19 November 2012

Milliner, Millinery, &tc.

This weekend I was lucky to portray an 18th century milliner at the America's Hometown Thanksgiving Celebration in Plymouth, Mass. (Some pictures are on Instagram, but I'll post others here later this week.) To prepare for the event, I researched the terms millinery / milliner. I usually think as a milliner as relating to the art of hat making, and I believe it's separate from a mantua maker who would make gowns, but sometimes it seems that the definition of milliner in the modern vernacular reenacting genre suggests making gowns. Is this definition 18th century valid? What exactly did an 18th century milliner make and sell?

To learn more about 18th century "millinery", I've investigated some primary sources to answer these questions...
A Morning Rable or The Milliner's Shop, 1782
British Museum 1935,0522.1.31
The first print shows the woman in the center sewing a cap. (Thanks to the mirror behind her, I'm pretty sure her hair is braided!) I can't quite tell what the woman on the left is crafting, but maybe it's trim for the petticoat that's hanging behind her? (I love how the ladies are all wearing long sleeves!)

A. Welles Milliner  
Lewis Walpole Library, Accession Number 66 726 T675
This pretty ad doesn't offer much detail to help answer my questions. 

Elizabeth Dawes Milliner, c.1757
Ms. Dawes sells quite an assortment of goods at her shop such as tippets, children's stays and cloaks. Though she doesn't list ladies' gowns, she offers almost every accessory. (I would totally love to shop there!) In exploring the question about milliners specifically making hats, this ad suggests milliners could also be talented seamstresses who crafted, or at least carried, many necessary accessories. 

Mary Elliot Milliner, c.1757-1758
Lewis Walpole Library, Accession Number 66 726 T675
Much like Ms. Dawes' shop, Ms. Elliot's shop offers an assortment of accessories. Though it doesn't appear to have as much variety, I find it interesting that she promotes wholesale prices suggesting that she might contract out goods to other suppliers. 

 Thomas Graham, Milliner and Pattern Drawer, c.1757-1758
 Lewish Wale Pole Library, Accession Number 66 726 T675
Unfortunately we can't learn what more Mr. Graham is selling, but we do learn that, "...all manner of needle-work done after the Newest Fashion." Perhaps this includes gowns?

The charming milliner of ____ Street, December 1771
Lewis Walpole Library, Accession Number 771.
To have worked in the fashion business, the milliner must have been stylish.

A Milliner's Shop or Mrs Monopolize, the butchers wife purchasing a Modern HeadDress, 1772
V&A Accession Number E.620-1997

I found two opposing definitions of the term "Millinery" in different editions of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary. The version I have on my Nook states:

MILLINER (M'ILLINER) I believe from Milaner, an inhabitant of Milan, as a Lombad is a banker. One who sells ribands and dresses for women.

However Dr. Johnson's Dictionary on Google Books says:

Milliner: one who sells ribands, bonnets, caps, &tc. for women.

Dowt, that darn et cetera! I had a Renaissance lit professor in college who said, "The et cetera invites the reader to participate." In this case, because the few other primary sources I found didn't allude to gowns, I think the e-book editor probably took a bit too much liberty in hir editing. I'm concluding, for now, that milliners didn't make gowns and that they focused on hats, caps and an assortment of accessories.

But I invite you to share you interpretations, &tc.


  1. in the millinery shop at williamsburg, we say that milliners essentially created everything /but/ gowns. all manner of accessories for completing one's outfit. many of those things could be bought ready-made, which is very different from how one would generally buy a gown--the mantua maker would make it right upon the customer's body. i recently wrote a research paper on milliners and mantua makers. both trades are inexplicably associated with prostitution and vice, which is part of the story behind the second to last image you posted. it shows a milliner and a prostitute (demi-rep). they are dressed almost exactly the same, giving a not so subtle implication that they are one in the same. a lot of historians believe it may come from the fact that needle trades could be just as unpredictable and unprofitable as they could be profitable. women who cold not earn enough in these trades would turn to prostitution to supplement their income. if you can get your hands on the text from "the london tradesman" and "a general description of all trades", there are descriptions of the millinery trade. i have access to it through my university library at eighteenth century collections online.

    1. Fascinating, thanks for sharing Samantha! I live close to our state university so I'm sure I can get access to the texts you suggested, which I look forward to reading.

  2. Milliners certainly did make dresses. You can see this from the Hogarth sisters, whose brother William designed their trade card, now in the British Museum: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=16530001&objectId=1417274&partId=1. I go into much more detail on the business of milliners (and their oft-repeated connection with prostitution) in the article 'Eleanor Mosley and other milliners in the City of London companies 1700-1750', History Workshop Journal 71, 2011, 147-72.

    1. Hi Amy, thanks for sharing this! I haven't heard of 18th and early 19th century milliners making dresses in the same manner as a mantua maker. (Retrimming, yes but not cutting fabric/fitting.) My research is generally focused on the region where I live, New England. Thanks for sharing your insight, I'd love to read your article!


Your feedback is appreciated. :)