Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Art History


Judy Sund

Committee Members

Katherine Manthorne

Patricia Mainardi

Sarah Burns

Subject Categories

American Studies | Art and Design | Cultural History | European History | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Labor History | Social History | United States History | Women's History


Seamstress, Song of the Shirt, European Art, American Art, Labor History, Fashion History


This dissertation explores how the seamstress’s image operated in the visual culture of 19th-century Britain, France, and the United States to propel larger narratives about capitalism and the urban-industrial nation-state. My project explicitly focuses on the representation of women completing piecework for the emergent ready-to-wear garment industry across all forms of visual culture to explore the role that the seamstress played in shaping public perception of a confluence of 19th-century anxieties about gender, class, industry, and culture. This figure developed as both a visual and literary stock character in the industrial nations of Europe and the United States, serving as an emblem of pitiable, exploited workers, from the figure’s origination in the 1840s, with Richard Redgrave’s The Sempstress (1844; inspired by Thomas Hood’s protest poem “The Song of the Shirt,” published in Punch in December 1843), through the outcry against sweatshops into the 1880s and 90s. This distinctly urban character was carefully defined as a single or widowed, white or native-born woman, her perceived whiteness aligning her with each nation’s dominant culture to tap into their emotional responses to the destabilization engendered by the rise of industrial capitalism and the free-market economy – while not unduly disturbing any bourgeois sensibilities.

Locked in dialogue and competition with one another as the three leading industrial and fashion producers of the era, Britain, France, and the United States, all grappled with comparable practices and anxieties. Yet, their visual treatment of this laboring woman was not analogous. Through these three national case studies, my dissertation interrogates the intersection of the garment worker’s representation and the larger socio-political milieu of each society, arguing that her treatment in both fine and popular art is indicative of how each nation viewed its position as an industrial world power — and how they wanted to be viewed by others. Though a 19th-century urban type familiar across urban-industrial societies, the seamstress’s characterization shifted across national borders, speaking to the specific domestic and international power dynamics and distinct brand of “exceptionalism” present within each nation.

Secure in its position as the foremost industrial power, in Britain the seamstress spoke to the Victorian sense of righteousness and Britain’s role as the arbiter of moral behavior both at home and abroad. France, however, was a martial and industrial power on the decline in the 19th century and thus leaned into its history as a cultural tastemaker and “soft power,” marking the French seamstress as an exemplar of the nation’s innate aestheticism and cultural supremacy. Conversely, the United States was an industrial power on the ascent, and the seamstress functioned in the 19th-century U.S. to promote a white middle-class ideal and the myth of the “American Dream.” By comparatively analyzing the seamstress’s visual form and history in this transnational context, this dissertation not only chronicles the commonalities that ensured her enduring appeal throughout the 19th century but points out differences in representation and the nationalist messages that undergirded them, highlighting the powerful role that visual culture plays in promoting nationalist agendas, whether purposefully or in response to inherent biases.


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