|The Seamstress (1858) by Charles Baugniet|
The ladies of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford aren't alone in their practice of 'elegant economy'. Altering dresses to keep up with the prevailing style is a recurring theme in stories and magazine articles of the 1860s.
"Nothing, it seems to us, could be more graceful in a lady, in these times, than a little self-denial. Alter, turn, and freshen the dress that is passe. Buy new frames, and make new bonnets of the old. The dress that has been worn one season,--why not wear it another?" -The Ladies Repository 1865
Instructions from 1862 (appearing in both Godey's and Genessee Farmer) recommend disassembling a silk dress for washing, and taking the opportunity to update the sleeves. This is hardly a new practice: in The Behavior Book (1839/55), Miss Leslie advises buying an extra 1.5-2 yards when purchasing dress material, so that there fabric in reserve for new sleeves and any mending or alteration that may come up.
"Old Basquines can be modernized by cutting them shorter, especially in the front, and by making the sleeves narrow." -Peterson's, July 1865.
Peterson's and Godey's both ran the same article in 1862 about updating and widening plain, 2 or 3 flounce skirts.
Peterson's (1862) has tips for stylishly remaking dresses:
There have been but few new goods imported this season, economy being the order of the day. Old dresses are "made to look like new" as nearly as possible. Skirts worn out at the bottom are renewed or lengthened by a bias band, plaiting or ruffle, or silk of black or some color contrasting well with the dress. In this way two old dresses often make one stylish new one. Then antiquated bodies or worn out bodies are discarded and jaunty Zonave jackets with white shirt bodies and sleeves, or Garibaldi shirts, take their place. As the season advances, pique or Marseilles will take the place of silk or flannel for these articles.A recurring motif in period stories is the economically-minded middle class woman in her re-made finery--occupying the same economic perch as the March family from Little Women. I find it telling that quality of the material is the limiting factor in these cases: the labor to mend, alter, clean, and re-work these old dresses is no barrier to wear.
"On the bed lay my dress that poor old Swiss which I had worn ever since leaving off short frocks. It had been pieced down and tucked for this occasion; my own hands had clear-starched it to the last degree of sheerness and mamma by much contrivance had managed to procure fresh sash and gloves."
"I cannot afford a new gown for you, Kate; but we will have Miss Brown to make over my green brocade."
--"Katy Keith" and "Five Years" in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1863)Another Godey's 1862 article outlines various re-making practices, including cutting down old dresses for petticoats, mantles, children's clothing, etc. Again, labor is cheap (assumed free), but the material is viewed as pricey enough to warrant recycling.
A favorite reference for resourcefulness is the 1866 Godey's article "Dress Under Difficulties", which recounts the tricks blockaded Southern women used to freshen their wardrobes. While not all techniques will apply outside of late-war Southern impressions, I think the piece offers some insight into how problems of dress were considered and addressed. It also has some interesting hints at how long certain garments were expected to be in service: the author notes, for instance, an "organdy muslin dress" lasting five summers or a crepe bonnet lasting three seasons (with the implication that these were impressively long periods).