Book Review: Accessories to Modernity

I’m thrilled to bring you a review by Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. She is an eminently qualified scholar, and the co-author of a forthcoming book Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700 – 1915, which will be published by Prestel next week (September 22). I asked her if she would spend some time analyzing a new book, Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France by Susan Hiner (June 2010, University of Pennsylvania Press).

An accessory to modernity, like an accessory to murder in a detective story, is usually the one you least suspect. “Fashion accessories have been taken for granted, accepted as an inconsequential part of the décor of realist novels,” writes Susan Hiner in Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France. But these seemingly marginal, ornamental objects aid and abet the realist novel’s narrative agenda; the realist novel, in turn, contextualizes fashion in a way that no surviving garment or image can. Although aimed at literary scholars, Hiner’s book has much to offer fashion historians, and no prior knowledge of Balzac (or French, for that matter) is necessary.

Hiner focuses on four key accessories that spanned the century: fans, shawls, parasols, and handbags. She frames them with a discussion of the corbeille de mariage, the “wedding basket” of gifts presented by a groom to his bride, which traditionally included all of these fashionable and expensive trifles. Though now a “largely forgotten object,” the corbeille occupied a “position of vital importance in the marriage transaction of nineteenth-century France,” and functions almost as a character in several novels of the period. (48) Many of the luxury items it contained were permitted only to married women, and the promise of a fabulous corbeille served as a powerful incentive to young ladies, signaling a prospective mate’s wealth and good taste while glossing over “the financial and sexual transaction” implicit in arranged aristocratic marriages. (54) The corbeille had the “power to domesticate exotic goods,” transforming imported shawls and fans into emblems of French femininity. (72) More than mere fashion statements, these accessories became synonymous with marriage and the riches and respectability it conferred.

As Emma Bovary “gains valuable insight into the social class to which she yearns to belong by reading the material objects of fashion through which [aristocrats] communicate and construct their identities,” Hiner’s readers will become aware of the complex etiquette and symbolism of accessories. (145) Literary characters who misuse accessories–opening a parasol in the rain, or draping a shawl awkwardly–betray their social and moral inferiority. In many cases, accessories stand in for women themselves. The fan was linguistically anthropomorphized in French with its pied, tête, and gorge; the parasol, when opened, resembled a woman’s skirt, as several caricaturists recorded. While purists may protest that sometimes a handbag is just a handbag, it’s hard to resist Hiner’s reading of the small, red leather example carried by Madame Marty in Au Bonheur des Dames as a vagina substitute.

Of all the accessories Hiner discusses, the handbag comes with the most figurative baggage. “Itself a luxury object and fashion accessory, thus signaling consumption in its very object status, it also signals consumption because it is shopping’s instrument.” (179) Unlike the concealed pockets of the eighteenth century, the handbag “makes visible a relationship with money that propriety dictated was the sphere of men, not women.” (183) Thus, it represented women’s newfound “autonomy, mobility, and public presence.” (179) It also had the distinction of being “one of fashion’s most mocked accessories”; the pejorative term ridicule referred to réticules as well as the women who carried them. (180)

Hiner–who teaches French at Vassar–is clearly well versed in not only the novels but also the journalism of the era. She considers canonical texts (Madame Bovary, Cousin Bette, Nana, À la recherche du temps perdu) and obscure ephemeral works alike. Fashion historians will particularly appreciate her reappraisal of Octave Uzanne. The book would have benefited from more careful editing to eliminate some repetitive passages and inconsistencies in citations and translations. But Hiner avoids many of the pitfalls that plague literary scholars who venture into fashion history. Hers is one of those rare books that give interdisciplinarity a good name, advancing both fields without alienating non-specialist readers. By reclaiming accessories from the margins of the realist novel, Hiner has written the most ingenious kind of fashion history, documenting not the whats, whos, and whens, but the elusive hows and whys.

I’m so grateful to Dr. Chrisman-Campbell for contributing this review – I do hope to bring you more from her in the near future. In the meantime, I asked her to provide a recommended reading list for this subject, and I’m happy to say she obliged.

For further reading:

Valerie Cumming, The Visual History of Costume Accessories (London: Batsford, 1998)

Ulrich Lehmann, Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000)

Monique Levi-Strauss, The Cashmere Shawl (London: Dryad Press, 1987)

Gilles Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994)

Philippe Perrot, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Richard Bienvenu (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994)

Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion: A Cultural History (New York: Berg, 1999)

Valerie Steele, The Fan: Fashion and Femininity Unfolded (New York: Rizzoli, 2002)

Octave Uzanne, L’Eventail (Paris: Quantin, 1882)

Octave Uzanne, L’Ombrelle, le gant, le manchon (Paris: Quantin, 1883)

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