Enterprise & Society 4.3 (2003) 557-559
[Access article in PDF]
Clare Haru Crowston. Fabricating Women: The Seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1675-1791. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001. xviii + 510 pp. ISBN 0-8223-2662-0, $69.95 (cloth); 0-8223-2666-3, $23.95 (paper).
The world of work in eighteenth-century France is emerging from the shadows. Steven Kaplan has given us fascinating insights into [End Page 557] the relationship of Parisians to their daily bread; now his doctoral students have moved forward to cast light on some of the other core elements of quotidian existence. Clare Haru Crowston's book on the seamstresses of Paris—with brief digressions about some of their provincial sisters—examines the most important female guild of eighteenth-century Paris. Like Kaplan writing on bakers, she offers us exquisite detail on how seamstresses worked, what they made, whom they made it for, and who they were.
Crowston reassesses three issues: the roles of women in the early modern French economy, the relationship between production and consumption in the rise of capitalism, and the economic dimension of the construction of gender. Crowston's insistence on attacking a paradigm that she would have been better served to replace greatly attenuates the potential contribution of her book on the first issue. Her enthusiasm for the attack on the old, now thoroughly discredited, model of declining female status in early modern France leads her to unfortunate misrepresentations of the work of other scholars.
Crowston suggests a significant shift concurrent with the establishment of the seamstresses' guild in 1675, but she needs to emphasize this point more strongly, rather than beating the dead horse of offhand generalizations made by specialists of earlier periods. Her claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the existing literature suggests an economic decline for women in the sixteenth century, followed by a slow and steady improvement in the seventeenth century. Crowston's contribution, which one would like to see her state more strongly, is to make clear the stunning eighteenth-century takeoff.
The increased economic role for women leads to the interrelationship of production and consumption in the creation of the new French economy. Crowston offers a telling critique of those who have focused solely on consumption, and she provides a superbly detailed study of the technical issues at work in the disputes between the seamstresses, who had the right to make garments only for women, and the tailors, who maintained the right to make certain luxury items for women. Her felicitous examination of the demands of consumption and production in the adoption of the manteau dress and of its eighteenth-century derivatives provides a welcome template for studies of other trades.
The gendered seamstress-tailor dispute provides a third set of insights into the creation of modern French society. Crowston shows us how what seemed to be purely economic issues (who gets to make women's clothing), quickly turned into defining elements in the reconfiguration of gender roles. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's dramatic intervention, emphasizing women's "natural" predisposition to adornment, [End Page 558] affected their role as producers as well as consumers of cloth. Crowston offers one of her finest passages in this clever reading of Emile's unintended consequences.
Fabricating Women has its shortcomings: it is cluttered with details, suffers from poor presentation of statistics, and dilutes one of its main points by an inappropriate focus. Yet Crowston establishes herself in the forefront of scholars working on the eighteenth-century French economy, in a book that rightfully belongs on the shelf next to those of Thomas Brennan, Jean-Marc Moriceau, and Steven Kaplan.
James B. Collins