Embroidering Emotions? Exploring the history of the trousseau

I’ve been thinking about dowries and trousseaus a bit lately. While the dowry was on the decline by the 1950s, most Italian women still married with a corredo or trousseau. Traditionally this was a collection of hand-sewn linens and typically included bed sheets and pillow cases as well as towels, napkins and table cloths. A girl might work steadily on her corredo throughout her adolescence. Sandro lived in a village south of Rome and met his wife in the late 1950s; he knew she was responsible and serious since she worked on her corredo each evening after a day’s work on the farm. This was before she had even met her future husband. In rural Tuscany, Laura listed in meticulous detail the items she had brought with her when she married in 1950; a blue cotton bed cover, four sheets, four pillow cases, one dishcloth, six towels, two night dresses and twelve nappies. The fact that she was able to remember the exact number of each item she brought more than thirty years later, is an indication of the value – practical and sentimental – that the corredo held for her. She had almost certainly sewn everything all herself and in the small sparsely furnished home than she and her husband shared in their first years of marriage, each of the items she brought would have been put to continual use.

While the primary purpose of the corredo was to stock the couple’s new home with the linens and furnishings they needed, it could be decorative as well as practical. In Sicily, there was a strong tradition of young women spending many years embroidering linens to create highly decorative trousseaux for their marriage. Such a trousseau was a mark of status; the family who could afford for their daughters to spend their time on needlework rather than helping out in the fields, could demonstrate this with an elaborate display of corredo. In Sicily it was traditional for the corredo to be displayed in the bride’s home on the eve of the wedding for neighbours and extended family to admire. The corredo was also evaluated, with a price given for each item, by a professional appraiser. Unsurprising this custom led to much competitive trousseau making, especially among upwardly mobile middle class mothers. The trousseau of one rural Spanish bride in the 1960s apparently contained ‘six monogrammed sanitary napkins’; probably a step too far. By the 1950s and 1960s, the traditional linens were also joined by other consumer items; a watch, a gas stove, a set of delph. Increasingly for the 1960s these were the items a bride really strove to acquire and that caused envy among her neighbours. The needlework tradition was thus gradually displaced.

An article I read recently by anthropologist Jane Schneider set out much of the custom surrounding the Sicilian trousseau; however she also seemed quite dismissive of the time, effort and skill that girls spent creating these richly embroidered linens. In her estimation, they required time and concentration more than skill and there was little art involved. As soon as women were able to continue their education or to work, as they were increasingly from the 1960s and 1970s in Sicily, the needlework traditions were happily abandoned. I can probably agree up to a point; I’m sure I would have suffered from extreme boredom if I had to spend my teenage years at home doing needlework instead of going to school or university. However I wonder if there are other ways of looking at women’s needlework than just as an oppressive tradition and a waste of time. It seems that particularly from the 1970s, needlework was dismissed because it was done in the home and was thus part of a housewife’s work rather than a real craft or skill. With the rise of consumer culture, people could also buy mass produced linens more easily and cheaply, happily abandoning needlework. For women who had recently won the right to a productive life outside the home, such crafts might understandably associated with tedium and repression.

The popularity of knitting and sewing in recent years, from the hugely successful knitting website Ravelry to the Great British Sewing Bee, indicates that there is a renewed interest in what were dismissed as out-dated pastimes, and simply women’s crafts several decades ago. The renewed attention for domestic needlework crafts such as knitting, sewing and embroidery, indicates that there must be other ways of looking at the trousseau linens than as a tedious waste of women’s time. Can this be all that they meant to those who spend so many hours of their lives working on them? While some women most likely did find the work repetitive, surely others aMeldon trousseau detaillso approached as a way of creating something beautiful and meaningful. Historians working on both the history of the emotions and material culture are also approaching objects such as textiles in terms of the private meanings that they held for the wearers or owners. Trousseau linens held huge value in a family; the richly embroidered ones were rarely used and were kept instead as family treasures. While they may not often appear in museums, there are probably countless fragments of trousseaux in attics and at the back of cupboards.The photos above and left are of an embroidered linen belonging to my husband’s great grandmother. The linen is probably similar to the Irish linens used in countless Sicilian corredi.

 

I’m curious to find out more about trousseau, and about the needlework that went into making them. As well as embroidery, crochet was also common for decorative table mats and doilies. In Scotland, Shetland lace and colour knitting – as explored by knitting designer and historian Kate Davies – were also crucial to bridal gift and dowries. While I will have to wait until I can make a trip to Sicily probably in spring to find out more about the Sicilian corredo, I’m interested to find out what I can about dowries and trousseaux, particularly in the context of needlework. Any help would be appreciated!

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2 thoughts on “Embroidering Emotions? Exploring the history of the trousseau

  1. http://collectionsearch.nma.gov.au/?f%5B0%5D=obj_collectiontitle%3AJudy%20and%20Ian%20McPhee%20collection#?f%5B0%5D=obj_collectiontitle:Judy%20and%20Ian%20McPhee%20collection&page=3&_suid=142647150882204848659878700404
    Hi Niamh,
    The above link takes you to a catalogue of the dowry of Muriel McPhee, who was engaged in 1916. She never married, it seems her fiancee was killed and after her death in the 1980s her nieces and nephews fround her trousseau packed safely away around her house, never having been used. As you express and interest in crochet and needlework in your post above, I thought I’d put you into Muriel. The 100+ items she made are now kept by the Australian National Museum and notably, do not include a wedding dress! Because she kept her engagement secret her whole life, her story has been pieced together by family and curators.
    All the best, Rebecca Crawford

  2. Hi Rebecca, thanks for your comment – sorry I’m seeing it a bit late! The collection looks fascinating, she was obviously an extremely talented needle-worker. It’s amazing to think what might be found even by chance in private homes and attics, especially when it comes to women’s domestic needlework and craft work.

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