How Chicago Fashion Began



By Judy Carmack Bross




Bicycle Costumes featured in the Diamond Garment Cutter of 1897


When we last met Marissa Croft, research and insights analyst at the Chicago History Museum, she transported us back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to learn about its most popular beverage, orange cider. This month, we encountered her again at the Guild of the Chicago History Museum’s “L Car No. 1 First Look” event, dressed in an 1890s women’s bicycle costume she created herself. The event took guests back in time to 1893, offering an exclusive first look at the Museum’s newly renovated L Car that brought visitors to the fair. Attendees had the chance to chat with Museum curators and guest historical costumers, leading to a lesson in fashion history of how the Diamond Garment Cutter System revolutionized sewing with their pattern books in the 1890s and how women used the World’s Fair to express fashion freedom.


Pattern cutting systems, such as the Diamond Garment Cutter System were a useful and easy alternative to learning how to draft clothing the traditional way and offered a way to create up-to-date looks at home, Croft said. “There would be beautiful illustrations and occasionally a fabric or color suggestions for the garments, for instance ‘this dress looks particularly fetching in green velvet with ecru lace.’” Certain systems even had periodicals readers could subscribe to that would be released each season with the latest styles.  



Croft has described the patterns system on Chicago History Museum blogs, and noted that the Museum has five of these pattern drafting manuals in its collection:


“These books were created as an alternative to paper patterns and promised their users greater flexibility in sizing, since the pieces were drafted individually according to the wearer’s measurements. The system depended upon the use of sets of rulers called apportioning scales/rulers. Initially launched as the National Garment Cutter System in 1884, it was renamed the Diamond Garment Cutter System in the 1890s.”


Apportioning scales/rulers


“A sewist would select a ruler that corresponded to the wearer’s chest or waist measurement, and then copy the diagram onto paper, using the numbers given on the diagram as a reference. The rulers’ markings were spaced closer or further together, so that the resulting pattern would automatically be scaled up or down to fit the wearer’s measurements. There is definitely a lot of math involved, but it was intended to greatly simplify pattern drafting, with the authors boasting that, ‘None have ever before reduced the art of cutting everything worn to but one system and rendered that one so simple that a child can understand, and but with few instructions successfully operate it,’ as stated in The National Garment Cutter General Directions, 1884).


Marissa and Elizabeth Licata at a recent Guild of the Chicago History Museum event


“As a casual cyclist and fashion history enthusiast, I’ve often wondered about how comfortable it actually was to ride in these costumes created for women to have more fashion freedom and enjoy the fun of burgeoning bicycle clubs.  I came across a set of pattern books Chicago tailor W. H. Goldsberry during a research appointment at the Abakanowicz Research Center.  These books contained detailed schematics for creating men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing of the 1890s.”


Croft, who is a member of the Chicago Historical Costume Society whose members gather monthly to wear historical costumes, was attracted to a gathered skirt, bloomers, and: jacket with enormous sleeves called the Ferris wheel sleeve. I knew I had to make this costume and see if the sleeve truly lived up to its name,” she said. “Obviously it was capitalizing on the World’s Fair.”


“My final review of the cyclability of this outfit? I’ve worn it to bike around Chicago and the outdoors several times now, and the bloomers are extremely comfortable. The loose fit ensures your legs stay cool and protected from the sun, and their massive volume, paired with the Ferris wheel sleeves. also increases your visibility on the road to motorists. So, whether you choose to ride around on a bicycle built for one or two, I highly endorse mixing it up and giving cycling bloomers a try!”


Croft, who recently completed her PhD at Northwestern in Rhetoric and Public Culture, is an expert on clothing from the 1890’s as well.  Her dissertation is on clothing rhetoric of the French Revolution, but she also studies the women’s clothing reform movement of the late 19th century. The movement gained a lot of public attention during the Fair. “There were sessions hosted by the National Council of Women at the Arts Palace during the Fair to discuss abandoning the corset, shortening shirts and other changes to make clothing more practical and more appropriate for the occasion.”


Marissa Croft with one of her historic creations


Much thought went into what one would wear to the Fair, whatever your economic status. 


Gowns by Charles Frederick Worth were sought after for the celebratory balls, including by the legendary Bertha Palmer who was the President of the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers.  “Worth’s gowns were immensely popular with wealthy American women, and it was a signal of great status to be able to visit his Paris atelier to be personally fitted for a gown or select from existing designs worn by live models in his studio. For the ordinary American woman who was in need of a special dress, a trusted dressmaker would be able to create something for her based off of the latest trends. A lady of more limited means might turn to pattern books such as these,” Croft said. 



In a blog on Fashion and the Fair, Croft found articles by Los Angeles Times reporter Lida Rose McCabe who wrote a month before the Fair: “Everybody is going to the World’s Fair . . . We all desire to look our best there, and to be at our best.”


Women’s Fashion at the Chicago World’s Fair,  Chicago History Museum, ICHi-170162  


 “Women’s fashion magazines leapt at the chance to offer advice to their readers on how to look their best, because “The majority of women who contemplate going to the Chicago Exposition are inexperienced travelers . . . the journey in many instances will be the first, the greatest ‘outing’ of their lives. Naturally they want to make a good appearance and get the most out of the occasion,” McCabe wrote. “Selecting outfits carefully was critical, as travelers were limited in the amount of luggage that they could bring on the train for their multiple week long stays: one medium hard-sided “telescope” case and a large clasp top handbag or “alligator bag.”


On the Midway Plaisance a building housed the International Dress and Costume Exhibit which contained examples of women’s dress from 40 different countries and the Libbey Glass Company exhibited a gown made entirely of fiberglass.


The Famous Glass Dress from Libbey Glass Company’s Crystal Palace in Midway Plaisance, World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893


Croft told us that clothing was traditionally made at home or by tailors/dressmakers but after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 ready-to-wear clothing industry grew and was one of the City’s strongest industries until the Great Depression.  Large factories were established with assembly lines. A pioneer in the field Joseph Schaffner of Hart, Schaffner & Marx grew his firm to 8000 workers and became one of the country’s leading manufacturers of men’s clothes.  New York remained the center of women’s clothing, with only a small market in Chicago. However, there was a thriving accessories market, with D.B. Fisk for women’s hats and Florsheim Shoes which began as a small factory in 1892.


Croft said there was often great animosity between the tailors and cutters through the late 19th century and into the 20th.  “It was definitely class based as well as skills based.  The cutters who worked for the head merchant tailor, did the labor-intensive process of measuring, drafting patterns, and cutting out the fabric, while the tailor assembled the finished garments. The cutters often were recent immigrants from Germany and Ireland.”



For a family of limited means, the new pattern books were a boon. “Because this system claimed to be equally well-equipped for making men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing, a mother with adequate sewing skills could outfit her entire family. When it comes to using these books as a modern sewist, it was a challenge to sew my first piece, but with each piece it becomes easier.  These pattern books don’t provide much instruction for assembling the garment, so the drafting process is much easier than the sewing! Once you know which ruler to use, but then it becomes just a question of scaling up the diagrams. To figure out how to put the pieces together, I consulted other tailors’ manuals of the period and looked at extant garments.”


To learn more from Croft’s fascinating blogs visit: