The Shoplifter’s Clothes: Technologies for a Feminist Practice

McCabe, James, D. 1872. Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

Silvia is a PhD candidate aligned with the POP team. In this, her first blog post, she introduces her independent research project and unique approach to the patent archives. Her project runs from 2020-2024. More about Silvia is here.

At the turn of the 20thcentury, a plague was sweeping through the temples of consumption of the Western world. Like mites taking bites off the profit books, shoplifters had multiplied to the point that their thefts, of little consequence on their own, were posing when combined a real threat to the new department stores’ turnover.

The offenders, usually female, were often wealthy enough they could have afforded easily whatever they stole – a fact that led many, at the time and since, to question the root causes of their criminal behaviour since poverty was not to blame.

It would take a century or so, however, for feminist historians and scholars of consumption to recognise their great-grandmothers’ shoplifting for what it was: a practice of protest and struggle against the social structures and oppressions of patriarchal capitalism (Camhi, 1993; Pinch, 1998; Gamman, 1999).

Profit margins were but the first to fall.

…little has been written about the shoplifter’s clothes.

But if feminists in the 1990s sought to return dignity to the Victorian shoplifter as a political actor, and by proxy to her crime as a political act and the subject of academic inquiry, little has been written about the shoplifter’s clothes, despite the key role they must have played in its course. Because of course they did: it would be impossible to shoplift without clothes.

And if all clothing helps, good clothes more so than most can deflect attention. They allow a lady, or any woman dressed like one, to peruse the shelves unsupervised. They showcase or simulate propriety, and the wearer benefits of the invisibility this grants her.

But good or bad, clothing can be more than a disguise.

Their semiotic value aside, they are first and foremost sartorial technologies: as such, as much as they simulate, they can dissimulate both criminal intentions, and the stolen goods that disappear into their folds, into their slits, beyond double linings and caught up to hidden hooks.  

But good or bad, clothing can be more than a disguise.

The POP dataset is a digitised archive of 200 years of clothing inventions from around the world. To look for the shoplifter’s clothes among them, as I set out to do, is beyond the scope of a keyword filter.

A clothing invention helping women to steal unnoticed would hardly have been granted a patent had its inventor admitted to that purpose in her application. It is more likely that it would not have been patented at all as many of women’s inventions throughout history haven’t been – its knowledge being passed along informally instead, just as most shoplifting techniques are passed along.

But at the same time, it is not unreasonable to conceive that the purpose a patent declares might not always have been the one that the invention it describes was designed for. And that the purpose it was designed for likewise, might not necessarily have been the one for which that clothing invention was used. This means that a male inventor too may unwittingly hold the patent for the female shoplifter’s clothes.  

Still by way of example, let us consider a couple of inventions from our database patented by women in the early 1900s in New York. Compared to other metropolitan areas, B. Zorina Khan has found that New York was a relative hub of female inventiveness in the 19th century, and that it was clothing-related patents women were mostly applying for (2000).

For a couple of decades at least, the city had been also something of a den for shoplifters. In the 1872 monograph Lights and Shadows of New York Life, James D. McCabe writes that these were usually either professional female criminals, of which according to detectives’ estimates there were 350 operating in town, or “women of respectable position, led on by their mad passion for dress(377) 

These two groups – inventors and shoplifters – if nothing else shared an important condition: that of being female, hence lesser citizens still without voting rights. In her analysis Khan observes that the number of women patentees increased in the States as a whole after the 1860s, when new laws were passed that allowed them to hold, at least on paper, some property rights on their own (2000).

Could it also be argued then, that the thefts of the shoplifters who wore those inventions for felonious purposes were a response to the insufficiency of those rights or of their implementation? 

…it is not unreasonable to conceive that the purpose a patent declares might not always have been the one that the invention it describes was designed for.

Take the petticoat that Lena Sittig, a prolific inventor from Brooklyn, patented in 1908. A third improvement on the inventions she already had patented in 1893 and 1894, the 1908 petticoat has a continuous exterior pocket along its lower portion (Pat. US877672A), whose official purpose is to contain in bad weather the bottom of the wearer’s outer skirt, and so protect it from rain or mud. But it’s not too hard to think for it of a different use. Especially when one takes into account that across the pond, female shoplifters in London since the mid-19th century already had worn:  

“the skirt of their dress lined from the pocket downward, forming a large repository all around the dress, with an opening in front, where they can insert a small article, which is not observed in the ample crinoline” (Mayhew 2009 [1861-62], 311).

 

 

Take the petticoat that Lena Sittig, a prolific inventor from Brooklyn, patented in 1908. A third improvement on the inventions she already had patented in 1893 and 1894, the 1908 petticoat has “a continuous exterior pocket along its lower portion” (Pat. US877672A), whose official purpose is to contain in bad weather the bottom of the wearer’s outer skirt, and so protect it from rain or mud. But it’s not too hard to think for it of a different use. Especially when one takes into account that across the pond, female shoplifters in London since the mid-19thcentury already had worn:

“the skirt of their dress lined from the pocket downward, forming a large repository all around the dress, with an opening in front, where they can insert a small article, which is not observed in the ample crinoline” (Mayhew 2009 [1861-62], 311).

 

 

Pocket garters were in vogue in the US in the early 20thcentury: several variations on the theme were patented by women and men, for women and men. Long Island’s Mary J. Hamburger’s 1913 invention is one of many – produced out of a single piece of fabric and an elastic band, it aimed “to generally improve articles of this nature, to render them more convenient, attractive and desirable”. Yet it was patented, vaguely enough, “[w]ith these and other objects in view” (Pat. US1070250).

What other object might this small, secret pocket have been put toward? A garter is an undergarment. A shop assistant would not have asked a lady to remove it were they not absolutely certain that she was a thief.

In her analysis of Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, published in 1883 and set in a French department store plagued by shoplifters, Leslie Camhi explains it well. “The unaccountability of certain bodily sites and desirable attributes of femininity allows multiple thefts to slip by unnoticed” she writes, “[a]ll bodily sites of seduction were available to assist in fraud” (1993).

…my quest for the shoplifter’s clothes requires reading between the seams.

Of course, none of this needs to have happened, and probably didn’t. But it might have – and perhaps that’s what matters. Patents are speculative devices: in small or big ways, they picture a future world improved or complicated by the inventions they describe.

To wonder if some of the wearers of the small percentage of these inventions that were commercialised, might not have worn them against the law, for their own gains and as part of a feminist practice of protest, is to speculate in return about the past.

Just as much as what the patent claims, and with it of a like mind, my quest for the shoplifter’s clothes requires reading between the seams.

References: 

Camhi, L. (1993) Stealing femininity: department store kleptomania as sexual disorder. differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 5 (1), 26–50. 

Gamman, L. (1999) Discourses on women and shoplifting: a critical analysis of why female crime mythologies past and present operate to legitimate the incompatibility between female gender roles and the idea of women. Middlesex University. 

Khan, B. Z. (2000) “Not for Ornament”: Patenting Activity by Nineteenth-Century Women Inventors. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. [Online] 31 (2), 159–195. 

Mayhew, H. (2009) London Labour and the London Poor:A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not. Vol. 4, 4 vols. New York: Cosimo Classics. 

McCabe, J. D. (1872) Lights and Shadows of New York Life; or, the Sights and Sensations of the Great City. [online]. Available from: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/19642/19642-h/19642-h.htm#startoftext (Accessed 5 August 2020). 

Pinch, A. (1998) ‘Stealing Happiness: Shoplifting in Early Nineteenth-Century England’, in Patricia Spyer (ed.) Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces. Zones of religion. New York: Routledge. pp. 122–149. 

 

Patents:

Pat. US1070250. Mary J. Hamburger, Bayport, New York, ‘Pocket-Garter’, 12 August 1913. Accessed at the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org

Pat. US877672A.  Lena Sittig, Brooklyn, New York, ‘Petticoat’, 28 January 1908. Accessed at the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org

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