BY EMILY DRUMSTA, BROWN UNIVERSITY '06 (2006)
We have written this work, after our inspiration, as a simple idle tour across society, its manners, and its researches in the art of clothing. It is not, properly speaking, either a history of our usages or a tableau of Parisian elegances; it is rather a series of views of the frivolous life of this century. (272)
According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the English word “fashion” has two meanings: either “a popular trend, especially in styles of dress and ornament” or “a manner of doing something.” The French language, however, has a different word for each of these concepts: where la mode refers strictly to styles of dress and accessory, les moeurs is usually translated as “customs,” “behaviors” or “manners.” Thus despite Uzanne’s dismissal of his book The Frenchwoman of the Century (1887) as merely “a series of views of the frivolous life of this century” (cited above), the book’s subtitle (in French: “modes, moeurs, usages;” in English: “fashions, manners, usages”) indicates the writer’s intention not only to document the different clothing, accessories and coiffures worn by French women throughout the nineteenth century (modes), but to record the evolution of their social practices as well (moeurs). One might say Uzanne was determined to document not only feminine fashion, but femininity itself.
The Frenchwoman of the Century can thus be seen as a kind of historical artifact, one strand of the web-like discourse that came to structure femininity in the nineteenth century. This discourse included everything from Jean Charcot’s medical lectures on the subject of “hysterical women” to portraits of female types in L. Curmer’s Les Français peints par eux-mêmes (1839-42) to popular fiction and articles in the Charivari. Part fashion magazine, part society page, part historical account, part ethnographic study — The Frenchwoman of the Century is an essential relic for any scholar of nineteenth-century Paris, not only because it documents popular attitudes surrounding social, political and economic changes, but also as a primary source illustrating the nineteenth-century compulsion to write and document the feminine, and how such documentation was executed.
“NYMPHS AND MERVEILLEUSES”:
NEOCLASSICISM AND DECADENCE UNDER THE DIRECTORY (1795-1799)
In this first chapter, Uzanne focuses on the rising popularity of a nostalgia for the Greco-Roman past (or rather, that past re-imagined) during the years of the Directory, and how that nostalgia affected customs of dress and behavior amongst upper-class Frenchwomen. Uzanne cites recent historical events and describes specific choices in toilette in an attempt to explain why and how this neo-classicism took hold of popular culture in the first place.
According to Uzanne, the execution of Robespierre on July 27th 1794 (or le 9 Thermidor, by the Revolutionary calendar) signified for Parisians not only the end of the Reign of Terror, but also the beginning of what was hoped would be a phase of relative peace. Ensuring this peace, however, became a matter not of learning from the recent past, but rather of forgetting its violence and tumult altogether. Nostalgia thus became a form of active forgetting, and the booming “commercial” and “industrious” side of Paris made it even easier to believe that “the suffering which had [just] come to an end had never happened at all” (Uzanne 4).
Where fashion is concerned, Uzanne observes that in emulating an imagined antiquity, Parisian women in the early 1790s were merely living out a fiction of their own invention, whose ultimate aim was oubli. He describes these women as “plastic beauties” and “priestesses of nudity... lost in a false mythology which induced them to [appear Greek] for love of the antique” (28-29). New choices in toilette and coiffure helped realize this antique fiction. “Costumes which revealed the shape, and were transparent, were desired” (33), because it was widely believed that the natural body was the focal point of antique art. Furthermore, the names of famous women from antiquity were used to refer to such revealing dresses: robes à la Diane, à la Minerve, à la Galatée, à la Vestale, à l’Omphale, etc. (Uzanne 32).
Soon however, women’s fashion was borrowing new ideas not only from re-imagined Roman antiquity, but from France’s newfound continental present as well. Famous voyages to North Africa under the Directory brought “robes à l’Egyptienne” to Paris, along with “turbans and spencers à l’Algérienne, Fichus au Nil, and bonnets en crocodile” (Uzanne 34). With styles, eras and countries mixed in an unheard-of pastiche, fashion came to reflect the social disorder in which Parisians found themselves after the Revolution had done away with traditional class and governmental structures.
Where customs are concerned, Uzanne’s main focus in this chapter is on the general decline of femininepolitesse and délicatesse — qualities so highly valued during the Convention. The writer expresses great disdain for this new social order.
The women of the Directory... had none of the delicacies and the languid graces which constituted afterwards what was called distinction. Nearly all of them were bouncing girls, manlike... suited to gross appetites, of gluttonous greediness ruled by their senses, however they affected sudden faintings or [migraines] which they never knew. (27-28)
Like Huysmans’s archetypal decadent character Des Esseintes (A Rebours, 1884), the Frenchwoman of the Directory (as Uzanne describes her) lived only to pleasure her senses, and in the absence of strong moral traditions (all of which the Revolution had categorically refuted) acted only on impulse. Former ideals of femininity — charm, grace and intrigue — were replaced by a desire for instant gratification.
Without the social codes that once governed their conduct, Frenchwomen were faced with the task of inventing a new “femininity” from scratch, which explains in part the extensive borrowing from an imagined Greco-Roman past:
As nothing remained of the past, and as it was impossible to improvise in a day a society with its harmonies, its usages, its garments entirely unedited, they borrowed the whole from ancient history and nations which have disappeared... All took the disguise they liked; it was a general travesty, an unlimited carnival, an [orgy] without end and without reason. (16)
The use of the word “travesty” here implies a kind of “dressing across social boundaries,” both of gender and of class.
Thus this first chapter gives us a glimpse of one historical perspective that informed the writing of Uzanne’s The Frenchwoman of the Century. While the author criticizes Directory-era nostalgia for a re-imagined antique past, he himself indulges in another kind of nostalgia: for a time when feminine dress corresponded not to whim and fancy, but to rigid class distinctions and widely (if tacitly) accepted rules of social conduct.
“OUR GODDESSES OF THE YEAR VIII”:
THE REBIRTH OF CONVERSATION UNDER THE CONSULATE (1799-1804)
By Year VIII of the Revolutionary calendar (1799), little had changed in the customs of and fashions worn by Parisian women. Neo-classicism was still the rage, reinforced by the works of artists such as David, Proudhon and Gérard who treated antique subjects. Social life was still in a state of post-Revolutionary shock as traditional class and gender roles seemed to be gradually deteriorating.
Uzanne observes one important manifestation of this deterioration in particular: the rising popularity of pants and other hommeasse or “degradingly masculine” clothes among the Parisiennes of the early 1800s (50).
Travesty was the rage for a while amidst these goddesses who dreamed of the sad semblances of Androgynes; the mania of wearing breeches became general in the world of these eccentric women. Some indulgent admirers applauded the innovation, which they attributed to the difficulty of finding a cavalier with whom to loiter through the town. (50-51)
Again, Uzanne’s discussion of this “travesty” (i.e. women wearing pants in public) provides a window into popular attitudes regarding blurred class and gender distinctions among his contemporaries.
In general, Uzanne asserts that upper-class women in these early years of the Consulate lived “without morals, without guides, without self-respect.” The Revolution, he maintains:
…had brought them into the street, not being able to give them the joys of home, the witty drawing-rooms of old… They glided into pleasure without defense, without delight, after the fashion of brutes, having no belief, no faith, no sincere notion of the good and the true. (54-55)
Here for the first time Uzanne observes how the changing social order affected the locale of femininity, as women were moved from the traditional theater of the “drawing-room” out into “the street.”
When Napoleon came to power as First Consul of France in 1799, however, it was certain that some semblance of a social order would inevitably be restored. “French society found a reorganizer in Bonaparte,” Uzanne writes, “who knew how to discipline the liberty on which the populace had feasted in founding the civil law, a hundred times more precious for the nation than the political” (58). As France returned to her traditions, both “religious and intellectual” (58), salons once again became popular amongst well-to-do Parisians, and the art of conversation, which was born in France, had its renaissance. Uzanne writes:
On the 18th Brumaire the spiritual empire of women resumed by degrees its sweet and consolatory sovereignty in the mundane spheres; drawing-rooms returned into honor, conversation had its turn again: one talked. For nearly eight years conversation had been an exile from its native land. (58)
To Uzanne’s thinking, salons not only helped re-solidify class differences, they also helped to get women off of “the street” and back into the traditional locale of the drawing-room (salon). He examines three particularly important salons at length in this chapter: Madame Récamier’s exclusively literary gatherings in the rue du Mont Blanc, Madame de Staël’s “emporium of wit” (61), and most importantly, Josephine Bonaparte’s all-female salons both in the Tuileries and at Malmaison.
Thus, like other conservatives of the Year VIII lamenting the decline of a rigid social order, Uzanne found a ray of hope both in Napoleon’s rise to power and in the establishment of new salons by women of good upbringing.
“THE GRAND COQUETTES OF THE FIRST EMPIRE”:
EMPRESS JOSEPHINE AND THE RETURN OF COURTLY LUXURIES (1804-1814)
If the Directory was a time when barriers between classes were gradually broken down, the Empire was dominated by their speedy reinstatement, with a few adjustments from Bonaparte I, the new Emperor of France. Uzanne describes Napoleon’s rise to power with great flourish:
Dignities, titles, decorations had to be established amidst a people who for more than fifteen years had fought to proscribe them and had triumphed. Napoleon, however, who had the art and the power of a just and suitable will, disposed of these difficulties with a high hand. (80)
And far from rejecting the new Emperor’s “high hand,” the citizens of the capital “celebrated his return with an overflow of enthusiasm” (96).
With the return of the moneyed class to power came the return of luxury and excess in women’s style and fashion. And the most luxurious spender of them all, on whom all other extravagant behaviors were modeled, was Josephine Bonaparte herself.
The manner in which Uzanne describes Josephine’s court, attendants, possessions and habitudesbespeaks his almost obsessive fascination with the lives of high-status nineteenth-century women. Where the customs of women in other classes are glossed over quickly in earlier chapters, this chapter describes the day-to-day routines of Josephine and her ladies (the “coquettes”) in the minutest of details; from the name and rank of each attendant to the way Josephine’s hair was styled throughout the day to the specific embroidery details on her dresses, shawls and linens, nothing is neglected in this glorified account of the new imperial society, as modeled on its icon of femininity.
Indeed, it seems there was little else the Empress cared for but her toilette. “Of a humor indolent and lazy... little made for intellectual labors, her passive nature was given entirely to the joys of the toilet and to the ornamentation of her gardens and her rooms” (92).
It was a time well-beloved by Uzanne, when the specter of “politeness,” whose death he mourns in the final chapter of this book, made a triumphant return into high society. Innuendo, tacit communication and decorum were once again l’ordre du jour, as evidenced by one coquette’s description of the receptions in the Tuileries:
In these ultra-official reunions there was little talk but much observation — all was ears and all eyes; there were splittings up into small societies; the old nobility disdained the new-comers of the Empire. (85)
Uzanne also celebrates the return of feminine luxury in this chapter with exhaustive descriptions of the imperialboudoir and toilette. Looking back, he laments that so few writers have given such descriptive accounts of this period:
What pretty pictures of Paris might be made out of the world and manners of the Empire, which have been too little studied by writers of this end of the century! ... We have too much neglected to regard the heart of France during those years of glory... we have not sufficiently seen the spirit, fashions, and manners of the nation from the Consulate to the return of the Bourbons. (106-107)
His nostalgic dream was only to be further realized in 1814, when Napoleon was ousted and the Restaurationbrought a Bourbon monarch back into power.
“THE MIRROR OF FASHIONS UNDER THE RESTORATION”:
AN ERA OF COMME IL FAUT (1815-1830)
After Napoleon I’s abdication in 1814, with the brief interruption of the Hundred Days in 1815, France entered into a time of relative peace and stability, both politically and socially. For the French, the Restoration (like the Directory) represented above all else a much-needed “guarantee of repose and a resumption of business” (Uzanne 125), secured by a stable political leader and a social order that was clear and easy to understand. Uzanne writes:
Bonaparte had wished to make of France a grand and glorious nation; the loyalists, less ambitious, more calm, dreamed only of creating a great French family under the peaceful and paternal authority of a legitimate monarch. (125-126)
Here the writer’s penchant for historical insight overshadows his purported focus only on the “frivolous life of this century” (272). Once again, it is clear that The Frenchwoman of the Century is not merely concerned with fashion (both mode and moeurs), but with the historical motivations behind those fashions as well.
In order to inaugurate this new “French family,” with Louis XVIII at its head, certain decisions had to be made regarding the new “look” of the restored monarchy. A conference was therefore held in the Tuileries to address the issue of courtly dress, and everyone from the Marquis de Brezé to the king himself was present. “What was to be the dress of men and women when presented? What the court dress?” (Uzanne 116). Uzanne’s dream of dress bespeaking social status was finally becoming a reality. “From the license of the Directory,” he writes:
... which was transformed under the Empire into a decency obtained by order, people passed to a sort of prudery as well of costume as of ideas... everywhere the correct, the absolute bon ton, the comme il faut, was sought for... imperial pomp made place for simplicity. Women, as always, were the instigators of this happy movement. (127)
This last sentence of course refers to women’s “instigations” not in economy or politics, but in fashion. A considerably long section at the beginning of the chapter describes many new trends in detail, including a sudden and strong preference for white garments above all others (118), fresh flowers worn either as bouquets in the hair or along the hemline of a dress, and most importantly the return of fleurs-de-lys as a symbol of high status.
On the topic of social customs, Uzanne does not limit his observations to the fashions and customs of women alone. “In this new society of refined politeness and chivalrous wit,” he writes, “... questions of literature and of art took the first place, and became the passion of the academies and the salons” (129).
At the chapter’s end, however, Uzanne returns to the subject of women in particular, only to describe not comfort, but “emptiness” and ennui caused by the reinstatement of traditions under the Restoration (151). Uzanne asserts that Frenchwomen came to live in a “slavery which dissipated their souls and their spirits” (151) at this time. “To hear their groans,” he continues, “one would have taken them for unfortunate victims of social conventions” (151). Suddenly, the rigid social conventions of which Uzanne seemed so fond in previous chapters are depicted as stifling constraints on Frenchwomen.
From Uzanne’s point of view, the Empire may have brought back a much-needed social hierarchy, but the Restoration had taken things too far. A decline in social events which women attended in order to “see and be seen” meant a dearth of subjects for Uzanne’s writing. He closes this chapter with a lament that femininity was no longer played out in the public sphere as it used to be.
SOCIAL MASQUERADES AND MONEY UNDER THE JULY MONARCHY (1830-1848)
While Uzanne asserts that the Frenchwoman of the Restoration era felt trapped and isolated by her relocation to the drawing-room, under the July Monarchy, by contrast, he shows her much more active in Parisian society, yet equally as trapped by that society’s requirements — namely, that she be constantly sociable, and toujours à la mode. As a result, Uzanne pursues in this chapter, the Frenchwoman of the 1830s constantly sought and in factdepended upon the public approval of others. And even though upper-class women began taking on active roles in the Chamber of Deputies and Saint-Simonian sermons (167-168), still their validation in society was contingent on their toilette, not their opinions or ideas.
Even Uzanne’s writing itself in this chapter focuses more on appearance than on substance. Instead of describing the particular accomplishments of Frenchwomen in new public positions, he chronicles instead the “veils of black blond” worn by the “severe” women at the Bourse and the “wimple velvet dresses with cashmeres and boas” worn by the women at Saint-Simonian meetings (170-171).
But while The Frenchwoman of the Century certainly contributes to the notion of the toilette as the yardstick of femininity, Uzanne also provides an interesting critique of this phenomenon. His account of a “fashionable woman’s” experience at the theater relates this archetypal woman’s private joy when presented with the spectacle itself, followed by tragic disillusionment as she is forced to return to the fashion world:
She feels herself in her box detached from all the constraints of artificial society, and in this moment of repose she loves to refind her natural emotions, her innate sentiments, her thoughts unadulterated by her relations with the world... Then, when the curtain has fallen... She goes out; the world retakes her, seizes her again... tomorrow, when she wakes, she will think she must have been dreaming yesterday evening, and will resume the livery of Fashion, which makes her an ephemeral and dependent queen, a veritable public idol. (168)
Though she remains a queen, the Romantic femme à la mode is an “ephemeral” and “dependent” queen, since that same society that worships her could just as easily choose a new fashion darling at any moment.
Still, Uzanne’s writing proves that he too plays a part in this fickle Parisian society. In an example from his description of the Tuileries (which remained an ideal locale for inter-class encounters, dating from the time of the Directory), Uzanne inextricably links a woman’s charm and intelligence to her toilette: “The women, too, were charming, fresh, smart, smiling with a languid air which suited so well the style of their head-dress” (174). In this instance, it is the woman’s attitude which suits her head-dress, not the other way around. Thus, while Uzanne is somewhat sensitive to the performative aspect of being a woman at this time, he also (perhaps inadvertently) contributes heartily to the kinds of judgments he critiques.
In addition to lamenting the condition of the Romantic femmes à la mode in this chapter, Uzanne also describes how the invasion of the gaudy nouveau riche gradually caused the deterioration of high-status locales once populated exclusively by the elegant moneyed aristocracy. The festival of Longchamps, for example, which once consisted of “women of elegance and fashion” (183) parading with their full equipages from the Fountain of the Elephant to Porte Maillot in Paris, was soon full of “pretended celebrities of the moment” and “nobodies proud of their riches” (184). Uzanne describes how spectators’ attitudes towards this bizarre ritual evolved from ritualistic awe into bewildered resentment:
The spectators, seated modestly on the sides of the route, watched filing by all these celebrities, all these ambitions, all this luxury, all this ostentation of riches. Often from this crowd, a seated popular magistracy, rose a voice which recounted without winding the origin of such or such an one of these new fortunes, so rapid and so extraordinary, and the good folks consoled themselves by posing simply as curious spectators before that human masquerade, so sadly composed of luxury, of misery, of pride, of dust and of mud, of envy and of plaints, of baseness and of villainy. (185)
Such was the sad, clownish procession of riches in the 1830s. Uzanne’s disdain for the nouveau riche described here can also be considered a form of nostalgia for the “legitimate,” inherited, traditional riches of the past. He continues: “Little by little, dating from 1835, Longchamps... lost much of its aspect of sumptuousness; it doffed the purple to variegate itself with the thousand hues of society; fashions mixed there no less than ranks” (188). Though monarchy and the old social order had been restored in mid-nineteenth century France, no one could hide the fact that capitalism was on the rise, and that riches would no longer be determined solely by marriage and inheritance.
Thus Uzanne’s book also gives us a look at how the early stages of capitalism affected both fashion and other cultural practices in Paris. The Boulevard de Gand, for example, once a hub of “bright and refined” cultural exchange, was “disfigured” by business (175). “People no longer show themselves simply for the sake of fashion,” Uzanne states. “Nay, the very art of lounging is lost; Albion has ceded to us its odious device: time is money” (176). Once again, Uzanne moves beyond mere fashion narrative in an attempt to explain why and how the nineteenth-century “frivolous life” of which he was so fond was coming to an end.
“LIONESSES AND FASHIONABLES”:
A SPORTY, SPIRITED REVOLT AGAINST THE WILTED ROMANTIC BEAUTIES
In the spirit of his nineteenth-century Parisian peers, such as L. Curmer (the editor of Les Français peints par eux-mêmes and other authors of so-called “panoramic” literature, Uzanne dedicates this chapter to the close observation of a particular type of woman on the rise in mid-nineteenth century Paris, officially baptized “La Lionne” in Félix Deriège’s Physiology of the Lion (1841). In Uzanne’s description, Lionesses drew their inspiration mainly from Romantic literature, such as the poems of Alfred de Musset and the novels of George Sand. The latter author, with books such as Valentine, Indiana, Lélia, and others, “put into the heart of all these pretended victims of love ideas of [protest], of independence, of virility, which made but too masculine those pretty petticoated demons” (194). In behavior and dress then, the Lioness was first and foremost a “masculine” character who transgressed traditional gender standards and refused to accept the lovesickness of Romantic women.
The Lionne occupied herself accordingly with masculine, lion-esque activities such as hunting and fighting (fencing), and exhibited masculine strength in performing them.
She knew how to ride in Arab fashion on horseback, to tipple down burning punch and iced champagne, to manipulate the riding whip, to draw the sword, to fire the pistol, to smoke a cigar without having vapors, to pull an oar in case of necessity; this was the enfant terrible of fashion, alert, dashing, intrepid, never losing her stirrups. (195)
In short, the Lionnes did everything that had been frowned upon in women during the early years of the Restoration.
In Uzanne’s description of a day in the life of aLionne(197-207), he includes everything from the publications she read to what her boudoir looked like; from the outfits she wore at every hour of the day (no less than three per day) to how she behaved at the opera; from how she entertained chez elle to a sample lunch conversation with her Lioness friends; all of which ends with the following observations:
About two o’clock in the morning, she will regain her hotel and go to bed without having found one hour to think, to dream, or to love... Her husband, her children will hold less place than her horses in her life; as to her heart, it is of solid watch manufacture with regular movements... Love in 1840 is only met with among Bohemian students and the populace... lions and lionesses admitted it not. The lioness rested satisfied in her sportive strength, and her heart was as well ordered as her stables could be. (207-208)
Threatened by the newfound strength and independence of many women at this time, Uzanne (like many other writers at the time) reduces them to the soullessness of animals and machines. Note also how his description focuses on one woman in particular, perhaps to emphasize the unusual and “unnatural” positions of such women. Loveless, overly physical, unappreciative of the arts, more interested in horses than in family — the “lioness” of this description is indeed more animal than human.
With this citation, the book’s overall role in the nineteenth-century discourse on femininity is once again made evident. Here Uzanne does not merely observe but creates the “Lioness” by committing his “knowledge” of her — appearance, behavior, innermost feelings — to paper, thus affirming her existence merely as an object to be scrutinized.
Thus, although this fashion-taxonomy trend was at the time obviously meant to be humorous and tongue-in-cheek, it nevertheless bespeaks the impulse of authors and others during the nineteenth century to identify, examine and write about (in short, create discourse on) every type of individual they encountered. Unfortunately for the women of this era, this meant relegation to the realm of objects-to-be-observed and a generally accepted dismissal of their subjectivity.
“ECHOES OF BON TON AND OF THE LIFE OF FASHION IN 1850”:
FLASHY VERSUS MYSTERIOUS
Just as they had done during the years of Directory, Parisians in 1850 turned to luxury and constant social diversions in order to forget the tumult of the 1848 revolution in France, which had abruptly ended the peaceful years of the July Monarchy. “Parisian society in 1850,” Uzanne writes:
... was given up to pleasures, balls, receptions, and theatres, with so much fascination that nobody could have supposed that a revolution had lately changed radically the form of government. Nothing was heard spoken of but balls and brilliant soirees. (217)
In truth, the theaters had “never been better attended and by more fashionable a society” (219). Within that fashionable society, Uzanne affirms that “the last Lionesses had been carried away by the storm of ’48” (213), and been replaced with two schools of femmes à la mode: Flashy and Mysterious.
The former school “aimed only at attracting and dazzling the looks,” and managed to produce an effect on their courtiers with both “frankness and confidence” in personality, and “extraordinary things which nobody wore” (215). These women, in Uzanne’s estimation, were “sometimes eccentric, audacious, but always pretty” (216). The latter school, on the other hand, were “nobly reserved,” and instead of attracting courtiers with their daring dress and ensnaring them with frankness, these so-called “mysterious” types “sought obscurity in order to induce people to come and look for them,” and wore what nobody had yet dared to wear while still striving to appear “as simple in attire as the generality of women” (216). Uzanne closes this analysis with an account of how difficult it was for the dressmakers of 1850 to produce garments that might please both “schools” of women.
Once again, the categories meant to be pure observations on two different kinds of women actually create these women, assigning them personality, appearance, and social roles. Uzanne’s text morphs from a fashion account into an historical artifact documenting not only popular attitudes towards women but the way these attitudes were put into words — and how the words may or may not have affected the bodies they describe.
Thus with the end of violence came once again a culture of oubli, with decadent luxury masking the painful recent past. And as the title of this chapter suggests, echoes of the bon ton and the comme il faut — the unspoken social rules that once defined grace, charm, and overall aristocratic conduct in former years — resounded within this luxurious lifestyle as a result.
“PARISIAN WOMEN UNDER THE SECOND EMPIRE” (1852-1870):
THE INVASION OF THE NOUVEAU RICHE
We have already seen how, during the First Empire, the creation of Napoleon’s court led to the speedy reinstatement of rigid social distinctions after a period of relative class-chaos. We have also seen how the Empress Josephine and her luxurious lifestyle served as a model not only for ladies of the court who could afford similar expenditures, but for all women who sought to be considered à la mode.
But unlike the First Empire, the Second Empire of Napoleon III did not revamp the social distinctions of the past. Instead, thanks to the rise of capitalism and the consequent boom in business, new moneyed classes were emerging (again, the nouveau riche) and adorning themselves in all the trappings of wealth, both in good and in poor taste.
In the realm of women’s fashion, this meant an extraordinary collage of such varied garments that even Uzanne himself finds the style difficult to document. Instead, he invokes his “lady readers” to go deep into their own wardrobes in order to “remember the different dresses they have chosen, exhibited with intoxication and cast aside one after another for adjustments more in vogue” (238). He then lists everything from Algerian burnous to the Zouave vests, and concludes by asserting that “women seemed to take pleasure in approaching caricature, paradoxology of costume, and low jests in fashion” under the Second Empire. “The more a woman showed of incoherence,” he continues, “the nearer she was to being proclaimed the incomparable queen of fashion” (242).
One of these exaggerated fashions was the crinoline, a rigid skirt-shaped structure of steel designed to support the skirts of a woman’s dress into a particular shape — a subject of much debate in mid-nineteenth-century Paris. While similar garments had been worn exclusively at court during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the crinoline appeared in popular dress during the late 1850s, it was (according to Uzanne) “to the great astonishment of all the Frenchwomen who felt the ridicule of this incredible fashion” (235). The fashionable world was obsessed with debating the merits and drawbacks of the crinoline. “The gravest political question of the day,” Uzanne recalls, “was of no more passionate interest for Frenchmen than the question of crinoline was for Frenchwomen” (Uzanne 237). Finally, toward the end of the Imperial reign, the crinoline fell out of fashion for good (245).
In short, the role of “trendsetter” was no longer reserved for aristocratic women only. With plenty of wealth to go around, “the [quintessential] woman of Paris...was not always a lady of the Court or a wife of a financier” (244-245). Good taste had finally become tantamount to good birth in fashion.
FEMALE CONTEMPORARIES AT THE END OF THE CENTURY
In this last chapter, Uzanne attempts a kind of defense of contemporary women from the criticism of his contemporaries — those “demoralizing moralists” who “ransack her palpitating flesh” like “vultures” (260). He insists that while every other chapter of The Frenchwoman of the Century was dedicated to a “physiological” look at the “feminine aristocracy,” this last chapter will provide a “special point of view” on the contemporary Frenchwoman’s “psychology and taste,” accompanied by a “very sober résumé of the different circumstances which have principally favored the blossoming of the manners of the day” (261). What has until now been pure “frivolous” observation is about to become, he pursues, analytical text.
In a kind of sequel to the previous chapter on the Second Empire, Uzanne begins by analyzing social conditions in general, not just among women:
Under the second Empire... we saw with great sadness the confusion of the social world; courtesans, celebrities of eight springs... began to advertise themselves in the full light... The demi-monde was created; the press encouraged the unclassed, spoke of their beauty, of their charm, of their natural wit... the public became interested in these unheard-ofs for whom it elevated all of a sudden a sort of pedestal... It was a total revolution in our manners, an ’89 of a new kind in which the rights of a woman of the town were demanded... It was complete anarchy; the world [monde] in its acceptation of supreme politeness, existed no longer; social reunions were rare, salons were unpeopled. (266-267)
Uzanne’s bias towards aristocratic women as the height of beauty and elegance in French society is clear here, as he suggests that “women of the town” did not deserve their own “rights.”
Another long citation introduces Uzanne’s opinion of why women suffered such a degradation of morals, behavior and customs in the 1880s and 90s, namely that “Politeness in the sense of sociability is dead” (263). But to what, exactly, does the word “politeness” refer in this instance? Uzanne explains:
That politeness of other times with regard to women was... a science, or rather an art, composed of natural tact and acquired sentiments... which slipped like a soft [layer] between all contacts and [encounters]. (262)
Politeness, then, is a question of tact, an understood pact of correct behavior between two individuals. A “polite” lady of the court, for example, knows how to address a lowly baker’s wife, and the baker’s wife, if she is a “polite” member of her class, knows how to reply to the court-lady comme il faut. So what caused the death of this politeness? Uzanne pursues:
Perhaps, it will be said, we have no longer the time to be polite, to envelop our phrases in set forms of decorum, to search about for paraphrase, metaphor, to employ the exordium and other oratorical precautions... [This politeness] disappears every day more and more out of our little world, Egoistic and Americanized, in which every one with [a] dominant preoccupation thinks of himself. (262-263)
It seems capitalistic preoccupations with one’s own personal business and income (“Time is money,” etc.) are guilty of the demise of politeness. But whatever the reason, the important thing in Uzanne’s description is that...
...this want of politeness in our modern relations is assuredly the evident and primordial cause of that kind of derangement of our society and of that state of independence, of vulgarity of language, of eccentric bearing, of unconscious neurosis which characterize the woman our contemporary. (263)
Here Uzanne’s implications from throughout The Frenchwoman of the Century are distilled into one clear statement. Not only does he assert that his female contemporaries suffered from a very new “state of independence” and “eccentric bearing,” but also that this suffering was caused by the decline of “politeness” — that is, strict rules of social conduct.
This last chapter thus links the two dominant theses in Uzanne’s work. The author overtly expresses his nostalgia for “polite society” — an old class system where wealth and titles were inherited and unspoken codes of behavior dominated social encounters — and his obsession with the coquettes who decorated its upper ranks with their elegant toilettes. Without the delicate social rules that set these women apart, they not only lost their station in society, according to Uzanne, but their entire will to live.
To our women of the world there only remains the art of coquetry, the pursuit of dress... We see them by day, promenading in grand bazaars of novelties... spending without care, without need, through whim or ill-defined caprice, for want of occupation, the ennui of home... conducts them in search of distraction and forgetfulness into these vast stores, where they prowl incessantly, chatter without reason, finding in the midst of that feminine crowd, in those crushings, and crumplings, and continual wanderings... a sensation... of moral intoxication, profound and unhealthy, and undergoing a sort of impulse of activity which drives them out of themselves and that languor which troubles and terrifies them more and more every day. Modern fashions are related essentially to this unquiet searching of our female contemporaries. (269-270)
Ennui, in other words, had turned women into obsessive consumers in the 1890s, addicted not only to the instant gratification of buying, but to the hustle and bustle of the market locale — a commotion that above all serves to distract them from an oppressive sense of purposelessness. The marketplace — following the drawing-room, the theater and the street — had become the new theater of femininity, and the toilette which Uzanne once revered as the height of style and class has become merely another commodity.
The above citation illustrates how dramatically Uzanne’s narrative has changed throughout The Frenchwoman of the Century. From mere documentation of particular styles of dress and behavior to analysis of their historical motivations, the narrative finally morphs into what is essentially a psychological diagnosis of the modern female “condition,” followed by an assertion that all contemporary fashions stem from this “unquiet” state of mind. Such a conclusion aptly locates Uzanne’s discourse on femininity among those of his contemporaries: the psycho-medical writings and lectures of Jean-Martin Charcot and Max Nordau, and the outrageous fictions of Catulle Mendès and others, who sought to locate and distill “femininity” (or more often, female sexuality) into a single text.
But unlike other writers, Uzanne seems personally invested in the “death of politeness” and the consequent downfall of the coquette and her customs, perhaps because he fears (and rightly so) that such a brand of elegance and propriety would never again grace the Parisian public arena. Uzanne was a fashion writer after all (unlike the writers mentioned above), interested in femininity as a way of life, manifested in clothing, accessories and behavior. And because Uzanne’s notion of “femininity” proves to be inextricably linked to his reverence for pre-Revolutionary aristocratic and courtly society, The Frenchwoman of the Century can be said, if nothing else, to provide an indispensable account of conservative Parisians’ attitudes towards women and society in general in fin-de-siècle France.
To view additional digital images from Fashion in Paris and other works by Uzanne, use the "browse" or"search" interface on this site. To find copies of Uzanne's printed works at the John Hay Library, consult Josiah.
Deriége, Félix. Physiologie du Lion. Paris, J. Delahaye, 1842.
Les Français peints par eux-mêmes: Encyclopédie morale du dix-neuvième siècle. 8 vols. L. Curmer : Paris, 1839-1842.
Uzanne, Octave, 1852-1931. Fashion in Paris : the various phases of feminine taste and aesthetics from 1797 to 1897. London : W. Heinemann ; New York : C. Scribner's Sons,1898.