“When dressmakers became aware of their creative capacity, they started to label their creations.”

Laura Casal-Valls, art historian and fashion analyst

We take a trip to the roots of Barcelonafashion with art historian and fashion analyst, Laura Casal-Valls. She talks to us about the dressmakers of the 19th century: executives, entrepreneurs, and creative pioneers.


Why do we not know the names of the great dressmakers of Barcelonaof the 19th century? When and why did dressmakers start to label their creations? These are the questions we asked Laura Casal-Valls.


Casal-Valls has spent years researching the history of dressmakers working in the city in the 19th century. Immersed in the last part of her doctoral thesis, the historian wishes to share the conclusions of her latest research with This research has received an award from the Institute for Catalan Studies (IEC) and is published in the book Del treball anònim a l’etiqueta: modistes i context social a la Catalunya del segle XIX, editorial Duxlem.


Learning about the origins of haute couture through the research of Casal-Valls enables us to understand and interpret better the creative capacity that identifies the city ofBarcelonaand its fashion industry.


“Many things are explained through clothes: they are a document in themselves. We can understand the taste for luxury of the era, the poverty, morality, the technological level of the industry”, says the historian.


Few people like Casal-Valls have dedicated themselves to unfolding the history of the Catalan dressmakers so thoroughly. The story that she has reconstructed clearly influences the direction Catalan fashion has taken in subsequent centuries.


Maria Montagne, Maria Molist, Madame Lebrun and Madame Renaud are the best-known names on the great list of dressmakers, protagonists of the 19th century, of the famous economic activity of the Barcelona fashion sector.


History, either on purpose or by chance, has given them no place in the collective imagination. Therefore, unlike other creators of the time like Balenciaga and Pedro Rodríguez, their work mostly remained anonymous throughout the years. Nevertheless, the solidity of Casal-Valls’s work allows us to understand the role played by these creators in giving shape to a sector that today is renowned worldwide:Barcelonafashion.


In the 19th century, Barcelona experienced major economic activity centred on the fashion sector, led by renowned dressmakers who enjoyed prestige among the Catalan bourgeoisie. Approximately, how many women are we talking about?

At the end of the 19th century, there were approximately three hundred dressmakers with premises and a fixed address. It is a very high number and it is linked to the fact that the numbers of pupils in dressmaking schools were rising each year. They are very high numbers if we consider the size of the city’s population at the time.


Why did their names not make history?

First of all, because they were women. Also, the work that they did, dressmaking by hand, did not begin to have any value until the advent of Art Nouveau. That period re-assessed manual trades and that included textile work.


In addition, history is treacherous and is not interested in the more social aspect that reveals the reality of the workers –fashion designers were really workers– until later on.


On top of that, clothes are ephemeral and become outdated. We have been left with a very small portion of what was produced at the time. And lastly, very few of these clothes were labelled.


The dressmakers of Barcelona started to label their creations around 1880. Why?

I would say that there was a revolution within the sector itself. The dressmakers realized that they were just copying the creations they saw inParis. They became aware of their own creative capacity. In fact, the Catalan bourgeoisie not only wanted a dress made by these dressmakers; they also liked the aura of distinction associated with the name of the dressmaker.


Did they label their creations so that clients could distinguish themselves from one another?

Yes, they started to label their items because industrial production of clothing began around 1887 with the first department stores inBarcelona. This made them want to differentiate their work. The idea was to distinguish their creations so that their clients would be unique in relation to other members of their social class.


Why did the Montagne sisters and Maria Molist become famous, along with a few others?

They had great historical good fortune. The Montagne sisters are well-known because some of their labelled creations still remain. Additionally, one of their relatives is alive and can give information about them. They were not the most important dressmakers;  there were many more that we do not know about who had a well-established, renowned clientele.


Joana Valls is a dressmaker that we knew nothing about. You are piecing together her life story. How are you going about it?

It is very difficult to find information about these people. Occasionally, you can find invoices or there is access to business records or to the notary who dealt with them. The press is the best source for studying these relatively fluid phenomena – we don‘t know where they end.

In this sense, Joana Valls was very famous, but nothing has been written down about her career. According to some documents that I have found, this dressmaker was already working in 1885. Among other things, these documents explain that a painting by Ramon Cases which she owned was seized. Not everyone had a painting by this painter at the time.


Are we talking about dressmakers with a high social status?

They were not working women, what we know as needleworkers. These women had cultural and social relationships with the affluent classes of Barcelona society.


Some letters written by musician Frederic Mompou to his mother have given you further insight into the life of dressmaker Maria de Mataró. What did you learn from these letters?

They have been a very valuable find. Mompou explains to his mother that Maria de Mataró was staying in his house inParis. She was in the fashion capital looking for designs and patterns.

From those few lines, we learn that, unlike the other women of the time, dressmakers were able to associate with men without prejudice, they could travel alone and they had contact with the Catalan intellectual elite. Therefore, we can assume that they were very professional entrepreneurs.


We are talking about the 19th century, a time when women were very restricted in terms of public life. What allowed dressmakers to promote their own fashion businesses?

This sector was probably of no interest to men. Dressmaking was considered to be something that was morally good for a woman to do.


At the end of the 18th century, women did not have access to the dressmaking business. How did they manage to legalize their situation?

In 1675, women were given permission to work in the field of dressmaking. It was not considered appropriate for them to be dressed by the opposite sex. This standardization process reached its peak with the Royal Decree issued by Carles III in 1784. Thanks to this decree, women were allowed not only to work, but also to have their own workshop and shop.


What role did these dressmakers play in establishing the foundations of the fashion industry as we know it today?

I would like to think that they played a part, but I think this may be a romantic notion. The fashion market as we know it today started in the 19th century with much more global, international patterns.


But the dressmakers were also pioneers in patenting dressmaking and pattern-cutting systems.

Yes, for example, the well-known Martí system, which is still used today, was patented by Carmen Martínez de Misé in 1893. Before that, Carmen Ruiz y Alà patented one in 1877. The latter had a dressmaking and pattern-cutting school and she promoted public cutting studies inBarcelona. A great step forward for training the women of the sector.

All in all, 28 pattern-cutting, measuring and dressmaking systems for women’s clothing were patented inBarcelonabetween 1880 and 1914. The majority of these methods were registered by women. Only 3 were registered under a man’s name.


Were all of these anonymous dressmakers responsible for the origins of haute couture in Barcelona?

It is possible to conclude that the origins of haute couture coincide with the development of Art Nouveau and they were linked to the professionalization of the figure of the dressmaker and to the recognition of her work.

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