College of LAS « Illinois

History

The Female Seamstress

The women behind the 18th century frocks.

seamtress

Thanks to portraits, paintings, and drawings, we have a good idea of what the Queen of France, her court, and humble countrywomen looked like in the 18th century—wearing pouffed and layered gowns of silk with plunging necklines. But we have known almost nothing about the women who made their clothing or the way their labor was organized, until now.

Research by history professor Clare Haru Crowston is delivering the material, so to speak, on dressmaking and the dressmakers—a large and successful coterie of couturiers.

By combining archival evidence with images, technical literature, philosophical treatises, and fashion journals, Crowston has learned that 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.

In their private lives, says Crowston, seamstresses went beyond traditional boundaries by choosing to remain single and establish their own households. 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."

Spring 2003