Mystery Monday: A Tailor and a Seamstress

Schoen, Erhard. Tailor and Seamstress, not before 1491 – 1542. Woodcut print, 279 x 180 mm. From The Illustrated Bartsch, volume 13, commentary, German Masters of the Sixteenth Century: Erhard Schoen and Niklas Stoer.

Yes, this print depicts a tailor and a seamstress.

The Tailor:

Hail to you, beautiful seamstress, come along with me to Norway. There to dress the lansquenets well; and want to earn a good deal of money, while you prepare the shirts of silk, embroidered with gold; you’ll make more money in a month than as a seamstress in a year.

The Seamstress:

If you would be a good fellow, I’d dare to be liked by you. I would not have my friends stop me. I hope that we will both prosper. You will make garments according to the lansquenets custom; divided, split and cut apart; of silk, damask, and velvet; from this we will gain honor and wealth.

These verses reflect the historic relationship of the tailor and the seamstress, where the tailor would design clothing for both sexes, and the seamstress would be responsible for garment construction and finishing. So, what changed in Paris in 1675?

Plan De La Ville Et Fauxbourgs De Paris Dressé sur les Observations AStronomiques de l’Academie Royale des Sciences et sur les Operationes Geom. De Guillaume Del Isle de la meme Academie, 1716.  Copper engraving handcolored with watercolor, 49 x 63 cm. From the University of Washington Libraries. Special Collections Division. Found online.

According to Ann Hollander, in Sex and Suits, in the 1660s:

In the modest bourgeois vein, women’s dress was sober and self-contained while men’s was assertive and dashing, even in dim colors.

Such differences went along with a profound split that occurred in the craft of tailoring during the reign of Louis XIV, a split that had very lengthy effects. In 1675 a group of French seamstresses successfully applied for royal permission to form a guild of female tailors for the making of women’s clothes–to become the first professional dressmakers. Louis approved, believing that the dignity of French women would be well served by such a development, which permitted scope for their talent, respect for their modesty, and independence for their taste. Increasingly thereafter, as all of Europe copied French fashion and fashion methods, women dress women and men dressed men.

So what happened when women started to dress women?

After the foundation of the dressmakers’ guild, and the spread of the idea that female dressmakers were appropriate for the making of women’s clothes, male tailoring proceeded as before according to craft tradition, but only for men, while dressmaking provided larger ornamental possibilities for women. A difference in the way clothes were conceived and made for the two sexes came into existence for the first time, a separation that profoundly affected both the character and the reputation of fashion for the next two centuries, and that still survives.

Without the skills and the knowledge of the male tailors, the dressmakers continued to rely on the tailors to create foundation garments for women. The dressmakers used skilled handwork and excellent draping skills to create extreme fashions, adding volume and accessories without making major alterations to the basic shape of the dress.  At the same time, the tailors continued to refine the cut and shape of men’s clothing, and as a possible reaction to the excess of lace and trim in women’s fashion, chose to use more neutral colored fabrics and to create simplified silhouettes.

The result? A complete distinction between menswear and women’s wear.

For more information, please see the following sources:

Crowston, Clare Haru. Fabricating Women: The Seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1675–1791. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 2001.

Hollander, Anne. Sex and Suits. New York: Kodansha International, 1994, pages 65 – 67.

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8 Responses to Mystery Monday: A Tailor and a Seamstress

  1. Claudia says:

    Now you really astonished me, because I had an entirely different interpretation of the picture, based on a book about sexual relationships through history. It is by Reae Tannahill, I have the german translation only. I admit that though I am german I could hardly decipher that renaissanace typo, but in that book there are similar illustrations. I thought rather that “tailor and seamstress” was an ironic title. The man does not wear the clothing of a craftsman, but the very distinctive one of a military officer, complete with a long sword of some kind. I’d say he invites the woman – who might be a seamstress – to become a camp follower. He will slice, slash, tear and cut open other men’s clothing – in battle – an she, besides doing cooking and providing sexual favours – can earn even more money by mending clothes. German lansquenets called their suit “Das Zerhauene”, meaning a suit that has been cut many times and mended with whatever scraps of fabric were at hand, so it took on a motley appearance during the campaign.

  2. Laura Peluso says:


    I love your interpretation of the illustration. It reminds me of Chaucer and his use of double entendres!

    I came across a few of Schoen’s woodcut prints during my research. In addition to the print above, I found “The Cobbler and His Girl” and “The Cook and His Wife”. In all of the prints, the man is dressed as a lansquenet, and each text indicates that both the man and his companion will prosper from their proximity to the military camp. The cobbler’s verse includes the following line: “I’ll quit fixing shoes; | for I plan in several wars | to gain honor and great riches. | Who knows who’ll be so fortunate.” The cook and the tailor do not express this same desire to join the troops, but perhaps we should infer their intention to find wealth and success on the battlefield.

    I find your explanation to be equally plausible. I have not read Reae Tannahill’s “Sex in History” but will hopefully have the chance to find it in our library this weekend!

    • Claudia says:

      From the depiction of the tailor carrying a weapon I automatically jumped to the conclusion that he could not really be a taylor as he would not be allowed to wear one. But who knows? Maybe this is also sort of allegoric. The armies of that time were overflowing with self-employed mercenaries partaking of the spoils of war, and maybe the portrayal of these plain craftsmen as military men means that they, too, are only soldiers of fortune and no different than actual soldiers killing for a living (far too much post-modern sensitivity in that line of reasoning, though…)

      • Laura Peluso says:

        I will let you know if I discover anything more about the prints in the coming weeks!

        As a first year, I’m enjoying the opportunity to discuss fashion and textiles with other people who find the history as exciting as I do! Thanks for starting an interesting discussion. 🙂

  3. kazabooboo says:

    I was right! what do I win?

    • Laura Peluso says:

      You were not just right, you were exactly right! 🙂

      I think the satisfaction of knowing you had the perfect answer surpasses anything of material value. Hah! So, nothing.

      In all sincerity, please tune in next week and keep guessing. We love seeing your comments and answering your questions!

  4. It’s nearly impossible to find educated people for this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about!

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