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17th century women
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Andres Cisneros
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Engendering the Guilds:

Seamstresses, Tailors, and the Clash of Corporate Identities in Old Regime France *

Clare Crowston


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Louis XIV established the Parisian seamstresses' guild in March 1675, provoking a groan of protest from the city's tailors, the women's closest trade rivals. Inspired by fiscal, economic, and social considerations, the royal government had created an independent and exclusively female guild for the first time in over two hundred years. The trade rights granted the female artisans consisted of the capacity to make and sell women's and children's clothing, a prerogative they held in common with the tailors' guild. Their statutes forbade them, however, from producing men's clothing. The royal government explicitly reserved this sphere for the tailors, along with the right to make dresses worn by court women.1


The corporate status accorded Parisian seamstresses served as a model for the reorganization of the garment trades in the provinces. In December 1675, seamstresses in Rouen acquired their own guild, as did those of Le Havre in 1721. Seamstresses entered the corporate system in an additional fifteen towns and cities across France after 1675, not as independent guildswomen but as subordinate members of local tailors' guilds. In each case, the female needleworkers' trade rights echoed the Paris model; they could make women's and children's clothing in competition [End Page 339] with tailors, but they could not produce men's clothing or the fanciest ladies' wear.2


Once they entered corporations, seamstresses wielded their privileges aggressively, often against the tailors and their pre-existing trade rights. Deprived of their monopoly over made-to-measure clothing, the tailors did not easily accept women's ascension to guild status. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, conflicts erupted between tailors and seamstresses in many cities and towns where women had gained corporate status. In Paris they engaged...

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