Coiffures: Hair in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Culture

Coiffures: Hair in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Culture

Coiffures: Hair in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Culture

Coiffures: Hair in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Culture

Synopsis

Balzac claimed that toilettes were the expression of society. Coiffures describes the historical and cultural practices associated with women’s hairstyles, hair care, and hair art in nineteenth-century France. Hair also has profound symbolic significance. Lying on the border between life and death, it grows, but does not feel. It marks sexual identity; it can be wild and erotic or tamed and made docile by hairdressing. Literary works are inevitably informed by social and cultural practices, and those of the period make extensive use of the meanings of hair. The Realist novelists in particular devote great attention to the physical traits and dress of their characters, and hair is often a key element in their descriptions and plots. Coiffures shows how a wide range of literary works incorporate the manifold aspects of hair, and it examines particular texts in detail, including works by Balzac, Sand, Flaubert, Zola, Gautier, Maupassant, and Rodenbach.

Excerpt

In all times and in all places, hair has been considered the most precious adornment of the human body. We have that on the authority of that magisterial summary of nineteenth-century thought, Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire universel du dix-neuvième siècle. Given its importance, it is not surprising that hair should play a large role in the literature of nineteenth-century France. Literary works are inevitably informed by social practices; and the novels of the period make extensive use of the cultural significances of hair and hairstyles. the realist novelists in particular provide a wealth of detail about the social status and the physical appearance of their characters, and hair is often a key element in their descriptions.

Women’s hair especially commanded a great deal of interest, and it is on women’s hair that I will concentrate in this study. Some of the attention it attracted was aesthetic: it was viewed as a woman’s “crowning glory.” Some was commercial, in that age of increasing mass production and consumption. Hairstyles and headdresses were essential elements in fashion. At the time, the primary meaning of the word mode referred to styles of hats and caps, as the word modiste, a milliner, shows. Hairstyles changed frequently during the century, from the short Titus cut at the beginning to the Marcel wave at the end. Advances in printing, photography, and the periodical press helped disseminate the new fashions. Writing in 1858, the poet and novelist Théophile Gautier waxed ecstatic about the styles of his day: “Jamais peut-être on ne s’est mieux coiffée: les cheveux sont ondés, crêpelés, nattés, relevés en ailes, rejetés en arrière, tordus en câble, avec un art vraiment merveilleux. Le peigne parisien vaut le ciseau grec, et les cheveux obéissent plus docilement que le marbre de Paros ou de Pentélique.” [Perhaps never has women’s hair been better arranged: it is waved, curled, braided, lifted like wings, pulled back, or twisted into a cable, with truly wonderful art. the Parisian comb rivals the Greek chisel, and hair obeys more tamely than Parian or . . .

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