Embroidering Stories

Posted on September 27, 2011 by

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After powering through a ton of literary theory in the month of August, I’ve recently returned to the land of fiction. Working as a temp receptionist gives me a lot of down time with my Kindle, and I recently joined a book club, so the past few weeks have been the perfect time to work through my “to read” list. The first task on that list was to reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the story of the American colonist whose finely embroidered A represents her adulterous sin. Then I moved onto my next assignment, my new book club’s text for October: The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt, which features a supporting character who churns out embroidered masterpieces with pornographic details from the comfort of a modern Midwestern nursing home. Finally, I moved on to a bit more of a guilty pleasure, Emma Donoghue’s pop historical fiction novel Slammerkin, the story of an eighteenth-century English clotheshorse who reluctantly leaves a life of prostitution in order to make money embroidering fine clothes.

Encountering three texts in one week featuring women embroidering was a total coincidence, and of course it made me wonder what brought all of these stories together. Upon examination I found that in each text, embroidery is used as a way to express shame or a lack thereof. As in The Scarlet Letter and Slammerkin, the shame may be a result of a lowly position in life – that of an adultress or an inconsequential servant. In Slammerkin, this shame is multi-layered, though it comes more from being a servant and paid embroiderer than from being a sex worker. Ruling out prostitution leaves so few economic options for women of Mary’s low status that the only other available path is to be a servant; whichever path she chooses, she chooses a life of humiliation. Meanwhile, her society’s condemnation of prostitutes appears completely arbitrary to her, as Mary contends that “all women are prostitutes”, with women’s only options being selling their bodies into sex work or selling their bodies into marriage.

Mary’s resentment over the humiliation of her class and gender finds its voice in her embroidery. She embroiders the eponymous slammerkin (a loose-fitting dress associated with loose women which then came into vogue for fashionable, respectable ladies) with apples and snakes, evoking the shameful fall of Eve. This connotation points to the general shame of women, whose circumscribed options, whatever their class, lead them into some sort of forced prostitution. Meanwhile, the embroidery pokes fun at the upper class, since it technically follows the orders of the client, who requested that the embroidery depict “themes of paradise.” The decision to depict the fall of paradise slyly reveals the shame lurking at the hem of even the most “respectable” women. Though Mary uses her embroidery to make fun of her clients, The Scarlet Letter‘s Hester Prynne turns the needle upon herself. While she sells her ornate embroidery to all of her fellow colonists, Hester dresses herself plainly except for the finely wrought A. This can be seen both as a way to deprive herself of finery as punishment for her sin and as a way to draw attention to her sin, inviting others’ punishment upon herself. The A is both a visible symbol of her shame and an invitation for more humiliation.

Though snakes and apples and letters can act as symbols of shame, embroidery can also act as a way to refuse shame. The flip side of Hester’s A is that the letter may also function as a symbol of pride, an invitation for attention of a positive nature. The letter, as ornately made as the fine clothing she makes for her illegitimate daughter Pearl, is so eye-catching, so shameless, that it could just as well function as a symbol of lack of shame. Instead of hiding her sin, she flaunts it, making no attempt to cover her secrets.

Representing their secret inner lives often helps these embroiderers in their efforts to refuse shame. The work of Abigail in The Summer Without Men is a physical expression of her inner life, as she hides pornographic details in pockets, linings, and the undersides of what appear to be demure old-lady projects, like a Christmas tree-themed table runner. For this sort of subtly subversive work, embroidery is perfect. The nature of the medium allows the artist to incorporate tiny details that may go unnoticed, like the pained faces hiding in Alice’s benign-seeming dancing bear scene. The physical complexities allow Abigail to depict multiple layers of her identity – her raunchy sense of humor, her queerness, and most importantly, her lack of shame – while making works that embody the complexity of women’s inner lives.

Yet these multi-layered inner stories have no importance if not shared with others. Abigail keeps hers to herself until the novel’s narrator Mia befriends her. Only with such an audience can the subversive power of embroidery make an impact. This communal aspect allows me to bring a few more texts into the conversation, namely Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novella Embroideries and Judy Chicago’s art installation “The Dinner Party.” In Embroideries, any actual needlework takes a backseat to the stories embroidered by Satrapi’s female family members, particularly those of hymen reconstruction surgery, a different kind of embroidery. Satrapi does not criticize the surgery; rather, the women laughingly view it as a shortcut around shame – no one knows the difference (the men are literally asleep while they gossip and are completely unaware of the reconstructive surgery). Telling their stories of plastic surgery is a way to share secrets and sidestep shame by sharing their inner lives. As the grandmother of the family says, “to speak behind others’ backs is the ventilator of the heart.”

Similarly, Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party”, which features embroidered placemats at a table set for a dinner party of historical female heroes. Much like the chat session in Embroideries, this party is an opportunity for women to get together and embroider their own stories, to “end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record”, according to Chicago. (Contrast this with Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls, which also depicts a dinner party of famed women, but which ends in conflict when its characters refuse to share their secrets with one another.) By collaboratively embroidering their own stories, women in various times, places, and media can refuse to be shamed.

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