Machine Knitted Jersey and Victorian women’s apparel by Dani Trew
Machine-knitted jersey is such an unremarkable fabric for western women’s everyday wear that it can often go unnoticed, both by its wearers and by design historians. While a body of literature is slowly emerging around hand knitting, very little has been written about its machine-knitted counterpart. This is unsurprising considering how few pieces of mass-produced knitwear make it into museum collections generally – both because of collecting practices and because of low survival rates. Yet it is the quotidian nature of machine-knitted woollen garments that make them such an interesting area for the design historian.
The standard history of women’s fashion often nods to the importance of machine-knitted jersey. Semi-mechanised versions of the fabric have been used for hosiery and undergarments since the sixteenth century, but it is Gabrielle Chanel who is commonly cited as the first to use it for women’s outerwear. Her use of it in the 1920s has been described as ‘revolutionary’ and deeply ‘modern’ because its stretch afforded women more movement and because of its previous connection with men’s sportswear.  A jersey bodice in the V&A’s collection which dates from the 1880s, however, radically undermines this established narrative.
The bodice emulates a riding habit and the ‘tailor-made’ jackets of the 1880s. A handful of dress historians have discussed jersey bodices from the 1880s and have figured them as an antecedent to the more practical and androgynous clothes of the twentieth century.  While the jersey bodice was undoubtedly expressive of – and instrumental in – movements towards more functional and less strongly gendered clothing, contemporary sources also highlight its thinness and tightness, which ushered in specially modified corsets that resulted in connections with nudity and gender difference.  Such ambiguities and the contemporary significance of the garment are evident in the sheer quantity of eulogies, satires, advertisements and other commentaries surrounding its emergence. 
The earliest record of the jersey bodice appears to be a photograph of Princess Alexandra and her daughters wearing them on board the royal yacht at the Cowes Regatta in 1878. While Redfern and Sons are often cited as the originators of the jersey bodice (for an outfit for Lillie Langtry, also worn at Cowes Regatta a year later) , those worn by the royal family appear to have actually been made by Corah of Leicester who were one of the first hosiery companies to diversify into outerwear.
While one part of the garment’s initial popularity was due to its affiliations with aristocratic and celebrity culture, another was the increasing facility and cheapness with which large swathes of knitted jersey could be produced. The hosiery industry had always created finished garments rather than just fabric. Yet whereas previous garments had been fully-fashioned, the development of circular knitting machines meant that jersey could be produced in great lengths and then cut and sewn, like any other material, into a bodice.  In many ways, therefore, the jersey bodice and other cut-and-sew garments from the hosiery industry served to pave the way for readymade clothes more generally.  This was due to mechanisation, the cheap labour of female workers, and the longstanding connection between hosiery and ready-made clothes, but it was also because of the stretchiness of the wool jersey itself.  The stretch of the material meant that it was much easier to fit bodices without complex and personalised tailoring – the lack of darts on the V&A bodice reflects this.
As a result, the jersey bodice became popular outside of elite circles. Yet the democratization of a previously aristocratic fashion was clearly unsettling for some. In a Punch cartoon from 1880, entitled ‘SIC TRANSIT!’ a woman is shown wearing a tight fitting jersey bodice. The caption reads ‘ Alas, for the pretty Jersey Costume! ‘Andsome ‘Arriet, the ‘Ousemaid has got it at last, and it fits her just as well as her Missus.’
Over the course of the 1880s jersey outerwear emerged as a flexible, attractive and relatively inexpensive product available to a geographically and socially wide-ranging market. A hundred years later, in the 1980s, a Vogue article by Andre Leon Talley, says of jersey, ‘It is the miracle fabric: easy to live with, it moves with the body. Women demand wool jersey’.  The fabric’s sustained popularity in women’s outerwear is striking and intimately linked with modernity. It makes this humble jersey bodice in the V&A’s collection – representative of its first transition into women’s outerwear – a vitally important and singular object in a museum collection, and in the history of women’s dress.