Women talk about judging people's laundry, the art of hanging clothes, and chores, in vintage 'Clotheslines' documentary

Say what you will about TikTok, but you can't deny its ability to surface real gems. A good example is the 1981 documentary Clotheslines by Roberta Cantow which I came across scrolling through the app recently. It interviews women in New York City about the chore of doing laundry and hanging clothes on a line. You don't see the women, you just hear their voices. And in the TikTok clip, they're chatting about how hanging your clothes out is much more than a chore. It's about personal standards, it's about dealing with what others think, and how it's a way women express themselves artistically.

…There was a particular art about hanging your clothes on the line. And everybody had clotheslines. And you looked at your neighbor's clothes. You really did. And you sort of measured her that way. When I look at other women's clotheslines, I want to know more about them. If he had a spot on his shirt, you were rotten. If your child had a spot, believe me, you were the world's worst. Sometimes they even hang them by color. Fascinates me. All the white shirts, all the socks. All the white socks and all the navy blue socks. I think that it evokes the ghosts of the people that wore them.

In the trailer (above), you hear from a woman who knows who's cheating by the underwear that's hung out:

Come and look, she's fooling around with somebody who could have those fancy underwear. She's not buying that for her husband, she's been married ten years. She's definitely fooling around. You can't convince me she doesn't have a boyfriend. Look, she has black flowers on the line and black underwear. She didn't buy them for my son, she's messing around with somebody. And that's how you could always tell. Darn, where did these fancy ones come from? She's fooling around.

Criterion Collection:

Domestic work offers both an agonizing ennui and the satisfaction of a necessary task being completed. In the 1981 documentary Clotheslines, filmmaker Roberta Cantow mines these two moods, as well as the subtler emotions that fill the distance between them. Over the course of this thirty-two-minute, nearly ekphratic meditation on the art of laundry, we listen to twenty-one women reconcile their feelings about this mundane chore. Cantow's interviews with them play out over impressionistic 16 mm footage of high-hanging delicates, vigorous handwashing, and socks being clipped one by one onto nearly invisible lines.

These disembodied voices are multigenerational, and they emanate from different parts of New York City. Presented with them is a collage of found visuals that spans the globe, suggesting that the burden of dirty clothes weighs just as heavily on women outside of Cantow's neck of the woods. And those frenetic interstitial sounds of garbled chatter and acid jazz? They illustrate the chaos of attempting to distill centuries' worth of mostly uncharted discourse about domesticity and patriarchy into the pocket of a half-hour. To Cantow's credit, that pocket proves to be a deep one.

You can watch the entire film at Folkstreams.

With verve and humor, this film shows the love/hate relationship that women have with the task of cleaning the family's clothes. As we see the clothes flapping in the wind and hear the voices – some proud, some angry, some wistful – we realize that doing laundry calls forth deep feelings about one's role in life. Some remember when their mothers and grandmothers tackled the same chores using washtubs and washboards, or even river streams. This engaging film pays homage to the commonality of women's experience. Most of Clotheslines was shot in New York City, Brooklyn and Queens.