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  • Fashioning the Female Economy
  • Eileen Boris (bio)
The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860–1930. By Wendy Gamber. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. 300 pages. $39.95 (cloth). $16.95 (paper).

Growing up in the late 1950s, I would accompany my mother to the dressmaker, who would transform Filene’s Basement bargains into clothes that actually fit. This vestige of an earlier world hardly exists today. Women who hem pants for department stores or drycleaners are invisible. Only exchanges between beauticians and their clients more closely resemble the false intimacy that a century ago marked fitting sessions in which the dressmaker “listen[ed] sympathetically to customers’ problems” while reshaping the female body (103). Even before the Great Depression, the nineteenth-century “female economy”—with women as proprietors, employees, and consumers—already was succumbing to a ready-made fashion industry controlled by men.

In recovering this female economy, historian Wendy Gamber has forged a stunningly expansive investigation into the millinery and dressmaking trades. She blends labor with business history and both with gender analysis to create a new mixture in which the structural meets the cultural. Here is a community study based on reconstitution of Boston workshops and retail outlets that links the local to the national and quantitatively describes the denizens of the female custom [End Page 940] trades. We see changes in the processes of production, distribution, and consumption through a vast array of material objects, including photographs, drawings, advertisements, dress patterns, and tools. But this book is first and foremost an investigation into gender that explores cultural understandings of womanhood and uncovers the structural consequences of the sexual division of labor within and between industries. The Female Economy contributes to the growing gendered analysis of women’s work in ways that question long-standing generalizations. Perhaps even more significantly, it demands consideration of mass production and large scale retailing as gendered developments.

Through tracing the structures of two trades for nearly a century, Gamber addresses “the construction of sexual divisions of labor, how such arrangements change over time, and the consequences of those changes” (2). The shift from custom production to the factory and department store transformed more than manufacturing and retailing processes; it reconfigured gender as well. Efficiency—a masculine term—replaced respectability, a feminine one. Women still would be laborers and consumers, but rarely entrepreneurs. The gender of authority shifted. From an expert on beauty, the woman retailer, who had produced what she sold, would have to become beautiful herself in order to serve department store customers. “The impersonal elegance of the department store” (227) replaced custom shop intimacy.

Business rationalization and consolidation drove out the more marginal, usually smaller, businesses. These were disproportionately owned by women, who lacked access to capital necessary for another start-up. Innovation had further gendered consequences. In sketching the impact on the millinery trade of “more stringent credit policies . . . more ‘businesslike’ behavior, aggressive . . . marketing” and male manufacturing, Gamber rejects notions of “a male conspiracy,” instead relying on a systematic understanding of gender inequality (159). This is the new business history at its best, informed by cultural analysis while investigating internal workings of enterprises against the overall organization of commerce.1

The term “women’s work” expands its meaning as Gamber explores crafts relegated to women, shifting the story of women’s labor away from the factory girls, garret seamstresses, slaves, domestic servants, teachers, and clerical workers who previously had populated historical accounts. 2 Composing a “female aristocracy of labor,” situated at the pinnacle of the needlework trades, dressmakers and milliners offer an [End Page 941] alternative portrait of the working woman, neither a victim nor a working class heroine but an ambitious striver proud of her skill and her femininity. Eschewing strikes, custom producers protested unfavorable working conditions as individuals by slowing down production or by quitting. Unions, they insisted, were for factory operatives; they would exchange seasonal employment, overtime, and low initial wages for status. These labor aristocrats were older, native born white, and single; their families could afford to invest in apprenticeship. They learned their trade in the workshop from other women and continued at their craft long enough to acquire extensive skill.

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