Woman’s Institute Fashion Service, 1921 – 1924

If you are into vintage sewing or the history of home sewing, it’s pretty much assured that you’ve run across Mary Brooks Picken at some point. In addition to the many books she wrote on sewing and dress, she started the Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences in 1916. Woman’s Institute was a mail-order school, and at its peak in the 1920s, there were close to 300,000 women enrolled.

The lessons were mailed to each student, who then had to pass a test before progressing. Some of the lessons required that the student submit a sample of sewn work. Students could submit questions about a lesson by mail and get a reply from one of the teachers.

When I was in home ec class in the early 1970s, learning to sew actually meant learning to produce a garment by following the directions in a commercial pattern. Through the Woman’s Institute, students were taught to make a garment by following the directions for cutting, and by draping the fabric on the body. It was a very skilled process, more in line with what students in a design curriculum learn today.

Every student taking the dressmaking class got a magazine called Fashion Service. At first it was sent twice a year, but by the mid 1920s it became a monthly publication. Fashion Service gave advice and instruction on the latest styles, sort of an update to the regular lessons. Last week I was lucky to find some issues of Fashion Service in a nearby antique mall.

The magazine was divided into themes, like sports dress, tunic dress, one piece dress, and after 1923, the one hour dress. These two dresses from 1921 are sports dresses. On the adjacent page were Picken’s instructions for making each design.

This looks a bit sparce, but each student had to rely on what she’d learned from her lessons, and there was another full page of general instructions for making the sports dress.

Click to enlarge

And some styles were given a full page of illustrations to show how to drape the dress.

Click to enlarge

And don’t think that the designs were all very simple. It seems that no design was too complicated for the Woman’s Institute student.

Most of the garments featured were dresses, but most issues also had a page of blouses and skirts, a page of coats, and a few pages of clothes for the children. Absent was instruction in lingerie and bathing suits.

Picken knew her students, so each issue also had a page of what she called “home dresses”. Somehow that just sounds better than “house dress”, I think.

Millinery was covered in a separate course, but Fashion Service usually had a page or two on the latest in hats.

There were a few playsuits with bloomers for little girls…

but in the seven issues I have ranging from 1921 to 1924, there was only one design for women that featured pants. This knickers set looks a bit odd at first glance, but the tunic in the large illustration is actually the skirt that was “for town wear.” This was probably an improvement over the idea of mountaineer Annie Peck, who in 1901 suggested that a skirt worn in town could be “left under a rock” when on the trail.



Filed under Fashion Magazines, Sewing

12 responses to “Woman’s Institute Fashion Service, 1921 – 1924

  1. What a great find, Lizzie. I enjoyed learning about the Women’s Institute. Was it related to the Women’s Institutes in the UK? Those are still around, the British version of Extension Homemakers. [Cue the BBC drama “Home Fires”!]


  2. Caroline Milbank

    Hello – she was a friend of my grandmother’s and “took an interest” in me as a teenager, a formative experience!
    Thanks for writing about her!
    Always love reading your pieces.
    Best regards,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One of my first experiences in draping as a way of generating sewing patterns was a play set in the 1920’s — and I was lucky to have a 1923 booklet from the Woman’s Institute to give me a few clues. It does help to have a professional dressmaker’s mannequin to pin the fabric to, since it’s not easy to drape on your own body. I can’t help noting that Ms. Picken’s timing was impeccable, since the fashions of the early twenties were so much less complex than those of the previous decades.


  4. jacq staubs

    MORE GREAT ART /ILLUSTRATIONS! YOU most likely have already 9nvestigated this – ( however ) after following you now for a few years – i think you should have your collection of fashion illustrations appraised and cataloged separately. Have you ever considered it? Just a thought. Love the ladies names!


  5. Pam

    Hi, Lizzie!

    What a delicious post – I could just about eat up those outfits! And the history of the Women’s Institute is fascinating. Thanks!



  6. Mim

    Would the women have made clothes for themselves? Draping a sleeve on onesself seems like very tricky work.


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