Modernity and The Spectacle of Women

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The wholesale rebuilding of Paris in the second half of the century, in the grand scheme concocted between Napoleon III and the Baron Haussmann, transformed it into the city we know today and allowed the development of the 'society of the spectacle' which, I have tried to indicate, still resonates in the imagery of the contemporary fashion show. 26 In the rebuilding of Paris the old, medieval quartiers were broken up and replaced with wide boulevards, open spaces and parks. With industrialization came urbanization and massively increased consumption. Paris became a city for the production and sale of luxury goods, and its parks and squares became new sites of

26. My use of the term 'spectacle' derives from Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Malcolm Imrie, London: Verso, 1888 (first published 1967) in which Debord argues that everyday life is colonized by a new phase of commodity production. Debord, however, situates this phase in the 1920s, whereas others locate it as far back as the court of Louis XIV: Williams, Rosalind H., Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France, Berkeley, Los Angeles & Oxford, England: University of California Press, 1982 and Jay, Martin, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought, Los Angeles & London, England: University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993, p. 432. I have discussed modernity in the context of nineteenth-century Paris, following both Walter Benjamin and, more recently, Clark, T.J., The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers, London: Princeton UP, Princeton, & Thames & Hudson, 1984. Thomas Richards provides a useful model of the application of Debord's ideas to nineteenth-century Britain in The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914, London & New York: Verso, 1991. A very useful consideration of the convergence of spectacle and modernity, in relation to late nineteenth-century woman, is Heather McPhearson's 'Sarah Bernhardt: Portrait of the Actress as Spectacle', Nineteenth-Century Contexts, vol. 20, no. 4, 1999, pp. 409-54. Thanks to Carol Tulloch for bringing this invaluable article to my attention.

display and parade. While Haussmann's rebuilding had broken up the old Parisian working-class communities, who were henceforth pushed out towards the newer, industrial suburbs, new inhabitants continued to flood into Paris. New service industries flourished, providing jobs for women as waitresses, shop assistants, seamstresses, laundresses, hairdressers, servants, and milliners. Many of these women were new to Paris, without the support of friends or family. In the absence of the old certainties of class and community, in this new space of uncertainty, anyone could pretend to be anything if they had the money to buy clothes.27 Surface was full of meaning; fashion and dress became vitally important as a way of signalling an identity, but also of reading one.

The Parisian arcades on which Walter Benjamin based his study date from the first half of the nineteenth century, 28 and housed a variety of luxury shops, clubs and, later, brothels which created a model of consumption later in the century for the Paris of the Second Empire. In the second half of the century the department store in particular played a vital role in offering middle-class women the possibility of mapping out an identity through their patterns of consumption. Shopping became a leisure activity, as the department store gave middle-class women new opportunities to stroll, to enjoy, to contemplate, to observe, come and go, the same opportunities afforded in the city space to the Baudelairean figure of the male flâneur. Janet Wolff has argued that they opened up a space for the woman as flâneuse.29 Mica Nava has argued that modernity gave female consumers a way of being 'at home' in the chaos, the maelstrom, of city life, and becoming the subjects as well as the objects of modernization.30 Nava argues that middle-class women were not so much left out of the spaces of modernity, as Janet Wolff had claimed, as excluded from the story by historians of modernity. For Nava fashion, men's and women's, presumably, was important in modernity precisely because of the emphasis of both on the instability of the sign. Dress signified 'rank' but also 'choice' and 'identity' - and she contends that 'women played a crucial part in the development of these taxonomies of signification'.31

28. Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project, Cambridge Mass & London England: trans. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLauchlin, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.

29. Wolff, Janet, 'The invisible flâneuse: women and the literature of modernity' in Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture, Cambridge England: Polity Press, 1990.

30. Nava, Mica, 'Modernity's Disavowal: Women, the City and the Department Store' in Pasi Falk & Colin Campbell (eds), The Shopping Experience, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications, London, 1997, p. 66.

31. Nava, Mica, 'Modernity's Disavowal: Women, the City and the Department Store' in Pasi Falk & Colin Campbell (eds), The Shopping Experience, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications, London, 1997, p. 66.

While nineteenth-century Paris gave middle-class women new opportunities for consumption of fashionable goods, it also saw the origins of a more elite form of contemporary fashion, haute couture. This was, and still is, the only branch of fashion to be exclusively female (there is no couture for men), and although it was available to comparatively few women it gradually set the tone for fashionable consumption across a broader spectrum of consumers.32 In the process, however, of fashionable consumption, be it in the department store or the couture house, women of all classes were themselves spectacular-ized; caught up in the web of images they sought to consume, they themselves became image. Increasingly the nineteenth-century 'dream world' became epitomized in the spectacle of woman, with her links to fashion and the city, in the figures of the Parisian woman of fashion, the shop girl, waitress or milliner, the prostitute, even the dummies in shop windows, and the allegorical figures of sculpture.33 The main entrance to the 1900 exhibition, at the Porte Binet, a monumental gateway on the Place de la Concorde, was surmounted by a 15-foot tall polychrome plaster statue of La Parisienne, whose robe was designed by the couturier Paquin. The sculptor, Moreau-Vauthier, subsequently specialized in small bronze figurines of Parisian ladies of fashion, generally dressed in Paquin gowns, which would be exhibited in the ladies' salons. However at the time the original statue was unveiled in 1900 it attracted both ridicule and harsh criticism for the connotations of prostitution which contemporaries saw in its dress and demeanour. Their response highlighted the ambiguous and uneasy relationship of woman to spectacle in this period, particularly the slippage between the woman of fashion, the prostitute and the actress, confirming Mica Nava's point that spectacular fashion is an unstable sign. One could also make a connection here to Andreas Huyssen's formulation of mass culture as feminine at a later period in the twentieth century, the inter-war years.34

For women, in particular, modernity was a double-coded experience, in which euphoria was juxtaposed with alienation, autonomy with objectifica-tion. While the middle-class woman was relatively safe in the department store the working woman was prey to any importunity, and the instability of fashion as a sign could work equally to her disadvantage as to her

32. Marly, Diana de, Worth: Father of Haute Couture, New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980. De Marly argues that Worth had, by the 1870s, initiated many of the business and bureaucratic practices which would, in the twentieth century, define a couture house.

33. For example, see Jullian, Philippe, The Triumph of Art Nouveau: the Paris Exhibition of 1900, London: Phaidon Press, 1974, p. 169, for a discussion of the allegorical figure of electricity at the 1900 Paris exhibition.

34. Huyssen, Andreas, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986. See chapter on 'Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other'.

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