Patricia TilburgFeb 16, 2022
Sex, Taste, and Reform in the Parisian Garment Trades, 1880-1919
Oxford University Press 2019
Patricia Tilburg's Working Girls: Sex, Taste, and Reform in the Parisian Garment Trades, 1880-1919 (Oxford University Press, 2019) is at once a cultural, gender, urban, and labour history of the Belle Epoque era. The midinette is the central figure the book chases across serval chapters. Named for the lunch hour when thousands of female garment workers spilled into the streets of Paris each day, she became a symbol of French taste and skill, the embodiment of productive labour and the pleasures of the modern capital. Represented by a range of observers during the period as young, cheerful, attractive, and sexually available, the midinette became the subject of (male) fantasy and philanthropy, her image working to assuage anxieties about a rapidly changing world.
The lived experiences and activisms of the women workers who inspired these projections play significant roles throughout the book. Using a wide array of sources--state and police documents, municipal and philanthropic archival collections, press, fiction, music, letters, and more--the author ensures that the conditions of their working lives, their voices and demands, do not get lost in the swirl of ideas surrounding them. A cultural history that moves deftly between the material and the metaphoric, Working Girls is a pleasure to read, and I so enjoyed speaking with its author.
Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century France and its empire. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send her an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).