Fashioning Heritage: Regional Costume and Tourism in Brittany, 1890-1937

By Young, Patrick | Journal of Social History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Fashioning Heritage: Regional Costume and Tourism in Brittany, 1890-1937


Young, Patrick, Journal of Social History


In her 1906 travel narrative Picturesque Brittany, the Englishwoman Nancy Bell gives voice to an enduring inclination among outsiders to the region to read desire and their own social and cultural preoccupations onto Breton regional costume. Making their way along the venerable course of the elite English and American cultural traveler from St. Malo and the abbey at Mount Saint Michel to the fishing towns and beaches of the northern coast and then onward to the more traditionally Breton areas of the Finistere, she and her illustrator-husband turn inland at Roscoff and head for the departmental capital of Quimper by way of Morlaix. Having encountered in the latter city only a rather indifferent celebration of the Fete of the Republic and no native costume whatsoever, the pair takes a carriage southward to Plougastel, in hopes of seeing there the costumes said to be "the most remarkable in Brittany." After nearly giving up the search to catch an earlier train to Quimper, they suddenly see coming into view almost deus ex machina "an old country cart" crowded with peasants in glorious Breton costume. As they pass by other groups of similarly-attired peasants along the road to town, Bell recounts, the guidebooks seemed to have been proven right after all: "the men, women and children of Plougastel (did) still wear costumes such as were in vogue in the sixteenth century" (see image one). (1)

The detail and the subtle but discernible variation in the costumes they are viewing fully enraptures the pair, to the extent that they are scarcely able to fix their attention upon the famous 17th Century calvary (large sculpted stone crucifix) in the village, as their eyes are drawn continually back to the outfits of the "living groups ... gossiping together" beneath it. Their pleasure is redoubled upon witnessing crowds of costumed children whose surprise--and it is intimated, discomfort--at being observed by the outsiders provides the latter with an even more sustained view of their remarkable dress. Though bound to the exigencies of their train schedule, Bell and her husband repair immediately to a nearby village emporium in hopes of purchasing "some specimens" of the outfits they had just viewed. That theirs had been a privileged and precarious encounter with an authentic Brittany Bell affirms for her readers, congratulating herself and her companion for having "caught them on this occasion living their simple every-day life in their far from simple every-day clothes." (2)

While serendipity, authenticity and exclusivity are the main touchstones of the narration here, the account provides indication as well that the contexts in which Breton costume was being both worn and appropriated were shifting. For what Bell had to pursue so doggedly was by the date of her account becoming the object of a new effort of preservation and display--one which would increasingly crystallize folk costume and other aspects of Breton culture into a patrimony or (in more contemporary Anglo-American parlance) "heritage" to be performed and consumed by Bretons and non-Bretons alike. (3) It was a shift that directly challenged the authority of privileged intermediaries like Bell, who now found themselves trying to lay exclusive claim to "authentic" Breton culture within a fast-changing social and cultural field. Indeed, Bell herself recounts having come unwittingly upon the Fete des Fleurs Ajoncs in Pont-Aven, the first of the Breton festivals that would become commonplace in the region during the interwar period. Her assessment of the event, the purpose of which was to encourage Bretons to retain their customs and costumes, is not surprisingly a critical one; the cultural singularity of this uniquely picturesque people, it seemed, was becoming a matter of mere reconstitution and staging, and was being made perhaps a bit too readily available for the elite traveler's taste. (4)

Considered in historical perspective, these tensions in Bell's narration begin to suggest some of the knotty social and cultural dynamics that attended the long-term conversion of rural cultures into subjects of preservation and tourism in France.

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