The role of design, technology, female labour, and business networks in the rise of the fashionable, lightweight, ready-made blouse in Britain, 1909-1919

  • Suzanne Rowland

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This interdisciplinary thesis investigates the wholesale production of fashionable readymade blouses between 1909 and 1919. The 1910s has not previously been understood as an era of factory produced blouses. Yet high demand for ready-made blouses from busy working women offered new money-making opportunities for a range of wholesale manufacturers. Most profit could be made from the middle to lower end of the trade. Four or five blouses and one plain skirt made an ideal working wardrobe for a clerical worker. Importantly, this was the first time that working-class women bought multiples of a single item of fashionable clothing.

The timeframe is defined by key changes in fashion, resulting in the simplification and looser fit of blouses from c.1909 which suited mass production techniques. The end date 1919 marks the introduction of the blouse-tunic; a precursor to the shift dress of the 1920s. This is an under investigated, but important, decade in dress history that bridges the gap between the Edwardian and modern periods.

Object-focused research is central to this investigation. Important primary sources found in British and American museum collections include cutting and sewing machinery and surviving blouses. This thesis demonstrates the importance of unifying garment and textile study. Examination of blouses alongside cloth samples and fashion journals reveals how textiles were woven with visual and cultural signifiers relating to class and morality.

Blouse makers worked most effectively when in synchronicity with their machines. This efficient human/machine relationship, which was key to generating profit, is analysed through Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT). Through ANT’s application this study has retrieved stories of anonymous female blouse designers, cutters, makers, finishers, and forewomen, who, importantly, were also blouse wearers. These female voices are brought to life through storytelling whereby fragments of evidence combine to enact emotional and sensory embodied experiences on the factory floor. Thus, this thesis emphasises how the rise in demand and consumption of fashionable ready-made blouses is indivisible from the women who made them.
Date of AwardFeb 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorCharlotte Nicklas (Supervisor) & Damon Taylor (Supervisor)

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