Guest Book Review: Fashion Victims

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Way back in February, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell kindly provided a guest post on Fashion Historia (“When Redskin Was the New Black”). Now, Mark Hutter has generously provided a review Chrisman-Cambell’s book Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (Yale University Press, 2015). Hutter is the Senior Tailor in the Department of Historic Trades at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. His studies focus upon the social, political, industrial, and economic contexts of 17th and 18th century clothing. Hutter is a long time member and officer of the Costume Society of America. Enjoy!

Discussions and depictions of fashion in France on the eve of the Revolution have long focused on the visible extremes of the era and have often heaped blame for the extravagances directly on the ill-fated head of the Queen. In folklore and many traditional histories, the fashions, particularly those of the court, are dismissed as excessive frivolities, the Queen as vain, and the Revolution is justified as the inevitable means of righting these wrongs amongst others. Only in recent decades has an academic approach been applied to better understand the extraordinary complexities of the relationships between fashion, politics, economics, industry, media, celebrity and the makers, wearers, and observers of la mode Ancien and le mode Révolutionnaire. In her new book, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Anoinette, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell masterfully discusses and explains these complexities with the familiarity of an eyewitness and the hindsight of the best of historians.

Some authors have undertaken broad studies the immense subject of this revolution in fashion and politics. Daniel Roche’s Culture and Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the ancient régime (1994) and Madeleine Delpierre’s Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century (1998) have served as the best introductions to the age. Other scholars have provided deeper analysis of certain aspects of the tumultuous era: Richard Wrigley, Politics of Appearance: Representations of Dress in Revolutionary France (2002); Clare Crowston, Fabricating Women: The Seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1765-1791 (2001); Jennifer Jones, Sexing “La Mode”: Gender, Fashion, and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France (2004); Caroline Weber, The Queen of Fashion, What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (2006). The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s tremendously successful Dangerous Liaisons exhibit and catalogue (2006), sensuously illustrated the seductive relationship between Ancien Régime literature and fashion.

In Fashion Victims, Chrisman-Campbell seamlessly reconstructs the most complete depiction of the glitter before the gore, but she is not blinded by it. Fashion, both the manufacture and the consumption of it, is proven to be a powerful political machine. La mode was simultaneously reflective of and influential upon the shifting morals, philosophies, and alliances that resulted in the great social and governmental changes of the Revolution. The changes in French fashion- sartorial, ideological, and political- resonated globally. Chrisman-Campbell does not rely on her own words to convince the reader of the scale and importance of fashion, but draws from an impressive array of period authors, including many original manuscripts, as well as works unpublished since the eighteenth century. Her depth of understanding adds new insight to more familiar sources. Chrisman-Campbell skillfully translates old French, maintaining the nuance of the original commentators, and adds to these a compelling narrative and analysis of her own. The result is unrivaled.

The depth and quality of Chrisman-Campbell’s research and the intelligence of her interpretation is exemplified by her sustained discussions of particular phenomena and influences within fashion. The chapters on à l’Américaine and Anglomania, prove these trends to not be quaint mimicry but reflections of France’s international dialogue. Chrisman-Campbell teases-out the origins and importance of the coiffeur confections known as poufs, and the overt fashion victims who were les petite-mâitresses, and shows them not as mere fancies and faddist but as three-dimensional commentaries on the age, as timely, ephemeral, yet influential as the modern magazine cover and celebrity. The chapter on Figaro brilliantly demonstrates the circular relationship between fashion in media and fashion in reality.

Fashion Victims is as elegantly illustrated as it is written. The author tirelessly sought out every garment and scattered fragment purported to have association with Marie Antoinette; the best documented pieces are shown. The cast of the Court and the Revolution are introduced in countless portraits, some familiar and many not. The careful pairing of period prints with images of related extant objects and contemporaneous descriptions adds greatly to the reader’s ability to visualize the detailed styles…and the personalities, discussed. It is Chrisman-Campbell’s intimacy with these personalities, politics, and fashions that enables her to make them again understandable, and perhaps even desirable.” — Mark Hutter,

 

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