In the 1878 City Directory at least 34 dressmakers were listed as having places of business in Montgomery. Many of these addresses indicated that the businesses were located on the second and third floors above other types of establishments such as a mercantile store. Customers purchased fabrics from the mercantile and trimming from the fancy goods store. Paper patterns could be bought or the dressmaker may use one of her own patterns. The availability of paper patterns and sewing machines made it possible for many women to become dressmakers. By 1885 half of American households had sewing machines so many women could do some of the work and leave intricate parts to a professional dressmaker. As the garments got progressively more complex to cut and make, the profession of “dressmaker” evolved, and word of mouth was important in developing a good reputation as a dressmaker. The designation of “seamstress” meant that one was probably skilled in a variety of work such as tablecloths, towels, curtains and other domestic products as well as garments.
By the end of the 19th century, millinery, also known as hat-making, had become a respectable occupation for women. The occupation was deemed essentially feminine, and it was thought that men were usually lacking in the delicacy of touch which was necessary to the proper handling of frail materials. The 1880 City Directory listed four millinery shops with 15 milliners working in these shops as well as in larger mercantile establishments. The way to keep sales humming was to keep up with the changing fashion trends. With Montgomery’s prime location on the Alabama River, boats were arriving daily up from Mobile, as well as trains carrying the latest fashion news from the more urban areas. Each year there were two fashion seasons— the autumn, comprising about three months, and the spring, about four months.
Milliners stored their merchandise in drawers and boxes to keep them clean. They displayed only a few items and pulled out others when customers asked to see them. They sold trimmings and accessories as well as hats. Milliners could also assemble some garments and there is a lot of crossover especially mid 18th and early 19th century. In urban areas, the Millinery Shops continued to thrive as there was always a place for personal service and stylish design.