Does this dress make me look financially independent?

The secretly subversive handmade garments of Woman's Exchange outlets.

Published March 19, 2007 7:35PM (EDT)

Buried in the Fashion & Style section of Sunday's New York Times was a profile of a little-known feminist pioneer: the cherry dress, an iconic white child's frock dotted with a few tasteful embroidered cherries. While I'm sure plenty of us can appreciate the Peter Pan collar, the story behind the fashion is that the dress in question remains the staple product of the St. Louis Woman's Exchange, a consignment organization founded in the 1800s to help women earn a living by selling handmade crafts and garments.

The article touches on the fact that, nationwide, Woman's Exchange outlets have mostly vanished into the past. But there's still some progress to celebrate. (Not the least of which is the disappearance of the term "decayed gentlewoman," the title for the unmarried, divorced or generally manless ladies behind the goods.) These genteel tearooms-as-showrooms existed in part as high-society window dressing to hide the fact that single women were working. The cultural shame of earning money kept all but the poorest women from pursuing incomes of their own -- in answer to this problem, the Woman's Exchange identified itself as offering "social services." The fact that the Exchanges have crumbled shows that society no longer needs to cloak the female workforce in anonymity and finger sandwiches, and that's a good thing.

The Times points out that Woman's Exchanges really took off in the wake of male casualties from the Civil War. A later advance on the Exchange model was, of course, the Tupperware party -- begun right after WWII. The party-cum-business plan was essentially similar to the Woman's Exchange, maintaining the illusion that women don't work -- they just throw parties, silly. But the Tupperware sales model has managed to stay afloat past the advent of the power suit by evolving into retro kitsch. (For evidence, look no further than reigning Tupperware drag queen Dixie Longate, who invites shoppers to "buy stuff, hookers," and has to turn business away to her Tupper-peer, Mildred Scrotum.)

As Woman's Exchanges fade from the cultural landscape, it's worth remembering that there are many more advances in workplace equality to be made. For starters, how about equal pay, subsidized childcare, and reproductive health benefits? Meanwhile, there are a few elements of retro-preppy Woman's Exchange culture that could stand to be revived: Bringing fatty seven-layer cakes back into culinary vogue would be much appreciated.

By Paula Rogers

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