Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sumptuous New Fashion History: "Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette"

Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Isabella reporting,

There are few things that make the heart of a Nerdy History Girl beat faster than a new fashion history book. I know it's only February, but I'm willing to bet that Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell (Yale University Press) might just be the fashion history book of the year.

This is not just another pretty costume book (though it is a glorious volume for picture-browsing), nor is it another telling of Marie-Antoinette's love of clothes. Instead historian Ms. Chrisman-Campbell explores how 18th c. style and fashion permeated nearly every level of Parisian society, with an influence that extended globally through economics and politics.

The excesses of the royal court are here, but so are the extraordinary talents of the specialized craftspeople and merchants who created and sold the newest gowns, coats, and irresistible caps, as well as those manufacturing the latest in cosmetics, textiles, hair styles, jewels, lace, and every other branch of the fashion trade. (For an idea of just how many different trades it took to clothe a stylish lady, see this post.) In this equation, the consumer, too, was every bit as important as the supplier: "The Parisian in general is inevitably abstemious," wrote Louis-Sebastien Mercier in 1783, "eating very badly out of poverty so he can pay the tailor and the bonnet seller."

Also intriguing is the emergence of the petite-maîtresse ("little mistress"), the 18th c. equivalent to today's "fashion victims" - the women "whose primary occupation is keeping up with the latest fads, regardless of how frivolous, arbitrary, unflattering, or expensive. The term was not necessarily derogatory; it was a common and useful form of social taxonomy and, to those who prided themselves on their modishness, highly complimentary." Ms. Chrisman-Campbell supports her well-researched observations with numerous quotes from primary sources; the notes and bibliography are also scholarly and thorough, something the NHG in me appreciates.

But in addition to being a thoughtful, intelligent book, it's also a supremely beautiful one. There are lavishly printed color images on almost every page, from familiar portraits of the French queen in her ruinous finery by Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, to lesser-know paintings, fashion plates, and satirical prints. Photographs of extant garments and details of exquisite embroidery and textiles reinforce the luxury described in the text.

With the excesses of New York Fashion Week currently visible all over the social media (could there be a better modern example of the petite-maîtresse than Kim Kardashian-West?), it's fascinating to consider the historical context of fashion - and how the more things change, the more they stay the same (Plus les choses changent plus elles restent les mêmes.) I only hope it doesn't end in the twenty-first century the way it did in the eighteenth: with the fall of the guillotine's blade.

Many thanks to Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell and Yale University Press for supplying a copy of this book for review.


Lynn Mally said...

I heard her lecture at a local art museum--it was thrilling! When Marie Antoinette changed her style, some artisanal crafts disappeared.

Sarah said...

As I understand it, the obsession with being in fashion and in with the right crowd was deliberately promulgated by Louis XIV and Mazarin in order to better control the aristocracy by keeping them chasing trivialities rather than plotting.

Karen Anne said...

Book title link seems to be broken; here it is at B&N:


Marlene Detierro said...

There are many books on this period in history, and Fashion Victims stands up as a worthy addition to the canon. It is an excellent addition to the bookshelf for both the scholar and those with a more casual interest in history.


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