Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book Review: The Subversive Stitch, Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine

In the world of contemporary art, using embroidery to express yourself is risky. And while I impart a subtle subversive message in those textile pieces, it is hard to overcome the initial impression that I am doing dainty women's work.  In my attempt to understand that prejudice, I picked up the book "The Subversive Stitch, Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine."

Written by Rozsika Parker who has published widely in both Art History and Psychotherapy, the book delves into the history of embroidery to explore its associations with femininity. Parker defines femininity as "the behaviour expected and encouraged in women, though obviously related to the biological sex of the individual, is shaped by society." The key argument of this book is that the "changes in ideas about femininity that can be seen reflected in the history of embroidery are striking confirmation that femininity is a social and psychosocial product." (page 3)

In the revised and updated edition, the book is broken down into eight chapters:
1. The Creation of Femininity
2. Eternalising the Feminine
3. Fertility, Chastity and Power
4. The Domestication of Embroidery
5. The Inculcation of Femininity
6. From Milkmaids to Mothers
7. Femininity as Feeling
8. A Naturally Revolutionary Art?

This is a scholarly text, densely written with abundant quotations, endnotes and black/white illustrations.  Unfortunately, much of the richness and beauty of the photo illustrations is lost in their small size of presentation in dull gray tones. Nevertheless, the book is a thoughtful and thorough analysis of the history of embroidery and its association with femininity and women's work. Of particular interest to me was the last chapter in which Parker explores the revolutionary aspect of contemporary embroidery by such artists as Louise Bourgeois and Tracy Emin. However, this book is not for a casual reader and is more suited for research in art history, feminist issues or embroidery.

From my reading of this book, I came to understand the reasons the disparity in status between embroidery and painting. The division between women's work and men's work seems to be at the core of this deep seeded antipathy towards embroidery. This particular quote from the eighteenth century sums it up:  "Sir, she's an Artist with her needle....Could anything be more laughable than a woman claiming artistic status for her sewing?" (page 172).  Luckily, today's definitions of art and femininity are somewhat more fluid, allowing me flexibility to chose the medium best suited for a particular message.

Title: The Subversive Stitch, Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine
Author: Rozsika Parker
Publisher: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, New York
First Published: 1984; Reprinted 1986 and 1989; Revised 1996; Reprinted 2010
Category: Non-fiction
Number of Pages: 247