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Song of the Shirt, The (1979)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

A woman watches television in a contemporary café. Dramatised reconstruction of a London street. Images of East End canals are overlaid with descriptions of how young women are employed at an early age, and how women could earn as much as men. Drawings describe changing landscapes, transportation. A man onboard a train reads from Adam Smith.

A woman describes how she became a dressmaker, moving from Leicester to London. A man on a train reads from Lord Ashley, describing how women meet to "eat, drink and smoke", and asking "what is the ground on which the woman said 'if I have labour then I shall also have the arsenal?'"

At a tribunal, two women describe how they earn two shillings a week, work 16 hours a day, six days a week. They are asked if their employer provides for their moral needs. The women describe how they might set up on their own. A dressmaker comes to an upper-class woman's house to fit a new dress. The health effects of intense labour are described; consequences of hard labour on motherhood. When the dressmaker leaves, the woman examines the work, and goes to her room to dance. Meanwhile, the maid reads to herself about the lot of women in the textile industry. She describes the formation of an association for the relief and protection of young persons employed in the dressmaking millinery departments of London.

The film history project. A woman leaves the café and walks to the cloth trade centre. At Mortimer Street, she is joined by a friend; together they walk past tailors'. Cartoon-style images depict the problems of cheap labour. A woman describes how the slop house works, and how they were not unionised, often working from home. Women sew and deliver shirts.

On the television a man delivers a speech explaining the capitalist's intervention between the skilled workers of the textile trade, and the effect of this on workers' wages and security. In the 1834 May Strike, women are blamed for a reduction of money value of labour, the way women engage in unions make tailors divided by loyalties.

Upper-class women are dressing, and reading a fictional tale of Anna, a prostitute. Three men discuss at length the responsibilities of landowners and the problems of capitalist power in a garden scene. Politicians deliver speeches to a backdrop of drawings of factory workers. Across Europe, things are changing with the Industrial Revolution. A drawing from the Great Exhibition titled 'The British Beehive' depicts Carpenters, Bricklayers and weavers as honest and independent. The hives are a construct, so that the honey may be removed without destroying the bees. The woman's dress is completed, as is the dislocation between classes. A narrator describes how the ladies of England could teach their female servants so that they might pass on their good manners through their children and thus create a better society.