Date of Degree
Sam Di Iorio
French and Francophone Language and Literature | Modern Languages
fashion, eighteenth-century, fiction, luxury, clothing, femininity, frivolity
“The crime of luxury is that it makes us judge a man not according to what he is, but according to what surrounds him.”
There is a significant existing body of scholarship surrounding the establishment of France as the European epicenter for fashion and taste beginning in the seventeenth century and reaching its apogee during the eighteenth century. The eighteenth century was a period of extensive growth for France in terms of textile production, and an increase in particular professions. These were key factors in perpetuating economic growth. Women in particular were affected by these changes. Not only were they now able to participate more actively in the creation of clothing and fashion, but changes in what women wore and how heavily fashion impacted their lives also exposed them to increased scrutiny and criticism. While numerous historical studies have examined the expansion of women’s roles in fashion and the social discussion surrounding this expansion, this dissertation will take pre-existing scholarship further by exploring how the literature of the period portrayed these changes.
This dissertation demonstrates that an important body of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century French literature reflects major shifts in women’s roles within the fashion industries, and reveals apprehensions about these adjustments. I will also examine various beliefs regarding women at the time, and what society thought their roles should be. The expansion of professions available to women in the fashion industry, and a growing visibility of women in the production and selling of objects of fashion, allowed for the creation of new personalities in various literary works. These figures, who ranged from lowly shop girls to self-made businesswomen serving the highest-ranking nobility, enabled authors to comment on and critique the expansion and proliferation of fashion, women’s new roles in labor, and changing concepts of what it meant to be female. Many authors who wrote about women’s obsession with fashion also described how its recent availability to all classes would lead to an accumulation of debt, as well as tension between the upper and lower classes, as distinctions between them decreased. Conversely, other authors demonstrated the salutary effects that women’s involvement in labor and society in general could have by portraying virtuous women in the fashion industries who could help young women to become productive members of society while remaining modest and chaste. Proponents of women’s involvement in fashion and the workforce in general commented on the positive effects of their participation, which included increased stimulation of the economy, and preventing them from engaging in illicit activities. Chapters two, three, and four of this dissertation will bring to light these positions as they appear in fiction.
While the appearance of figures such as the marchande de modes (fashion merchant) in novels and plays dates back to the seventeenth century, fiction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries suggest profound interest in this profession and its social significance. The various literary works examined in this dissertation generally adhere to a few stereotypes: a virtuous businesswoman who educates her chaste protégées (also demonstrating the pedagogical use of novels and plays to instruct young people); frivolous, spendthrift women who function as a source of comic relief in plays and novels; and the most dangerous figures of all, lower-class women who risk falling into prostitution because of the unstable nature of their professions, as well as women who bankrupt men by spending lavish amounts on clothes and accessories, and who often do so through seduction and deceit. These novels and plays confirm that fashion and public performance of femininity became more widespread in French society during the eighteenth-century, and that fashion, particularly in relation to women’s roles and adherence to proscribed ideas of morality and femininity, inspired both positive and negative commentary in novels, plays, and social critiques.
 André, Jean-François, Le Tartare à Paris (Paris : 1788)
Carter, Christine M., "The Transformation of Women's Roles in Fashion in Eighteenth-Century France: Femininity, Fashion, and Frivolity in Fiction" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.