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Song of the Shirt, The (1979)


Main image of Song of the Shirt, The (1979)
16mm, 135 min, black & white
DirectorsSue Clayton
 Jonathan Curling
Production CompanyFilm & History Project
 BFI Production Board
ScriptSue Clayton
 Jonathan Curling
MusicLindsay Cooper

Cast: Martha Gibson, Geraldine Pilgrim, Anna McNiff, Liz Myers, Jill Greenhalgh, Sally Cranfield, Alfred Molina

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An investigation into the position of working women in the 1840s, the effects of protectionist 'philanthropy' and the resistance to it. Explores the plight of a group of women working in the new 'sweated' clothes trade in London.

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Originally intended as a history of the welfare state, as well as a contribution to debates on feminist history, issues of free trade against philanthropy and capitalist expansion against protectionism, The Song of the Shirt became a subject of debate in itself, not least thanks to its four-year gestation.

Many different groups, including Women's Aid and the Feminist History Project, were involved during this long production period, and as a result the final film had a broader agenda (and therefore audience) than was originally planned. While it still addresses ideas of feminist history and Marxist theory, it can also be read as a rather more ambitious project that fuses the history of fashion, literacy and sexuality.

It is constructed as a documentary, although the use of multiple-screen effects, monitors displaying text and projected backdrops constantly disrupts the flow of information. Few dates are revealed in the film, forcing us to address the arguments rather than the chronology. It moves back and forth between locations and eras, juxtaposed in such a way as to highlight the contradictions in the labour market. Close-ups of women and characters in the dramatised scenes are avoided, and in the tribunal sequence the figure-of-eight camera movements suggest aimlessness.

The women's readings, both singly and in groups, are based on a story that appeared in the magazine Notes to the People. 'A Page for the Ladies' argues that all classes of women are oppressed. Women of different classes read the text in different ways, with other voices of workers and political writers given equal footing with the text.

The Song of the Shirt's combination of relentless political content and a dislocated and disruptive presentation makes it stand out from its contemporaries in its ambition to present a genuinely feminist independent film. Co-director Sue Clayton, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, has continued to explore these themes through her work with the Independent Filmmakers' Association and Screen magazine.

Emma Hedditch

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Video Clips
1. The Drive of Business (2:12)
2. Grand National Consolidate Union (2:45)
3. Without light (2:58)
4. The night of ecstasy (2:12)
5. Punch's industrial exhibition (1:25)
Complete film: Part 1 (42:15)
Part 2 (32:07)
Part 3 (42:48)
Postscript (13:13)
Red Skirts on Clydeside (1984)
Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)
Rag Trade, The (1961-63)
Molina, Alfred (1953-)
Potter, Sally (1949-)
The BFI Production Board: The Features
Women and Film