What’s In a Name: The History of the Seamstress
Posted on 04 October 2017
By Ashley Steel
I work in fashion, an industry where seamstresses are a crucial component. Anyone can dream up a garment, but it can’t be created without the skillful hands and extensive knowledge of a seamstress. And yet, to call someone a seamstress is often met with a cringe. Likewise, seamstresses are often cagey about revealing what they do for a living. It’s a curious conundrum that plagues my co-workers; people who at the end of the day are some of the most intelligent and hard-working people I know. Part fashion designers, part architectural engineers, and extremely precise in their craft, I was curious to uncover the stigma behind the title.
Seamstress is a feminine noun, which hearkens back to its origins in the 17th century. Before the introduction of machinery which helped to rapidly grow the pace of production, such growth was fueled by a large work force. At the time, the demand for this type of labor could only be fulfilled by women, who were otherwise unemployed and typically possessed the skills required for the job.
While “seamstress” is a flexible term that today includes all manner of skills from pattern production and grading to fabric cutting, fitting, sewing, and altering, it was originally used to denote the lowest tier of skill within the garment industry. Seamstresses were not to be grouped in with tailors, or other “higher-tiered” garment workers, jobs which were reserved for men at the time, and which weren’t necessarily more difficult or outside the skillset of the female seamstress.
When I ask my co-workers about this hesitance to use the term “seamstress” in describing themselves, I hear these sentiments echoed. People make assumptions about their lack of education when in fact they have gone to school for textile and fashion design, and are artists in their own right. Additionally, they hate being undervalued as the blue-collar piece of the fashion industry puzzle. These days, many celebrities create their own fashion lines by bringing ideas to the table, and they walk away with the title of “fashion designer,” when in fact the clothes are actually designed by a seamstress. So who’s the real designer – the person who brings the idea to the table, or the person who translates that idea into reality?
With the introduction of the sewing machine in the 1860s there was a massive acceleration in the pace of production in addition to the creation of centralized factories which led to the popularization of sweatshop labor. Un-unionized workers, mostly women, were given insufficient pay for long hours in sub-par conditions. Not surprisingly, the long-suffering female seamstresses led the first all-female working strike in America in 1825. Since then, legislation has come a long way in protecting the rights of women in the workforce, but it’s not a secret that there’s still a tremendous gap to be bridged. Consider the gender pay gap, which often keeps historically female professions underpaid and undervalued.
The first women-only union, known as the ‘Tailoresses of New York’ protest demanding a 40 hour work-week in New York. Photo courtesy of Woman at Work.
Today, the garment industry is so efficient that it’s capable of producing the disposable fast fashion that has become the norm. Most of this work is outsourced overseas where even greater profit margins can be achieved. Often this occurs at the expense of small hand-crafted businesses in the US, but perhaps more importantly at the expense of overseas workers who are still subject to low pay, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. This is another issue that my co-workers say puts them in a weird position of having to explain to people that they are not manning the assembly line, performing rote tasks, but that many people still do.
It wasn’t until shows like Lifetime’s, “Project Runway” that people began to see the behind-the-scenes reality of garment production from start to finish and receive it as a trendy and glamorized occupation. However, despite it being brought to public attention, its existence in this kind of reality show format somehow makes it seem a far-cry from real life.
Contestants at work on Project Runway. Photo Courtesy of My Lifetime
Is the term, “seamstress” an outdated title that will continue to subvert the people who chose to undertake this profession? Do we opt for a more gender-neutral phrase such as “garment worker,” or do we take the reins of feminism and demand that “seamstress” be given the credit it’s due?
What do you feel is the future of the seamstress? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Ashley Steel fell into the world of pole dancing in the same way she once broke her foot – completely by accident and with much bruising. Currently a novice she hopes to be a performer someday. She’s continually amazed by the cast of characters she meets within the world of aerial arts and loves exploring the topic of female empowerment within the industry. When not pole dancing she can be found painting or playing with her pig, Henry.