Having recently passed it’s 40th anniversary, it’s as good a time as any to remember and revisit a forgotten gem. Weaponising the exploitation of the past, experimental film-poem The Song of the Shirt is an unabashedly militant call to arms against modern-day patriarchal capitalism.
At first glance, The Song of the Shirt is hard to enjoy. The opening consists of migraine-inducing overlapping texts; squawking free-form clarinets, and jumbled quick-fire quotes. It seems initially that this attempt to deconstruct the grand narratives of liberal history, and reform the component parts into a radical critique, lacks any kind of structural coherence. However, it soon emerges that this is actually a brilliant foreshadowing of the structure of the film. Eventually, out of the chaos comes a brilliantly orchestrated profundity.
From a 21st century perspective, Sue Clayton and Jonathon Curling’s 1979 film grates at first, but when it comes together, it resembles a beautiful pointillist portrait – putting small particles together to construct a meaningful whole. It is a style that has since become commonplace in mainstream cinema. From Pulp Fiction to Cloud Atlas, this non-linear, scrap-book-narrative style is one many cinemagoers will now be familiar with.
Were the film made today, with the benefit of other forebears laying groundwork, Clayton and Curling’s vision would be a great deal more polished, and probably better remembered. As it is, the film has lain dormant among a catalogue of similar forgotten pioneers. I was lucky enough to see it when it was dusted off and revived in November 2013, by the Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel, London. The screening came about as a result of Sue Clayton’s work for the Leydon Gallery around the time, which resurrected the film’s character of the seamstress, placing her in modern London.
In the film, as the fragments of the past come together, we see through the plight of the penniless seamstresses, supposedly beneficiaries of the industrial revolution, how capitalism reduces millions of people to lives of exploitation, bereft of hope and dignity. However, while class is central to its message, the film makes as an important point when it then brings in a second strand of oppression that intersects with it; gender. We see how those critical of the suffering brought about by economic relations, and those who advocate the emancipation of the working man, can also conflictingly reinforce the subjugation of women. Clayton and Curling flag up crude, hypocritical domination of male trade unionists decrying how women are driving down their husband’s wages, and calling for women to withdraw to home-life; but we also see this coupled with a critique of the ideological objectification that women suffer in patriarchal literature.
This is illustrated by a behind-the-scenes-style exchange between the authors of The Wrongs of a Woman, a Victorian newspaper serial, in which the impoverished female protagonist falls for a wealthy student. After part three leaves the couple in each other’s arms, a discussion takes place as to how it should end – the “inevitable” conclusion being that “she should commit suicide” to further illustrate the horrors of poverty. The male authors are displayed here as key to patriarchal ideology, as objectifying female characters like this perpetuates their domination – depriving women of agency, making them hapless tools of the fates, and dependent on men of power, and men more generally, to ensure their survival.
The film itself by contrast is unwilling to give us even this depressing closure in its conclusion. The women of the piece – exploited and desperate as they are – are neither driven to suicide nor to revolution. Their fate remains ambiguous, as if to suggest that the struggle remains unresolved to this day. This is the genius of The Song of the Shirt though; it pulls apart the grand historical narrative of male-driven progress – found in ‘factual’ and fictional materials – and reconstructs the constituent pieces into a three-part call to arms against modern-day patriarchal capitalism.
The film’s revival sadly seems to have ended with that screening in 2013, but after all this time, it deserves greater recognition than a one-off screening. This forgotten gem about ‘lowly’ seamstresses counters the grand historical fabrications that working class women’s fate is in anybody’s hands but their own – a lesson that still needs learning, over four decades later.