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

Fabricating Women: The Seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1675-1791. By Clare Haru Crowston (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001. Xviii + 508 pp. $64.95 cloth/$21.95 paper).

This extensive study of the activities, identity, and cultural meanings of seamstresses (couturieres) in France during the "long" eighteenth century began as a Cornell doctoral dissertation, and it retains many of the features of an excellent dissertation: it is based on years (four, according to the author's acknowledgements) of archival research, primarily in Paris but also in Aix-en-Provence, Marseilles, and Caen; it situates the topic within several different bodies of historical literature, in this case the history of work (primarily in France) and the history of women (more broadly European); it draws on a variety of theoretical perspectives, especially social history--from which it takes "methods and problems" (p. 12)--and cultural history, from which it takes "insight and innovation." All of these mean that the author uses a huge range of sources, from tax and notarial records to police documents to personal papers to engravings. Crowston wisely includes many of the latter as illustrations, so that re aders can better see and understand the physical changes in clothing styles that she traces, and have some idea about the dizzying array of garments and garment parts mentioned in many of the regulations and other materials concerning seamstresses and their work.

The narrative begins in 1675, the year exclusively female guilds of seamstresses were established by royal patent in both Paris and Rouen, and continues to the abolition of the guilds in France in 1791, with the final chapter going on to discuss nineteenth and twentieth-century developments. The book is divided into three main sections of three chapters each: "Making the Goods," which traces changing clothing styles, tools and techniques involved in making and altering garments, seamstresses' relations with their clients and mistresses with their apprentices and workers, and the organization of production; "Making the Guilds," which investigates the structure and administration of the seamstresses' guilds and their relationship with the royal government and with male guilds, particularly those of tailors; "Making the Mistresses," which analyzes the way women developed from apprenticeship to becoming a mistress, the way status as a mistress shaped family marital strategies, the actual living and working condit ions for guild seamstresses, and the impact of the French Revolution and economic changes on the seamstresses' guilds. The first of these three sections contains most of the book's engravings, including illustrations of clothing, dress patterns, workshops, stitches, tools, and seamstresses themselves. The last section contains several tables of quantitative data, including total numbers of seamstresses, price and length of apprenticeship, taxes paid by seamstresses (as an indication of their economic status), and several tables that compare various aspects of the Parisian seamstresses' and tailors' guild.

As befits someone who seeks to bridge social and cultural history, Crowston is not simply interested in the economic and institutional history of the seamstresses guild (though the dates in the title derive from the guild's institutional history), but in assessing the "cultural meaning" of both the guild and the women who were its members, sought to become members, or challenged the guild's monopoly. The latter group included the wives, widows, daughters, and other dependents of male members of tailors' guilds (which had been incorporated long before 1675), so the story is not always one of women against men. In fact, much of the story Crowston tells is one of female/female relationships, in which the mistress seamstresses occupy an interesting middle ground--clearly dependent on and socially inferior to many (but not all) of their clients, but clearly superior to apprentices and illegal workers, and proud of their skills and their corporate organization. Their dependence on their clients was also not complet e, however, for, in Crowston's opinion, the seamstresses played an important role as "creators of culture" (p. 13) in shaping fashions as well as making them, and in "train[ing] generations of girls not only to be skilled needleworkers but to be French women." (p. 12)

Though the actual production of clothing often involved complex female/female relationships--which Crowston highlights briefly in her conclusion as well as in many chapters--more of the conclusions Crowsron draws about the seamstresses guild involve male/female comparisons. Throughout the book, she makes comparisons with the tailors' guild, which had about the same number of masters as the seamstresses' guild in Paris in the 1720s. This comparison is very welcome, particularly because the tailors and seamstresses so often fought over the boundaries of their proper spheres of work (seamstresses were allowed to make clothing only for women and children, and not all women's garments, as some of these were reserved for tailors) and the working conditions, career path, and guild organization of the two groups were very similar. These parallels provide support for one of Crowston's key points, which is that women's work can be corporately organized just as men's can, and that women benefit from, and thus defend, su ch corporate organization.

Others of Crowston's conclusions are not as well supported. She sees her study as taking on the notion that women were largely excluded from the corporate system and that their work remained more informal than men's (which this reviewer and many others have argued), but her own data back up this older view; seamsrressing was one of only two female guilds in Paris, and "a major reason for the trade's success was the scarcity of alternatives given restrictions on female employment in many trades." (p. 403) The data comparing tailors to seamstresses demonstrate that tailors had careers twice as long as seamstresses and that seamstressing was "not only noncontinuous over generations, but within a large proportion of individual women's lifetimes as well." (p. 332) Earlier historians of women's work have not been arguing that women wanted their work to remain informal and badly paid, though Crowston's conclusion that "the guild's legal and institutional reification of existing notions of women s work contributed to a new level of rigidity in the sexual division of labor" (p. 406) makes clear that women's being allowed more widely into guilds may not have made much of a difference either. Needlework joined spinning (which Crowston does not mention) as "a quintessentially feminine occupation" (p. 2), but (as she does highlight) the eighteenth-century couturiere and the twentieth-century couturier are radically different.
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Author:Wiesner-Hanks, Merry
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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