Ruffles for Justice, or, why does this matter?

For the past few days, I've been trying to think about writing my next post. I'd like to show off my fabulous stripey bustle, which I absolutely will write about soon. But I keep getting distracted by the flaming Orwellian disaster that is US politics at the moment, and asking myself, "so what? You made a cute 1870s bustle that you plan to wear to a ball, why does this matter?" And on one level, it doesn't, and that's okay. It's not necessary for my every action to be a feminist statement, and it's just fun to dance around a ballroom in a floofy dress. On the other hand, I'd like to make a case for celebrating traditionally female craft, and women's lived experiences in the past.

That argument perhaps gets more tenuous the higher up the social ladder I'm portraying; I'm certainly representing a privileged minority when I'm wearing a ballgown. As a dress and textile historian, I can use that ballgown to expand on many aspects of 19th century life: the steel hoops in my bustle represent new manufacturing processes. The ruffled trim, while facilitated by the invention of the sewing machine, still required hours of female labour to produce, which I know because I had to sit there sewing the damn things for hours.

Ruffles upon ruffles: a preview

The importance of portraying women's history is obvious when it's explicitly political, or done in a public history context: showing how women were involved in the American Revolution, or agitating for the right to vote, for example. I wore a 'Votes for Women' pin and ribbon to the Edinburgh women's march on Saturday because that still feels extremely pertinent. Reminding people that history has always been more than straight cis white guys helps validate claims for representation in the present. We have a voice and a context, we've always been here and we're not going away.

Reproduction WSPU badge from the Museum of London, with my ribbons

However, on a purely personal, selfish, level, I still like to think that this hobby has some value. This BBC article talks about the recent 'pussy hat' trend as part of a long tradition of craft activism, which I think is entirely appropriate. My mother taught me both sewing and politics, which have been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and require a lot of the same skills. You need a vision of what you can create, and the patience and dedication to work for it, stitch by stitch, step by step, the skill to know what techniques work best for a given task, and the willingness to always keep learning.

Yes, a lot of my sewing is escapism. It doesn't do anything for the current dire state of politics, for feminism, or even arguably for the study of history. But it brings me joy when the world at large doesn't, and makes me feel like a person who can get things done. I can look at my hands and remind myself of what I'm capable of. And when I get sick of sewing ruffles, I can sit down and write to my representatives, I can do my research to separate truth from "alternative facts," I can take to the streets and march.


  1. I've been thinking about the escapism of historical sewing in the current political situation, too, and am heartened by your thoughtful post. And buoyed that you are calling representatives from Edinburgh. What I am doing is not enough, but it is so much more that I have ever done politically, so I am hoping that all of us added together will make a real difference. And that I can take solace in the arc of history my in-progress ball gown also reminds me of.

  2. It's good to hear that other people are thinking about this too! It has been really inspiring to see so much political involvement, and I have to hope that it will amount to something. I like the idea of historic fashion as a reminder of the arc of history, too!

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  4. Emma,
    What a treat it is to find you planted squarely in the ‘interweb’, tending your own special intellectual garden (I never would have expected anything else from you!).
    As dire as things may be here stateside, I don't feel as if I've wandered into an Orwellian distopia just yet. But I also fret about the relevance of my pursuit of handwork from time to time, especially when the times are dire. I felt the same way about my work in academia generally. Sometimes there seemed to be a very bright line between the small worlds of my keen personal interests (I abhor the "H" word - "hobby) and the large-r world "out there". At other times, I managed to blur the line and found overlaps that relieved my anxieties.
    Making sense of the role of women in the history material culture is no small matter, and certainly worth pursuing. We both know how important the work of our hands can be; there's just no substitute for jumping and making the things we study if we truly want to achieve the kind of empathic understanding that might make the telling of the history really meaningful.
    So ... SEW! And without apology. And wear those amazing ballgowns you create to those strange unsettling dances. Those moments of pleasure at the making, wearing, and display of your creations, as well as the intellectual discomfort and dissonance you experience, will only inform your reasoning about the history you work to understand and describe as a scholar.
    I look forward to reading your reports of the results of your personal "experiments"!
    With love, and confidence in the integrity of your path,
    ps. you can find my advocacy of the Pussyhat project here:

    1. Leslie,
      Thank you for your lovely comment! I'm sorry it's taken me so long to reply- my blog has been sadly neglected of late. I very much appreciate your words of encouragement. I certainly think it's important to make and live in historical garments to deepen our understanding of the past.

      Your link doesn't seem to work any more, sadly, but I greatly admire the ways in which you combine textile art and activism!


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