Fabricating Women

The Seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1675–1791

Fabricating Women

Book Pages: 528 Illustrations: 21 photos, 7 graphs, 7 tables Published: December 2001

Economics, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, History > European History

Winner of the 2002 Berkshire Prize, presented by the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians

Fabricating Women examines the social institution of the seamstresses’ guild in France from the time of Louis XIV to the Revolution. In contrast with previous scholarship on women and gender in the early modern period, Clare Haru Crowston asserts that the rise of the absolute state, with its centralizing and unifying tendencies, could actually increase women’s economic, social, and legal opportunities and allow them to thrive in corporate organizations such as the guild. Yet Crowston also reveals paradoxical consequences of the guild’s success, such as how its growing membership and visibility ultimately fostered an essentialized femininity that was tied to fashion and appearances.
Situating the seamstresses’ guild as both an economic and political institution, Crowston explores in particular its relationship with the all-male tailors’ guild, which had dominated the clothing fabrication trade in France until women challenged this monopoly during the seventeenth century. Combining archival evidence with visual images, technical literature, philosophical treatises, and fashion journals, she also investigates the techniques the seamstresses used to make and sell clothing, how the garments reflected and shaped modern conceptions of femininity, and guild officials’ interactions with royal and municipal authorities. Finally, by offering a revealing portrait of these women’s private lives—explaining, for instance, how many seamstresses went beyond traditional female boundaries by choosing to remain single and establish their own households—Crowston challenges existing ideas about women’s work and family in early modern Europe.
Although clothing lay at the heart of French economic production, social distinction, and cultural identity, Fabricating Women is the first book to investigate this immense and archetypal female guild in depth. It will be welcomed by students and scholars of French and European history, women’s and labor history, fashion and technology, and early modern political economy.


"Fabricating Women . . . adds significantly to and fills a gap in the field of eighteenth-century studies. The book presents the findings of Crowston’s sweeping, yet meticulous study of the seamstresses’ guild of eighteenth-century France. . . . The excellent literature review and bibliography make this book a valuable source for eighteenth-century scholars from various disciplines. . . . The book is well written and organized. It is informative to those who may be well versed in the field, but it is also welcoming to students and scholars from related fields. . . . It is a real behind-the-scenes look into the lives of the seamstresses. . . . The book is the beginning of a thoughtful and much-needed reinterpretation of the French guild system. . . . This book would be a welcome addition to the library of any French history scholar, as well as of those interested in women’s studies, eighteenth-century studies or dress history." — Rebecca J. Faria , Dress

"[Crowston’s] study contributes meaningfully to social and cultural history, the history of work, gender studies, and, to a lesser extent, material culture. . . . Fabricating Women is extremely well-rounded . . . . The divisions, enhanced by subtitled sections within each chapter, make this a convenient book to read. While they combine to make a logical and well-reasoned whole, many of the (sub)divisions are complete in themselves, and can thus be studied more or less independently. Any or all of them repay the effort."

— Reed Benhamou , Technology and Culture

"A wide variety of historians will be eager to read this study of the most important female guild and fourth-largest trade organization in eighteenth-century Paris. . . ." — Jennifer Jones , Journal of Modern History

"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 , Enterprise & Society

"Crowston provides fascinating insights into the lifestyle of the most prosperous dressmakers, and her book will delight students of material culture." — Pamela Pilbeam , American Historical Review

"If there were ever anything anyone wanted to know about seamstresses in Old Regime France, Clare Haru Crowston's Fabricating Women would be the place to find it." — Susan Dalton , Canadian Journal of History

"This book is a masterpiece. The author has marshaled a massive amount of information, and in the tradition of the best history writing she uses this to cast new light on our knowledge of eighteenth-century seamstresses and the society in which they lived. The meticulous detail is such that Clare Haru Crowston’s work on this topic is unlikely to be superseded. Moreover, the book is beautifully produced. The illustrations educate. The dustcover alone is a delight. . . . [A] thorough and well-written work. . . . [T]he book is profusely fascinating. . . ." — Pamela Sharpe , Journal of Economic History

"This impressive and thoroughly researched book both challenges some long-standing assumptions and recreates a world. . . . The author’s commitment to her subject is as infectious as it is impressive. Even readers with less than a burning interest in the seamstresses will find themselves sharing Crowston’s fascination with their history, if only from the cumulative effects of her sustained analysis and artful prose. In short, this book, which bridges the gap between social and cultural history as well as any recent study, should find a wide readership among historians of the Old Regime and beyond. . . . Crowston’s book is ambitious, a sort of histoire totale, which, unlike many Annales-inspired histories, never strays from a clear and pertinent line of inquiry. . . . Crowston’s is a marvelous book that establishes a model of thorough, intelligent research." — Robert A. Schneider , Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Fabricating Women offers a richly textured and much-needed look at the experience of working women that will enhance our understanding of the old regime in a variety of ways. This well-grounded portrait of one area of history simultaneously throws light on far broader issues, such as the role of the state, the working of the economy, and the legal status and economic opportunities of women.” — Gail Bossenga, author of The Politics of Privilege: Old Regime and Revolution in Lille

“A welcome contribution to the literature on women’s work in preindustrial Europe. This is so well placed in the economic and social history of the period that it will become a classic among the books that define the age.” — Daryl M. Hafter, author of European Women and Preindustrial Craft


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Price: $32.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Clare Haru Crowston is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Figures and Tables

List of Abreviations



Part One: Making the Goods

1. Seamstresses and the Culture of Clothing in Old Regime France

2. From Mending to modes: Trade Hierarchies and the Labor Market

3. Tools, Techniques, and Commercial Practices

Part Two: Making the Guilds

4. The Royal Government, Guilds, and the Seamstresses of Paris, Normandy, and Provence

5. The Tailors and the Seamstresses: Corporate Privilege, Gender, and the Law

6. Women’s Corporate Self-Government: The Administration of the Parisian Seamstresses’ Guild

Part Three: Making the Mistresses

7. Career Paths in the Seamstresses’ Trade: From Apprenticeship to Mistress-ship

8. Marriage, Fortune, and Family: The World of the Mistress Seamstress

9. Making the New Century: The Seamstresses, fin et suite




Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Prize

Winner, Hagley Prize in Business History

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2666-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2662-5
Publicity material