The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“Social Life” from The SecondSex(1953)

SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR

Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex became a founding text for the feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. Because it had such strong influence, The Second Sex is read today too often as a historical document. The following excerpt should make clear that the theoretical content of Beauvoir's argument continues to be important, even if the lot of women has changed somewhat. Her chapter on social life treats the problem of how intelligent women maneuver within an arena that prefers bodily display over any other value.

Like earlier sociologists, Beauvoir formulates a critique of fashion as a status competition, but unlike Thorstein Veblen, for example, she has great sympathy for the woman stuck in her role as the mirror of her husband's wealth. Veblen notes that women serve as signs of their husbands' status; however, he does not consider the wives' position from anything but an exterior hostility. When Beauvoir explains how women are caught by the power of their own attractiveness, she describes their existence as paradoxical. Her greater attention to the specific details of how women lead fashionable lives brings out the contradictions of empowerment and objectification that women on display experience. For women in the fashion system, there is virtually no escape from the requirement that they reflect the economic status of their husbands. Veblen, on the other hand, writes about industriousness as the means by which men elude the obligations of ostentation. Beauvoir does not consider women just from an objective standpoint of an economist; she also gives voice to their internal experiences. Her writing explains how it feels and what it means to be objectified. The wives of bourgeois men may just be showpieces, but they exist as thinking beings. By taking these women seriously, Beauvoir shifts the discussion from an analysis of class to gender.

Beauvoir's writing is compatible with other French theories that focus on the power exercised by visual representations. For a woman, to be seen is to be caught in a network of controlling forces. Sociologists who understand fashion as an expression of class differences

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