racy mending

I have been playing around with ideas about mending and darning for a forthcoming article, and have been turning up some interesting tangential things in various digital collections. Pictured above are “Chicago’s top models for 1922″ who have been co-opted to advertise the novel innovation of the seam ripper. The caption reads “Ripping is a pleasure with Rip-Easy!” What’s interesting about this Iowa sewing company’s choice of marketing is that it seemed to be entirely directed at men. This photo, with its group of local lovelies, “pleasurably” ripping the seams out of silk and lace while displaying their ankles, most obviously speaks to the male viewer. That same year “Rip Easy” advertised itself in Boys Life Magazine as “the best and most practical device to help the folks at home with their home sewing. Send in 10c for a sample and Do a Good Turn for Mother.” Perhaps “Rip-Easy” assumed that men and boys were more likely to be fascinated by stitching gadgets than the women stitchers themselves . . or that blokes were simply more interested in the rather racy idea of women’s ripped seams. . . either way, I’ve not found any comparable advertisments in the women’s magazines of 1922.

Here is more racy mending, from a 1904 postcard. This stitcher is clearly an impressive multi-tasker: fixing a hem while reading The Sunday Magazine and giving whoever is watching her raise her skirts a wee thrill. No matter that it is much easier to stitch a hem if one is not already wearing it, to sit in a comfortable chair while sewing, or to use a pair of scissors rather than one’s teeth: the legs are what’s at stake here.

I’ve found lots of these mildly racy, early twentieth-century images of mending, and it isn’t that surprising. Associations between mending and s*x are conventional and familiar from centuries of genre painting and portraiture: a woman looking at the work in her lap gives a man an opportunity to look at her; a female servant bent over her darning displays her hands or chest; an idle stitcher clearly has her mind on other things.

but then I began to find an awful lot of these:

which took the s*xual politics of the sewing basket to a slightly different place. . .

25 responses

  1. Haha I love the first one. Maybe they thought that men were likely to buy the woman the ‘Rip-Easy’ as a present? Like being given an ironing board cover at Christmas (my poor mother still put on a happy face at that one)!

  2. Pretty DARNED funny.
    But Kate, I have to say there are times when you just MUST hem while wearing the garment. Since you are clearly well organized and not a procrastinator you may not know that there’s a whole world of wonder out there, wondering if you’ll get the dress finished in time. I didn’t realize how consistent I was about last minute sewing until my husband said, as we drove to the party, “Just once I’d like to go to a party and not have you hemming your dress on the way.” Message received but not heeded.

  3. Really interesting! I love reading your research topics. But does anyone else wonder at the last photo, the most amazing thing to me is how enormous that mans pants are! Like the pants that ate Fred Mertz (I Love Lucy fans will remember that as the series continues, character Fred Mertz’s pants kept getting higher and higher and higher.)
    Thanks for sharing the photos!

  4. Ha! Very funny.

    Where was the first image published–in a men’s or women’s (or “general”) publication? Today women’s publications are full of racy images of women but I don’t think they’re *directed* at men, but rather directed at women to teach us how to make ourselves attractive to men (buy this seam ripper and you too will look as sexy as these ladies). It would be interesting if women’s publications “always” had that kind of imagery or if there was a point in time at which racy images became acceptable in women’s pubs when they weren’t before.

    • Ah, I didn’t realise one could reply to specific comments – I’ve left you a reply below, and meant the original Kate (!) in my bit at the end!

  5. The most offensive thing about that last photo is the floor/wallpaper combo – I wonder what it would have looked like in colour?!

    • My thoughts exactly! My mother remembers her grandmother’s house had very distracting combinations of various floral patterns on the wallpaper, upholstery, and draperies. She doesn’t have any wallpaper because of this.

  6. Today women’s publications are full of racy images of women but I don’t think they’re *directed* at men, but rather directed at women to teach us how to make ourselves attractive to men

    In general – agreed! I don’t yet have the full sociological background but I remember being struck when reading about the emergence of lifestyle publications – I’ve lost what I was reading at the moment but things like Mrs Beeton and also the new visions of domestic perfection given by department stores when they’d just begun, and were immensely keen to reel in the female market – to how this is still very much alive today in the Sunday glossy supplements. Women’s mags too, of course, but I’d never really thought about *quite* why fashion, gossip, food, and emotional advice should fit so ‘naturally’ together in one single magazine. That it’s about selling domestic/personal perfection (not always cynically – Sally Brampton is one of my heroes, who writes for the Sunday Times supplement) just clicked, hugely.

    But yes, it’s compelling that there exists something of a continuum of sewing images from the practical to the downright blue – that does give me, for one, a whole new lens to look at things with.

    To Kate this’ll be old hat – maybe not so to other readers, I’m hoping. I always like to spread ‘OH!’ moments. :)

  7. On the flip side, men in the military have to be able to sew, at least a little. My son’s in Civil Air Patrol, a US Air Force auxiliary for kids 12-18, and they have to sew patches, etc. on their BDUs.

    I’m reading The Age of Persuasion, How Marketing Ate Our Culture, which has some interesting insights about sales and sex appeal.

  8. oohhh grrl. i’ve just been discussing the brocket-like propensity of Real Simple magazine to pornogriphy, with its slavering close-ups of food — not quite so conformed for the camera as the brocket’s oozing icings and food coloring palette and nasty penny candy poured over the knitting — and its sort of zen graphics of housework camera style (very spielberg, now that i come to think of it, such surface slickness and such feudal content).
    i see it was ever thus. pinny porn forever!

  9. I shall look at my seam ripper through new eyes (it is even in a photo on Thursday’s post!!) I’d rather have the saucy glimpse of stockings than the photos we see now in lads’ mags – now I’m singing ‘Anything goes’ …… in olden days a glimpse of stocking etc!!

  10. That was terrific. I have spent more time than I’d like to admit in archives, poring through early twentieth century material, but this is new to me. Loved it! Thanks for sharing.

  11. Very interesting, this. I have observed that males previously uninterested in knitting suddenly wish to be involved in the proceedings if a ball-winder and swift (GADGETS!) are produced, but as far as I know these items are not advertised in GQ!

  12. Too funny! When we lived overseas in the rainforest (Peace Corps), the villagers always referred to sex as sewing. The whole up and down and in and out thing…well, you get the drift!
    Where in the world do you find all those wonderful old photos? I love old pics…but alas, don’t run into them so often. :) Thanks for sharing.

  13. Sew & Se*x are very closely related, especially as “w” & “x” are neighbors in the alphabet. I wonder if it was designed that way. ;-) Thank you Kate, for another very educational and entertaining post !

  14. Geesh I mend things all the time, often like the women who is reading and cutting the thread with her teeth. Sadly I’ve never felt sexy or appealing or racy but rather…poor, and too lazy to take the item off or get up and get the scissors!

  15. Associations between mending and s*x are conventional…

    At first I was thinking to self….What the? ….and then I remembered the opening scenes of Jane Campion’s latest pic….Bright Star….did anybody else find those opening scenes of stitching, thinly disguised references to sex….I certainly did!!!

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