Hiner on Tilburg (2019)

Tilburg, Patricia. Working Girls: Sex, Taste, and Reform in the Parisian Garment Trades, 1880–1919. Oxford UP, 2019, pp. x + 268, ISBN 978-0-19-884117-3

Patricia Tilburg has written an important study of the fin-de-siècle figure of the midinette. Organized chronologically, the book begins with early nineteenth-century literary-cultural types, concentrates on the midinette figure in the Belle Époque, and concludes with her contestation and manipulation of a tenacious mythology and her entrance into the public sphere through strikes and wartime activities in the early twentieth century. Tilburg’s study is richly researched, elegantly written, and thoroughly engaging. Drawing on a range of primary source materials, including literary and filmic treatments, as well as press, police, and union documents, the author convincingly demonstrates the ubiquity of the midinette figure in the Parisian zeitgeist of the late nineteenth century.

 A short introduction presents a central claim that, because the midinette has been such a familiar Parisian fixture from the Belle Époque through the Great War, she has remained “hidden in plain sight” (5). By “putting the fantasy midinette of this period into dialogue with actual garment laborers,” Tilburg writes a new working-class women’s labor history that takes “midinette pop culture” seriously as valuable archival material (12). Embracing the popular image of the working girl, Tilburg connects it to her activism, portraying lived experience and offering a nuanced history. To set the stage for the star of the book—the midinette—chapter one returns to the early nineteenth century to sketch her most famous precursor, the Parisian grisette, whose “preternatural fashion skill” was transmitted to her “Belle Époque granddaughter” (26). Relying on physiologies, songs and poems featuring garment workers, and Alfred de Musset’s iconic literary text, Tilburg explores the production of a nostalgia industry around Musset’s grisette, Mimi Pinson, offering an overview of her role in the early days of urban modernity. Crucial to her legacy was eroticization coupled with “political obedience,” contested by her later avatar (33).

 Chapter two launches into the world of the midinette, investigating labor practices through an analysis of “exhibition reports, ministerial inquiries, and labor reform commissions” (59) that present a counterpoint to the myth of the happy female garment worker. Tilburg questions how this mythology, tied to national pride, related to workplace reform. Two reforms in particular are central to her examination: elimination of night garment work (veillées) and regulation of toxic substances in flower making, an industry that, by 1909, “employed some 28,000 workers” (74). The mythology surrounding women workers flattered their talent and accomplishment, and thus downplayed difficult working conditions that were justified in the name of national pride. Tilburg’s twin explorations into labor reform are fascinating and well-researched; a consideration of Allison Matthews-David’s informative chapter on flower makers in her 2015 Fashion Victims might have been useful. Chapter three makes judicious use of the archives of Gustave Charpentier, who founded the “Œuvre de Mimi Pinson (OMP)” in 1900 to offer working-class women access to performances, education, and other philanthropic enterprises. Charpentier’s initiative, while appreciated by working women, nonetheless continued to capitalize on the mythology of the cheerful, sexually appealing working-class girl, using “social uplift,” Tilburg argues, as a form of “social control” (96).

 Chapter four returns to the issue of reform with the question of the working girl’s lunch. It is a well-known fact that the midinette earned her nickname from her noontime proclivities. Departing the workshop at lunchtime with friends, ostensibly to eat, the Parisian garment worker appeared as delicious spectacle for hungry fantasists like Georges Montorgueil, who embellished an already vibrant mythology with claims that the midinette, who eats like a bird (pinson means finch), starves for coquettishness. Her “conspicuous under eating” allows her to focus on flirtation rather than food, remaining svelte and able to model perfectly the dainty fashions she creates (127). Exploring the tropes of midinette literature together with accounts of lunchroom reform, Tilburg argues that under-eating should be seen not as a style choice, but as a sign of deprivation born of poverty.

 Chapter five offers an inquiry into the series of garment worker strikes that occurred between 1901 and 1919, culminating in some important victories for women labor activists. Focusing on the tensions between fantasy and real working conditions, Tilburg shows that even as working women were striking for shorter work days and better pay, the image of the carefree, depoliticized, frivolous midinette dominated discourse in the press and in popular culture, both from the right and the left. This feminine proletariat was depoliticized by her cultural representation, but the striking midinettes also learned to capitalize on their own stereotype to gain concessions. Chapter six brings us to the Great War and recounts the service of Parisian female garment workers for the war effort. Once again, her abiding myth persisted, as the now unemployed midinettes of Paris used their needle skills to create patriotic cocardes to send to the poilus at the front. The chapter exploits plays, films, novels, and songs to illustrate the massive cultural production around the midinette and her imagined “eroticized rapport” with the “front soldiers” (210). Looking to the twentieth century, to the interwar years and the rationalizing of labor that would be increasingly mechanized, Tilburg concludes with the essential message of the midinette's story: to bear witness to the ways in which an enduring cultural fantasy inhibited “women’s and workers’ emancipation” (243). 

Tilburg's book draws on a wealth of primary materials and invites a fuller exploration of various visual sources since fashion, after all, was such a strongly visual economyTilburg establishes the centrality of the figure of the midinette to both the fashion economy and the discourse of the working woman. Furthermore, she has opened a productive space to pursue these questions, to engage more deeply with the primacy of visual culture, and to examine working women across class lines. By treating her readers to a dazzling romp through the world of the midinette, the author has also shown how this exhilarating fantasy is inextricable from the labor history of the period and has provided an indispensable resource for future studies.