During my childhood, if you had told me that I would write a book about fashion, with a focus on sewing, I wouldn’t have believed you. As a young girl, I waited for what seemed like hours in crowded fabric stores while my mother patiently studied patterns, plotting out yardage and fabric composure for her latest sewing endeavor. I could only wish that the exciting professional twists found in the creative works of my book would whisk me away from the bolts of fabric and crumpled up pattern envelopes that bored me without fail. I grew up in rural Arkansas (USA) when sewing was not in vogue. Yet my mother stitched every dress I wore until my early adolescence, and I secretly wished for a trendy tee-shirt.
I can recall watching my mother stay up all night to complete complex projects such as wedding dresses—for which she designed the pattern—her mouth often filled with pins as she patiently ripped out seams to begin again if she detected the slightest flaw. I began to wonder how she could create something so beautiful from nothing. Fast forward two decades, and a drastic drop in clothing prices appeared ostensibly overnight. It was tempting to gorge on sales and low prices that were a fraction of what clothes had cost just a few years before, and yet the image of the labor behind my mother’s creations kept nagging in the back of my head: how could garments cost such a measly price with such demanding human labor—farming, manufacturing and, yes, sewing—involved in the process of making? In Fashion, Gender and Agency, I trace the theoretical and historical trajectory of fashion, alongside human and environmental rights concerns. I delve in the drop of clothing prices and the ways in which increased consumption and donations strain global markets and change local cultures. The book offers concrete ways that we as consumers can consciously curtail these global distresses. One of those methods involves an approximation to the art of sewing—involving making, mending or perhaps visiting our local seamstresses and tailors for fittings and alterations. In the process of adapting our clothes to fit our bodies versus requiring our bodies to fit into the clothes we wear, we gain agency as consumers that had been lost in the distance from our clothings’ producers.
During a time of mass production, we may find our new agency as consumers as we refamiliarize ourselves with the work of seamstresses. In the context of Latin American and Spanish literature, I noticed an exciting parallel in the seamstresses’ reclaiming of agency, and that of the consumer. In the manuscript, I trace nineteenth-century literary figures and the conflicting imagery of the angel of the home (a middle to upper-class-married woman who was lauded for her beautification of the home) versus the lower-class figure who worked out of necessity. She was forced to enter into the public sphere of employment, and, in the process, found herself vulnerable to sexual abuse. I argue that, in part, representations of seamstresses fell out of vogue after the nineteenth century. Only in the later part of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century do we find a prolific revival of the seamstress and needlewomen. Fashion, Gender and Agency explores Latin American and Spanish novels and children’s fiction that empower the seamstress. She is a facilitator of peace or a spy, for example. She relishes the creative spaces of her craft, while reveling in the newfound mobility of her profession through travels or entry into otherwise closed private spaces.
Fashion, Gender and Agency strives to remind us that representation matters. Creative works invite us to envision the processes involved in designing, making and upcycling. They remind us that the many figures behind clothing and needlework production deserve to be recognized and celebrated rather than being exploited and ignored. With this book, I am hopeful we may remember the powerful tools of the needle and thread, and the agents who construct the textile adornments that fulfill our basic physical needs as well as express ourselves.
This guest post was written by Stephanie N. Saunders, Associate Professor of Spanish and Department Chair of Languages & Cultures at Capital University. She has served as a Visiting Researcher in Residence at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile.