Saturday, November 20, 2010

Book Review: Fashioning the Bourgeois

If you have a a deep and abiding love of costume history and are able to find this book on the shelves of a library or in a book bin somewhere, don't hesitate to pick it up. It offers a fascinating analysis of the development of fashion in the nineteenth century, incorporating extensive quotations from primary sources of the period. Translated from the French, it is, in parts, dense and scholarly but well written and really quite accessible to both scholars and fashion history aficionados alike.

When this book was first published in 1981 under the original French title Les Dessus et les Dessous de la bourgeoisie, the author Philippe Perrot exploded the myth "that it is futile for historians to study things that seem inconsequential and trivial" like fashion. Most intellectual work on clothing had been to that point done by sociologists or economists. This book lay the groundwork for a body of "cross-disciplinary historical study that is based on the assumption that few, if any, human artifacts are without meaning, in that they are first created by humans and then more-or-less profoundly shape the way we live".  (pg xii of the Preface by Richard Bienvenu).

Fashioning the Bourgeoisie is divided into eleven chapters:
I. Toward a History of Appearances
II. Clothing's Old and New Regimes
III. The Vestimentary Landscape of the Nineteenth Century
IV. Traditional Trades and the Rise of the Nineteenth Century
V. The Department Store and the Spread of Bourgeois Clothing
VI. New Pretentions, New Distinctions
VII. The Imperatives of Propreity
VIII. Deviations from the Norm
IX. Invisible Clothing
X. The Circulation of Fashions
XI. Conclusion

For me, the first chapter - which is on the meaning of clothing - resonated very deeply as I seek to understand the role of fashion in my art practice. Chapter VII on The Imperatives of Propriety is likewise bewitching in the detailed descriptions of the minute requirements for a fashionable woman's wardrobe. Invisible clothing, chapter IX, reveals the history of undergarments, including the corset and crinoline.

If I only owned one book about the 19th century, this would be the one.  Many of the things we take for granted - the availability of ready to wear clothing, the existence of department stores, the emergence of the fashion designer, and differentiation in dress - are rooted in the technical, industrial, commercial and social innovations that happened in the 19th century. I only have this book for a few more days before it has to go back to the stacks of the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto.

P.S. Since writing this post, a reader pointed out that this book is actually available on Amazon. I'm not sure why I didn't check first. The library copy I have is so very old that I assumed it was out of print.