Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France

Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France

Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France

Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France

Synopsis

Accessories to Modernity explores the ways in which feminine fashion accessories, such as cashmere shawls, parasols, fans, and handbags, became essential instruments in the bourgeois idealization of womanhood in nineteenth-century France. Considering how these fashionable objects were portrayed in fashion journals and illustrations, as well as fiction, the book explores the histories and cultural weight of the objects themselves and offers fresh readings of works by Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola, some of the most widely read novels of the period.

As social boundaries were becoming more and more fluid in the nineteenth century, one effort to impose order over the looming confusion came, in the case of women, through fashion, and the fashion accessory thus became an ever more crucial tool through which social distinction could be created, projected, and maintained. Looking through the lens of fashion, Susan Hiner explores the interplay of imperialist expansion and domestic rituals, the assertion of privilege in the face of increasing social mobility, gendering practices and their relation to social hierarchies, and the rise of commodity culture and woman's paradoxical status as both consumer and object within it.

Through her close focus on these luxury objects, Hiner reframes the feminine fashion accessory as a key symbol of modernity that bridges the erotic and proper, the domestic and exotic, and mass production and the work of art while making a larger claim about the "accessory" status--in terms of both complicity and subordination--of bourgeois women in nineteenth-century France. Women were not simply passive bystanders but rather were themselves accessories to the work of modernity from which they were ostensibly excluded.

Excerpt

In nineteenth-century France, modernity often operated precisely through what was most easily dismissed—the seemingly negligible fashion accessories of women. a cashmere shawl might obliquely refer to imperial conquest in Algeria but openly indicate married status in Parisian society. a silk parasol could whisper racial and cultural supremacy but loudly proclaim the delicacy of the fair sex. a painted fan might conceal aesthetic and social inauthenticity but also reveal the uncontested power of social status buttressed by wealth. Because of its trivialized status, the feminine fashion accessory could accomplish ideological work imperceptibly, both avowing and disavowing its connection to some of the most complex processes of modernity.

The hidden stories of fashion accessories come to light in the chapters that follow through an unearthing of their provenance, their histories, and their roles in both literary and extraliterary contexts. Fashion accessories have been taken for granted, accepted as an inconsequential part of the décor of realist novels. Because they are taken to signify little beyond the discreet literary construction of reality, objects such as cashmere shawls, parasols, fans, and handbags have received little serious attention. Literary scholars have relegated the fashion accessory to the realm of the ornamental, the decorative, the feminine. Yet these accessories are far from secondary. They are the unmistakable armature of feminine seduction; more important still, as essential instruments in the production and presentation of respectability and virtue, they are crucial components of the bourgeois idealization of womanhood, which depended on women’s objectifica-

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