Women’s History Month 2020 has arrived and I am thrilled to launch my new blog: A Fashionable Business to celebrate the myriad contributions that women made to the social, economic, and cultural history of early modern London.
My PhD project officially began at Birkbeck in Autumn 2016 but I first became interested in the history of women’s work over a decade ago when studying History and History of Art at the University of Birmingham. I was struck by how few women artists were included in the books on my reading list and this was thrown into greater relief by the fact that much of our teaching in the History of Art took place in The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which includes works by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) and Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) in its collection.
Later, when I was working at the National Portrait Gallery in London, I came across this wonderful self-portrait by the artist Mary Beale in Figure 1. It will always be one of my favourite paintings. Beale’s gaze is confident and direct, her palette and painted canvas feature prominently so there can be no doubt over her occupational identity as an artist.
One of the more creative aspects of my role at the gallery was to contribute to the ‘Portrait of the Day’ programme. Working as a team, we researched and presented on key portraits in the collection. There was a sense at the time that we particularly wanted to highlight the lives of the women on display, including Beatrix Potter, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Mary Beale. Fortunately, Beale is one of the best documented artists of the seventeenth century and the various primary sources relating to her offer fascinating insights into her life and work. The research that I conducted into Beale and her wider circle eventually became the basis for my MA dissertation at Birkbeck in 2013.
Writing this dissertation made me wonder about other women working in early modern London. How could I find out more about women’s ‘creative work’ as artists, embroiderers, lace-makers, mantua-makers, and textile designers? It is often acknowledged that there is a paucity of sources for studying women’s work, though occupational titles such as ‘seamstress’, ‘mantua-maker’, and ‘milliner’ are primarily associated with women. What did each of these three occupational identities entail and how did they interrelate? Amy Erickson’s work on Eleanor Mosley and other milliners in eighteenth century London has shown that livery company records can provide information on women in business, and her recent exhibition City Women in the 18th Century reveals even more about women working in a diverse array of trades. Moreover, Alice Clark indicated that female apprentices in the Carpenters’ Company were often bound to seamstresses in her book Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919). I’d previously researched women in the Painter-Stainers’ Company and found that there were more female apprentices bound at the end of the seventeenth century, showing change over time. This inspired my decision to conduct a quantitative study of female apprentices and freemen across several companies in order to uncover women working in the fashion trades in London between 1600 and 1800.
Though recent scholarship has revealed invaluable new insights into women’s work in business and in other sectors of the economy, there is still much more that we can learn. That is the aim of this blog. I will be writing biographies of women in trade and discussing methods for unearthing more about women’s work, all with the wider aim of exploring the history of early modern London.
I hope you enjoy reading it!