Dress Patterns and Democracy

Ellen (Curtis) Demorest was born in New York in 1824. With her father having a hat factory, Ellen had a natural calling to the fashion industry. At the age of 18, she set up her own millinery shop. At age 34, she married a widower and they set up a retail store in Philadelphia.

Ellen and her sister saw a need for simplifying dressmaking. When they saw Ellen’s African American maid using butcher paper to make a dress pattern, they came up with an idea. They began to create dress designs of fashionable garments using low-cost tissue paper. The problem was that the patterns were specific to the size of the person. Ellen’s sister and husband developed a mathematical formula that would allow one pattern to be used for any size.

The patterns that Ellen developed were from the lowest fashions. Since the patterns only cost $.12-$1.00, women across America could wear the latest fashions. This had a democratizing effect on American women no matter their socio-economic status, women could be proud of their clothing. Ellen became known as Madame Demorest and established herself as the fashion maven for American women of modest means. The Demorest’s were progressive in their hiring and business practices. They hired African Americans to work along with Whites. If there was an objection to working with African Americans, employees were fired. If customers didn’t like being served by an African American, they were suggested to shop elsewhere.

Ellen and her husband never patented their designs. It didn’t take long for others to copy their designs as their own. The Demorest’s decided to sell their business. They used the money from selling their business to support a number of social causes they believed in. These included equal rights for women, abolition of slavery, increasing rights for women and people of color, and alcohol prohibition.

We don’t often think of the roots of democracy in such common things as a dress pattern. But just imagine what Madame Demorest’s dress patterns did for women across America. It lifted them up by giving them access to clothing long denied to them. They helped reduce societal divides. Democracy will struggle when society is divided. In its own, perhaps small way, the ability of women to fashion themselves with dresses that were once only available to the elite reduced the divide in our society.

The fact that the Demorest’s used the financial gain from selling their business to support social justice causes made their efforts even more crucial to the support of democracy.

Just imagine what each of us could do to lift up the life of another. Isn’t that the real trait of what it takes to be a democratic citizen?

* * *

“We rise by lifting others.” – Unknown

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.