The Empress of Patterns

Starting out in what is today Tribeca, Madame Demorest pioneered the art of putting dressmaking—and fashionable clothes—in the hands of all women.

A century and a half ago, when the eastern half of Tribeca was the textile capital of the U.S., one woman stood out as an economic powerhouse in what was essentially an all-male world. Known everywhere as Madame Demorest, she had introduced the technique of mass-producing tissue-paper dress patterns and thereupon had founded a business that expanded until it ultimately held sway not only throughout this country but all over the world.

Born to a well-to-do upstate family in 1824, Ellen Louise Curtis decided in her teens to become a milliner, or ladies’ hat maker, and at age 18 she opened her own millinery shop in her home town of Schuylerville.

Business was good, and so Nell, as she was known, moved to New York City, where she continued to do well. But presently—in the 1850s—she decided to change her focus. One day she noticed that her maid was cutting rudimentary dress patterns from crude brown wrapping paper. All at once the idea hit her: why not print such patterns on tissue paper, which was far cheaper and could be replicated and distributed endlessly at low cost?

Soon she had figured out a mathematical formula that would enable her—or the buyer—to adapt such patterns for different sizes and figure shapes. The scheme held great promise, and the timing was fortuitous, for the sewing machine had just been invented and young women were eager to try their hand at dressmaking.

Meanwhile Nell had met a young widower named William Jennings Demorest, a dry goods merchant and promoter and, like her, from upstate New York. In 1858 the two were married. Demorest was already operating a store called Madame Demorest’s Emporium of Fashion at 375 Broadway, just south of White Street, and presently he and Nell decided that she should henceforth be known for trade purposes as “Mme. Demorest.”

Then Demorest had another scheme. Needing a vehicle with which to advertise Nell’s patterns, in 1860 he began publishing a quarterly magazine called Mme. Dem­orest’s Mir­ror of Fash­ion that meticulously de­scribed Nell’s de­signs and even included a sample pattern stapled in­side it. The magazine proved highly popular  and soon was selling throughout the U.S. and abroad; within a decade the Demorests had some 1,500 agencies, or merchandising branches, and were selling 3 million patterns a year.

The patterns were inexpensive—those for blouses went for 18 cents, while dresses “elegantly trimmed” were $1 and infants’ patterns sold for 12 cents apiece—and were constantly changing, as Nell was keenly aware that the fashion market demanded up-to-the-minute styles. Not only did she and her sister Kate (who had become her chief stylist) keep improving and changing their product, but each year Nell would travel to London and Paris to pick up the latest trends and would send notes back to Kate who would produce new patterns for their eager customers.

Competitors admitted she led the field. Wrote one rival, “What Madame Demorest says is supreme law in the fashion realm of this country.”
One successful innovation was a small hoop-skirt that was an acceptable and far more manageable alternative to the otherwise popular full hoop-skirt. For customers unwilling to give up the full hoop Nell devised what she called the Imperial dress-elevator, an arrangement of weighted strings that enabled the wearer to lift up a corner of the hoop to prevent it from dipping in the gutter.
And all the time Nell was supervising her successful business she was helping to expand opportunities for women. She hired white and black women on equal terms, founded an early women’s club and served as treasurer of the New York Medical College for Women.

There was only one problem with the Demorests’ glory ride. In all the rush to found a new business and keep innovating, the couple had never sought to patent Madame Dem­orest’s methods.

But in 1863 a rival pioneer, one Ebenezer Butterick from Sterling, Mass., had independently developed his own system for producing paper patterns, and he had patented his methods. In the 1880s Nell and William found Butterick’s business eating into their own and in 1887 they reluctantly decided to fold. They devoted their remaining years to worthy causes they had long espoused, such as temperance and women’s suffrage. And so the Demorest business quietly expired, leaving the field to Ebenezer But­terick—whose firm, despite many name changes and ownerships, exists to this day.

The Butterick camp stoutly claims it invented the paper pattern scheme. Don’t believe it. The dates prove it: Nell Demorest was first.