There are countless variations of Swan Maiden tales (and some other related mermaid tales)-stories about an enchanted maiden who takes off her swan feathers and becomes human, only to have a man steal that feather dress and take her as his wife. After years go by, one of her children eventually finds the feather dress, and their mother takes it and returns to her swan form and leaves. Different tales have various endings at this point-sometimes she just never comes back, other times her husband searches for her and gets her back.
Obviously, the dress of feathers is a central part of this fairy tale. It has the power to change her form, which in turn influences where she lives and with whom.
Mikhail Vrubel, The Swan Princess, 1900
Some tales tell not of enchanted female swans, but males, whose sisters must undergo trials to bring them back to their original form. One thing I never noticed before was how, in the most commonly known versions of these stories, they all seem to emphasize the burden of making clothes.
In both the Grimms' "Six Swans" and Andersen's similar "Wild Swans," the sister must fulfill two things in order to bring her brothers back: maintain silence, and make them each enchanted shirts. In "Six Swans," the process is a little more idealized; she must make them out of the fictional starflowers, but she spends six years laboring over those shirts for her six brothers. Interestingly, the curse was achieved when their stepmother threw enchanted white shirts over each of them. I this case, clothing was the key to both cursing and restoring their rightful human forms.
"The Wild Swans", Gordon Robinson
In "Wild Swans," the process is described even more painfully, for Elisa must make her brothers' shirts from fabric made from stinging nettles. The painful nettles give her hands blisters.
Interestingly, Joseph Jacobs' "Swan Maidens", although it belongs to the first tale type mentioned, hints at this burden of clothes making as well. After the swan wife has resumed her form, her husband seeks her out, and is told he can only get her back if he can identify his wife from among a group of identical sisters. He touches each of their hands, and knows his wife by the indentation of a needle on her forefinger, caused by making clothes for their children. The very act of clothing a family leaves its mark on a woman.
Jacobs' tale is a little more ambiguous. Given that his wife immediately returned to the sea upon finding her swan feathers, one wonders if returning to her human life is really a happy ending for her. Her husband stole her feathers, and also used trickery to steal enchanted objects in order to find her again, so he isn't exactly a flawless character. As Hill points out, the fact that the swan maiden is willing to leave her children "may be unfathomable to many readers," but for all we know she could have had children in her former life too-in some related tales it's her former lover that she wants to return to. Her husband apparently gives no thought to her past, and clearly not to her wishes on the matter.
These tales, while bittersweet, are really powerful tales with modern feminist messages: women are more than just means to produce children and clothing for their husbands. They often have their own hopes and dreams and longings. The life of a wife and mother, whether it's wanted or unwanted, is quite painful-from bearing children, to all the tasks involved with raising the family.
Anna and Elena Balbusso
When I imagine what it might have been like to live as a woman in pre-industrial society, I often think of the cooking and cleaning, which can be a burden even now, and even more so before modern conveniences. But I rarely even think of how difficult the task of making clothing would have been. Women would often have done the whole process themselves-from making the fabric, to sewing the clothes together. Tales that address spinning really all serve to point out how unwanted the chore was, and these swan tales make us sympathize with the time and discomfort it took to make the clothes.
And although modern machines have certainly made the process of making clothes easier, it's still by no means a simple, instantaneous process. The process of growing and spinning and sewing and embellishing are simply more hidden from us today, yet even the clothes we buy and wear were often made at the cost of other people's comforts and even basic human rights. I've been learning and reading more about the fast fashion industry and the fact that, despite getting some publicity, most of our clothes still end up being made in sweatshops. I can recommend some resources if anyone else is interested in learning more about that (this documentary is currently on Netflix), but maybe these swan tales can help us think a little more about who makes our clothes, and sympathize a little more with the hours of work it takes.