Fabricating Women: The Seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1675-1791

In 1675 the Parisian seamstresses’ guild was born under the ministry of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who was eager to foster textile industry in France. Tailors had a monopoly on men’s articles of dress and formal court wear for men and women, while women already worked extensively as seamstresses. The guild made them more taxable, and they were given the official right to produce clothes for women and children up to eight years old. In addition, seamstresses gained a clarification of their status and the rights common to corporations, such as the ability to engage in lawsuits, take loans, and own property collectively (174-75). 1791 marked the end of corporations, including the seamstresses’ guilds abolished by the revolutionary government.

In the first section of Fabricating Women, “Making the Goods”—which relies mostly on printed sources—Crowston successfully evokes the dressmakers (male tailors as well as female seamstresses), their everyday trade challenges, their living conditions, and their status. She describes the birth of fashion and the moral, medical, sociological, and ideological controversies it fostered, such as the use of whalebones in stays that were eventually held responsible for deformities and ailments in aristocratic women and children, or the scandal created by a very wide skirt (hoopskirt) because it could hide pregnancies. This chapter also follows the division of goods among dress-makers, fashion merchants, tailors, embroiderers, used clothes menders and merchants. In addition, the author also studies the seamstresses’ clients: the evolving fashions dictating what women wore, their projected image in selected clothes, the power and status conferred by given types of clothes, colors, or choice of fabrics.

For the second and third sections, “Making the Guilds” and “Making the Mistress,” Crowston consulted manuscripts in several Parisian institutions, including Archives Nationales, Bibliothèque Nationale, Archives de Paris et de l’ancien département de la Seine, and the libraries of L’Arsenal and Doucet. These sources yielded information on laws and regulations for the guilds, correspondence between the royal controller general, the municipal government of Paris, the French Catholic Church’s sponsorship of apprenticeship, notarial archives, audits, police archives, prints and engravings, bankruptcy records, and the succession of Rose Bertin. Crowston also used manuscripts from Caen, Marseilles, and Aix-en-Provence in her comparisons of provincial guilds, which reveal that seamstresses’ guilds had interests adapted to regional variations in the laws and economics regulating women’s dowries, inheritance, and marriage. These sources also show discrepancies between literary authors’ representations of women’s work and actual practices, suggesting that historians who relied on those authors may have been misled by the ideology of the time.

In these two sections, Crowston picks up a main argument from her introduction, which is to disprove historians’ assumption that women only lived and worked in the private rather than the public sphere. More specifically, she claims that her study redresses a warped notion influenced by Rousseau, perhaps via Molière, which made them assume that “thimble, threads, and needle” (Les Femmes savants II vii) were essentially female attributes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Seamstresses apparently used this stereotype to their advantage, but their aim was to secure some trade from the monopoly of the tailors’ guild. In Rouen, seamstresses momentarily hoped to forge the exclusive right of producing women’s clothes. In their labor disputes, the gender motif seems a pretext for arguments to gain market benefits. Eventually, the tailors identified their trade with their gender as the providers for their families, while seamstresses found a new feminine identity based at once on individualism and corporative solidarity (251-53). However, their gender solidarity did not necessarily extend to tailors’ wives and daughters, whose privileges would undermine the seamstresses’.

The study also reveals that the competition between rival corporations such as tailors’ and seamstresses’ concerned their professional market more than gender identity. For instance, when studying the confusion between tailors’ wives and seamstresses in Marseilles, Crowston observes: “Seamstresses themselves may have had little sense of belonging to a gender-specific, coherent female trade, sharply separate from tailors” (243). But then tailors’ wives and daughters were incorporated into the tailors’ guild, and inheritance laws did not benefit male heirs exclusively as in Caen. The author estimates that, nevertheless, work-related issues and divisions among the clothing industries helped in creating sexual identities. There was the male-tailor guild arguing for a patriarchal society with the family as a unit to the kingdom ruled by a king and the female-seamstresses’ guild using a sexual rhetoric opposing the independent, virtuous and fashionably dressed working woman protected by her labor and her guild to the destitute woman victimized by the men who had power over them to the point of falling into prostitution. Indeed, on that last point, Crowston recognizes that pauperized or seduced seamstresses may have joined the ranks of prostitutes, but mostly, “They were far from the semiskilled quasi-prostitutes described by Mercier or Restif de la Bretonne” (292). On the contrary, they bettered their marriage prospects when they accumulated money for their dowries, and in marriage they gained monetary independence from their husbands (usually tradesmen co-workers of their male family members). Also, making money independently allowed them to choose not to marry at all and at the very least created an alternative to the convent, where women without dowries were faced with a binding refuge. The author bases this assumption on the large proportion of spinsters among seamstresses, ignoring perhaps the isolated time required by their work that did not foster encounters with prospective husbands or the disrespect tailors displayed at the occasion of the burial of a seamstress from Caen in 1741 (218, 236). Similarly, men’s unwillingness to marry seemingly independent and elegantly dressed women might have played a role. As Crowston’s conclusion demonstrates with a case study of Emilienne (1920s-1950s), a seamstress of a Côte-d’Or village (398-99), this problem persisted well into the twentieth century. Here, Crowston argues that even contemporary concepts of femininity were inherited directly from the seamstresses’ guilds and the distinctions of gender upon which they acted.

The author is aware that interpreting archives in the frame of legal argumentation only discloses partial truths. In the instance of declarations of assets by both parties before signing a wedding contract, the documents may highlight or omit elements. Rousseau, Mercier, and de la Bretonne report more faithfully on their personal perspectives influenced by the mentality of their time rather than on the factual activities of seamstresses. Crowston’s study shows that modern historians may have been misled by literary authors in their assessment of women’s status. She lessens the status of literary memoirs and the declarations of Enlightenment philosophers as historical document. She discloses how material produced by ministers such as Colbert and Turgot provided “new economic and social opportunities” for women (414). Turgot felt that needlework “was so rooted in the nature of femininity that it offered the outstanding example of innate labor rights” (209). The interlacing of philosophical discourses in the rhetorical arguments shaping politics and economical issues are well worth pursuing, and while evaluating the contributions of seamstresses to our current forms of “feminism,” Crowston observes that by casting femininity in fashion and specialized labor, they limited their gender: “their legacy in terms of sexual division of labor and conception of femininity is fundamentally ambivalent … a source both of strength and of suffocation” (414).