Posted 9th March 2021
Art and the Plight of the
Dr Chloe Ward
Senior Lecturer in the History of British Art at Queen Mary, University of London and co-curator of Art & Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain
What job was considered to be the worst paid, required the longest work hours, and was the most damaging to health in the nineteenth century? It wasn't the backbreaking labour that took place in the mines, the factories, or even the workhouses. Rather, it was 'slopwork', the sewing jobs many women did from their own homes. A form of sweated labour, slopworkers produced shirts or sections of garments that would be turned into the clothing sold at dressmaker's shops. Reports on the terrible conditions in which these seamstresses worked drew attention to their cause and inspired one of the century's most common subjects for painting.
In 1843, the Children's Employment Commission led a government investigation into the millinery and dressmaking trade, and concluded that 'there is no class of persons in this country, living by their labour, whose happiness, health, and lives, are so unscrupulously sacrificed as those of the young dressmakers'. Recruited at around fourteen years old, seamstresses often worked twenty-two-hour workdays, and during the busy season when dresses were most in demand, it was not uncommon for them to work for three days straight without sleep.
The pay for slopwork had steadily decreased since the eighteenth century. 'Sweaters', the managers who distributed sewing to home workers, began taking larger and larger shares of seamstresses' profits. In addition, slopwork had become an increasingly important form of labour in workhouses. With workhouse inmates forced to produce garments for the most meagre wages—three shirts for a penny—independent seamstresses had to dramatically reduce their profits to compete. For many, there were simply not enough hours in the day to make a wage on which they could survive.
The journalist and reformer Henry Mayhew, who interviewed many slopworkers, wrote that if he hadn't met them himself, he would not have believed 'that there were human beings toiling so long and gaining so little, and starving so silently and heroically, round about our very homes'. Reports like Mayhew's caused a sensation as people became increasingly aware that their own clothing had been produced in an industry that perpetuated such hardship and deprivation.
While Victorian seamstresses undoubtedly led extremely difficult lives, the public distress their plight inspired may say more about Victorian anxieties about women's work than it does about the urgency of their cause. Women's work was often seen as a threat to the stability of the domestic sphere, disrupting the 'natural' order of family life (an objection that was, of course, most often voiced by middle class male writers whose families did not depend on female labour). Many Victorians also feared that working women who were not sufficiently paid might turn to prostitution, exacerbating what they saw as a scourge of urban immorality.
The public fascination with the lives of slopworkers resulted in poems, plays, and dozens of paintings of oppressed seamstresses made by artists like by G F Watts, Richard Redgrave, Anna Blunden, Charles Rossiter, and Frank Holl. Many of these were designed to speak to the sympathies of female viewers, in particular. As the main clientele of the dressmaking trade, women had an important role to play in improving conditions for seamstresses. It was hoped that paintings that inspired compassion for seamstresses might encourage women to reduce the time pressures they placed on their dressmakers and persuade them to pay more promptly for their purchases. Such measures, it was thought, would improve conditions for workers all along the production chain.
Shortly after Richard Redgrave's Sempstress was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1844, a group of aristocratic women formed a committee to visit slopworkers in their homes to ensure their wellbeing. Such visitors would have seen that real slopworkers' lives rarely resembled the romanticised characters portrayed in paintings.
Although they were not an accurate representation of reality, paintings of seamstresses became a popular symbol throughout the nineteenth century. While conscious consumption sounds like a uniquely modern value, it first became widespread in the Victorian era as mass production expanded. Paintings of seamstresses were specifically designed to express this idea, reminding viewers to acknowledge the inevitable human toll of consumption while urging them to use their behaviour as consumers to improve labour conditions for the people who made the products on which they depended.
Sir Hubert von Herkomer, Old Age: A Study at the Westminster Union, 1877, mixed media on board. Private Collection.
G F Watts, Song of the Shirt, c.1847, oil on canvas. Watts Gallery Trust.