French history book traces reaching influence of 18th century seamstresses

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Conjure up an image of an 18th-century Frenchwoman, and what do you see? Marie Antoinette, perhaps, dressed in an elaborately pouffed and layered gown of silk, its edges embellished with ribbons and lace, both the bodice and hemline dangerously low.

Thanks to portraits, paintings and drawings, we have a good idea of what the Queen of France, her court and even her more humble countrywomen looked like, but we knew almost nothing about the women who made their clothing or the way their labor was organized, until now.

Challenges. A new history of the seamstresses’ guild in France delivers the material, so to speak, on dressmaking and the dressmakers – a large and successful collection. Along the way, the book challenges pre-existing ideas about women’s work in early modern Europe.

In “Fabricating Women: The Seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1675-1791,” author Clare Haru Crowston argues that the women of this time period were not merely “parasitic consumers” of new fashions, but also “the most important makers and sellers of female clothing.”

Their work allowed them to become agents of change for their gender.

Details explored. Combining archival evidence with images, technical literature, philosophical treatises and fashion journals, Crowston, historian at the University of Illinois, not only explores the details – techniques seamstresses used to make and sell clothing – but also examines larger questions, like the social, economic and political impacts of their guild from the reign of Louis XIV to the Revolution.

Seamstresses formed one of the largest trades in Old Regime France, consistently outnumbering tailors in their independent or joint guilds. One of the reasons for their success was the scarcity of alternatives, as a result of restrictions on female employment in many trades.

Breaking boundaries. In Crowston’s portrait of the private lives of seamstresses, readers can see how they went beyond traditional boundaries by choosing to remain single and establish their own households.

Individually and as a group, the seamstresses contributed greatly to “a new articulation of the difference between male and female work,” and, indeed, to “changing gender ideologies.”

Not insignificantly, the garments they made “both reflected and shaped modern conceptions of femininity.”

Seamstresses, therefore, can be characterized as feminists, Crowston argues, to the extent that they “aimed to redress the particular limitations women faced in economic and social life.”

They were “self-conscious of the inequalities imposed on women in the labor market and therefore viewed their trade as a protected haven of female work and autonomy.”

Still, Crowston concedes that the guild’s success had paradoxical consequences for women. Its growing membership and visibility “ultimately fostered an essentialized femininity that was tied to fashion and appearances.”

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