When considering the role of women in the history of textiles we must examine the role of women in society in general. It has long been accepted that the gender of a person in any given community dictates the broad nature of his or her activities – we might think that, in hunter-gatherer tribes, the men hunt and the women maintain the tipi and campfire; in industrial society this distinction becomes progressively blurred according to a number of factors including class, age and the level of domination of one sex over the other: just as females are not admitted into many male functions within a male-dominated community, so too are males refused participation in certain functions within a matriarchal system.
Traditionally there exists the belief that women physically are more suited to deft handiwork than men, and that men are more capable of performing heavy, difficult work unsuited to women, such as hunting, fighting and building. This was not so clearly defined in some native American tribes, where a man could be insulted as Chief Kintpuash was by his own braves: ‘You’re a woman, a fish-hearted woman...We disown you!’ , yet a woman could often be forced to take on a male role by circumstance – many native American tribeswomen took part in battles when necessary. Even so, these women were often expected to stay behind and care for the children and the older folk. In the quieter times, while men went to hunt, the women would weave.
The application of these skills from religious ritual clothing and protective garments to what could be considered ‘vain fashion’ involves the acceptance that body adornment would, in many cases, have been conducted in order to attract a mate. In monogamous cultures – from the hunter-gatherers to our own mechanised civilisation – infidelity is frowned upon, but still a reality, and it is easy to see the progression of fashion from mate-attraction to mate-retention. Since women were the mistresses of cloth, one can see how feminine interest grew in body adornment and self-decoration – activities frowned upon in men beyond what the community considered reasonable, but praised and admired in women.
Indigo dyes for tapestry are known to have been used as far back as 2500BC. It must be assumed that this same spirit of women-dominated weaving and cloth-making percolated through the aeons from the hunter-gatherer stages of developing societies to the ‘civilised’ ages, where woman maintained her place as seamstress and weaver. The Greeks used tapestries in their homes, and their society involved a clear male-female division of labour. Men would work, philosophise, rule, or fight, and women would wait, breed or slave, according to class or circumstance. In his Politics Aristotle famously refers to women and slaves in one breath:
For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority.
The domestic power of women in Greece is not dissimilar to that of our own contradictory and confused modern industrial times, as demonstrated in Aristophanes’ comedy, Lysistrata, in which the wives of two warring cities succeed in attaining political power by withholding sexual congress from their husbands until the men have called a halt to the pointless conflict: the frustrated woman is both powerless and powerful, ignored and respected, yet still a prisoner of society.
However, as society grew further away from the need for men to leave the group and hunt or fight, their skills developed in areas traditionally associated with women. This male insurgency is seen to its greatest extent in the great cloth-making industries and guilds of medieval Europe. In Britain the guilds existed to control trade in any given town and it was only through a guild that one could operate as a worker in any of the skilled trades. By the sixteenth century woollen textile manufacture in Britain was the envy of the world and its manufacture and distribution was carefully controlled – by men.
The guilds would never admit married women, only widows, and usually widows of guild members. In 1514 the London Company of Innholders admitted ‘sisters’ as well as ‘brothers’, but this was possibly a concession to guild-members’ widows. These widows would be permitted to continue their husband’s business, (especially if there were outstanding debts to be repaid to the guild). The Oxford Tailors’ Guild was described as being ‘the master, wardens, commonalty and widows.’ While a single woman was allowed to buy and sell property, and incur debts, she was not permitted entry to perform a free trade within a guild unless, in exceptional circumstances, her father proposed her – she would then be put under a guild Mistress, but would have to relinquish all guild rights upon marriage. The woman’s role as clothier and family weaver was usurped by males once it became a business – business, it seems, was man’s work.
In the mid-eighteenth century there came a great shift in the role of women in textile production. Agricultural work was the province of both sexes in any farming family, but in the north of England, particularly in west Yorkshire, where land was suitable only for grazing, intensive woollen manufacturing became a reliable source of wages for both sexes. Work was ‘put-out’ to small workshops or households. The skills required to spin wool or dye yarns to produce broadcloth were not arduous and needed little training or expensive equipment, which was often owned by the workers themselves.
Many of the processes in wool manufacture, therefore, were well-suited to the households of landless families, where the wife or mother could also look after the children while the men were out earning a different wage, possibly in another industry such as mining. It is difficult to estimate how many women and children were involved in this proto-industrialisation because statistics were only ever compiled of working men, although women were consistent wage-earners and kept time just as assiduously.
The putting-out system was most involved with textile manufacture, especially hosiery, leather and small metal goods. It has been argued that putting-out was, effectively, the springboard to the Industrial Revolution, in which women played a vital part, often overlooked. From the mid-1700s merchants and clothiers wanted more control over their workforces and demanded an increased output, possible only with the concentrated facilities of a factory. With the building of the factories, the putting-out system became redundant and women, still needing the work, emerged as new commuters to the local mills and machine-houses.
The women and men involved in these great changes at the grass-roots level were members of the working classes. Although needlework and embroidery were seen as women’s work they were, at a different level, also seen as the pastimes of a lady. In the Middle Ages embroidery took on a narrative flavour, the most famous being the Bayeux Tapestry, but little evidence remains of these professional medieval embroiderers. Domestic embroidery and needlework was the privilege of the wealthier classes – a lady had no need of retail benefit from her needlework whereas a working woman did. In the nineteenth century these distinctions grew more complex as the Middle Classes emerged with their three-tiered system of distinction: upper, middle and lower. A woman of the lower middle-class could certainly take in sewing work, but a member of the upper middle-class would never dream of so demeaning herself. A socially ambitious lower middle-class woman, likewise, would behave according to the manners of that class to which she aspired.
The blurring of the sexual roles in the early 1800s, when men were being employed in traditionally feminine realms such as milliners’ shops and haberdashers, caused comment from popular periodicals, as in this story of a father who returns home to discover:
a very smart young man with his hands about the neck of my younger daughter who is just fourteen. Her mother laughed: ‘The man is only fitting Euphrasia with a proper bosom; the girl cannot appear in fashionable company with her present horrid flat chest.’
With the increased wealth and social aspiration of the late nineteenth century, more women than ever began to purchase domestic fabrics and textiles. The lady of the house, usually at leisure, if the children were attended by a governess or nanny, could order fashionable clothes and home furnishings through catalogues. It is through these catalogues that we have such a breadth of knowledge of the works of such designers as Chippendale and Sheraton.
This was part of the matriarchal control of the household, seen in more traditional societies – the Victorian and Edwardian lady hired and disciplined servants, ordered the decoration of the home, decided on furniture and fittings, organised dining and entertaining, and was entirely responsible for the smooth-running and, more important, display of the home to outsiders. The career-driven male, though technically enjoying a dominant position, was to take pride in the home provided for him by his wife and, doubtless depending on their relationship, not interfere: it was a woman’s world.
There were few activities available to the Edwardian hostess apart from charity and church work; retail trade – such as dressmaking – was utterly unacceptable. However, many upper-class ladies opened dressmaking facilities partly out of interest and partly out of a desire to help their fellow women who suffered terrible privations in the clothing trade. Lady Auckland, Lady Rachel Byng, Lady Duff-Gordon, all established milliner’s shops and underwear shops to support a growing number of dressmakers. Lady Brooke’s sewing workroom at Eaton Lodge eventually provided clean and safe working conditions for impoverished seamstresses who would normally be found in London’s East End, either in sweatshops or in the direst of slums, working fourteen hours a day in fifth-hand clothes, usually housebound because footwear was often pawned to pay for their meagre food.
For a young working-class woman of the time the choice of career was limited to domestic service, prostitution, shop-work, the stage (synonymous with prostitution) or dressmaking. Dressmaking was honest work and, theoretically, one could go anywhere with good skills. As a dressmaker one could aspire to work either in the court dressmaker’s or the retail workshops of Harrods or Peter Robinson’s, or become a free-lance ‘corner dressmaker’ and discreetly run up copies of the latest Parisian designs from the glossy magazines for the ladies of Mayfair or Belgravia.
The peculiarly limited form of power enjoyed by the upper-class hostesses in homes across the country was not bestowed upon the lower classes and not translated into other arenas of life, not professional, legal or political. A woman was still considered the responsibility of her husband, father, brother, or nearest male relation. With the advent of the First World War, this all changed. The need for men to fill the ranks of the armed forces created an industrial vacuum that was quickly filled by working women who manned the factories and utilities and traditionally male occupations, albeit on a temporary basis. This four-year taste of individual freedom had a lasting effect. Women were loath to return to the inevitable pursuit of marriage and children, or the drudgery of domestic service. With the end of the war and the provision of partial voting rights, women sensed a new freedom.
With a higher demand for ready-to-wear fashion and a new consumerism, fashion outlets boomed in the inter-war years, fuelled by the images of Hollywood and the great designers in Paris. Many of these designers, ironically, had been men: Paul Poiret, Mariano Fortuny, Erté, Raoul Dufy and Leon Bakst. In the twenties and thirties there came new competition from women such as Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Nina Ricci. At the other end of the scale, the Sears catalogue brought ready-to-wear fashion to the homes of ordinary American women. Now that office work and reception work among the professions was available to women, fashion became more functional and business-like, bowing to the dictates of the women who wore it.
The Second World War wrought many of the violent changes in society that we still feel today, and even then full emancipation of women and the liberalisation of sexual attitudes did not fully take hold until the latter decades of the twentieth century. Today it is not only acceptable for men and women to enjoy the same domestic interests in fashion and textiles, it is also acceptable for men and women equally not to be interested. Social activities cross back and forth over the gender border, and our society in general is freer now then ever before.
The woman’s role in our society has changed – in some societies it has not. The inevitable restrictions of class have played and still play a part in these roles as well, further separating and categorising the activities of all people. Historically, woman’s place was in the home, and thus she developed a closer link to those matters of ‘home’, such as clothing, furnishings and fabrics. Later industrialisation forced her to adapt this traditional association into wages, and many women were mistreated by the very industries that served their more affluent sisters. The first well-known industrial textile designers were men. Sanderson, Liberty and Morris, all captivated the female world with their art, yet the financial power created by their business was kept just out of woman’s grasp until today. The story of textiles and their social development is a story of sexual politics, of women’s work made profitable by men, controlled by men and eventually freed by women.
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