Nicolas de Larmessin II, Habit de la lingère (The Seamstress’s Attire) from the series ‘Les Costumes Grotesques et les métiers’ (Fanciful Costumes and the Trades), 1695
With apologies to Heinrich von Kleist.
Trapped inside the costume of her occupation, the seamstress’s body is merely the operator: at once the centre of gravity and the prisoner of her work. She both is, and is not, this external shell. Her labours become a dance of gestures that turn into demonstrations of technical agility: the movement of her fingers conforms to the rhythms of the trade itself. As both puppet master and puppet, she weaves her patterns and is worn by them. Her limbs extend into the fragments of the dress. A man’s shirt sleeve below, some raw fabric, at her torso a set of drawers, each labelled with the material contained within: ‘D. de Flandre’ is short for Dentelle de Flandre or Lace from Flanders, the paraphernalia of the dressmaker.
Although she is part composed of inert things, she is not afflicted by the inactivity of matter: the dead weight of the pendulum becomes the swinging articulation of her limbs. Yet, the table reveals her fatigue. She must have it to repose on and recover from the effort of her dance, but her resting elbow clearly has no part in her mechanical choreography. The best she can do is make it as inconspicuous as possible.
Here, vulgar industry drives inanimate matter towards the graceful movement of the puppet who, in Kleist’s ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ (1810), was used to explore concepts of indivisibility between subject and object – arcing back to a prelapsarian innocence, where two points of this circular world meet.
Main image: Nicolas de Larmessin, II Habit de la lingère (The Seamstress’s Attire, detail), from the series ‘Les Costumes grotesques et les métiers’ (Fanciful Costumes and the Trades) 1695, prints. Courtesy: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, and Michel Hennin Collection
First published in Issue 6