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THE SONG OF THE SHIRT

UK, 1979 (MIFF 1980)

Director: Susan Clayton, Jonathan Curling

"The Song of the Shirt" grew out of a video project on women and the Welfare State. It examines why the status of working women had deteriorated from the time of the Industrial Revolution, and how it was that women living and working outside the family came to be seen as a challenge to the social order.

The film looks at the origins of philanthropy — and resistances to it — by examining as a group, women working in the "sweated" clothes trade in London in the 1840's — a new trade, overflowing with poor, often unmarried women from the country, for whom employment was seasonal, and prostitution often the only alternative. The film refuses to credit any historical source as the "truth" about these women, but turns the tables and looks at the motives behind what was written, from Mayhew's sensational accounts of their domestic lives, to hysterical comparisons in Parliament with the "festering and mouldering discontent" of the 1848 Paris Revolution, and the absurdly impractical schemes to get those "500,000 surplus women" to emigrate. These conventional sources are repeatedly played off against arguments and criticisms from the radical publications of the Chartist ant Cooperative movements.

The film is episodic, using short sequences of still photographs, graphics and acted reconstructions. Central to this structure is a popular sentimental novel, first serialised in a Chartist newspaper, which is repeated throughout the film — first, read by a young Victorian debutante, then presented in still photographs with ironically romantic music, and later read and satirised by a group of women in the lowest ranks of the trade.

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