine myself to those who work for the west-end trade.
I should like first of all to record my personal observations made during the last ten years, because from them one gathers how much and in what way agitations and exhibitions such as this affect trade.
Some eight years ago I wrote an account of the evils existing, especially in connection with West-end dressmaking and tailoring, and I was able to quote case after case of hardship and wrong. The improvement which I see today, judging largely from the girls whom I know in my club, is very considerable, and I could not conscientiously write today what was perfectly true eight or nine years ago. I believe that this is largely owing to the awakening of people's consciences on the question of sweating, and to the enquiries and agitations of such bodies as the Christian Social Union, the Women's Industrial Council, and others. All this has borne much fruit, and we see it in an all round improvement in more than one trade.
But there is still much to be done before either men or women can wear even really good and expensive clothing with a clear conscience, and I propose to point out what still needs to be done.
Season work.- From the workers point of view the fact that dressmaking is a season trade is its greatest drawback. Roughly, the season is from the week before Easter to the second week of July, with a few slack days at Easter and Whitsuntide, and a short autumn season in October and beginning of November.
This means that it is quite usual for a girl to be on short time or
out of work altogether for several months of the year. Of course this gives the casual enquirer very little idea of the actual wages earned. A work-girl is always plucky, and she likes to put the best face on things, also to give herself the advantage of her best week's money when applying for work. Last week I had occasion to ask a very good dressmaker what she earned. "£1 a week," was her reply. "Do you have much slack time?" I asked. "Yes; I don't suppose I average more than 14/- a week all the year round." She is 30 years of age, works in Oxford Street, and has been in the trade all her life. She will never earn more, because, unless a girl is especially lucky in becoming a fitter or first hand, she reaches her maximum wage-earning capacity when quite young, and before a year or two is over she earns less sooner than more each time she changes her place.
Another drawback to the trade is that a girl is apt to be kept exclusively to one branch of work, as, for instance, sleeves, and so she finds it very difficult to get an all-round knowledge without constantly changing places, and almost starting fresh each time. Few girls can afford to do this, and so they go on year in year out at the same thing, and soon lose all enterprise and desire to improve. If one is interested in a girl one has to urge her to "try her luck" again and again, and be prepared to stand in and help her if things
turn out too hard for her.
The trade is not a healthy one, the constant sitting and stooping over the work soon means bent backs and anaemic blood. The longest hours come in the hottest time of the year; there are few dressmakers who have spent a June day otherwise than in a heated and stuffy workroom.
I think, too, that the display and luxury with which young girls just at the age when they love finery and pleasure are brought into contact is very bad for them, the contrast between their lives of drudgery and the lives of the girls for whom they make the pretty frocks, for parties of all sorts, for open-air pleasures and indoor revels, cannot fail to give them false ideas of what real beauty is, and I know that in some of them, often of the finest spirit, it implants a bitterness which no after experience can obliterate. But I have learned that no smallest accepted responsibility on the part of the purchaser, no smallest effort towards a more human relationship with those who work is lost, and that the years as they pass are bringing nearer and still nearer a time when a sane, wholesome and beautiful life will not be impossible to anyone who contributes to the wealth of the community.