Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rebekah on Jennifer Jones "Coquettes and Grisettes: Women Buying and Selling in Ancient Regime Paris"

         This article begins by telling the story of Marie Antoinette's relationship with her dressmaker, Rose Bertin. Because "over half of Marie Antoinette's yearly expenditures on fashions were paid to Rose Bertin" people blamed her for the reckless spending that led to French bankruptcy and the downfall of the French  monarchy.
In the late 18th century many people in Paris were troubled by the "culture of shopping" that they saw developing in Paris. Women played a prominent role in this culture, and it was said that the  trade was born on the luxury of women and fed by their coquetry. Nicolas Desessarts described this phenomena as a danger to women. "In the realm of commerce, as in the realm of politics, when women ruled women, disorder, chaos, and folly inevitably reigned." In this culture (the Old Regime) it was still a belief that women could be seduced and had the power to seduce others.
This period, 1750-French Revolution, was a time when London and Paris began sharing goods and luxuries, making it possible for other classes (not just the aristocracy) to become consumers of finer products. "Fashionable dressing was no longer solely the privilege of the elite."
Until the late 19th century women were usually portrayed as the shopkeeper and men as the customer. This was because shopping was a highly visible past-time that was associated with "aristocratic pleasures." Because shops were so close together, it was easy for a person to go from buying luxury goods to drinking coffee or gambling. For much of the 17th and 18th centuries shopping was considered a form of male entertainment. In the middle of the 18th century though, things begin to change as the number of shoppers increased - including the number of female shoppers.
In the 1780s luxury shops became more permanent and elaborate, ready-made clothing was more common and prices were set beforehand. Though men were still shopping as much as women, they were not portrayed in the same way - irrational and easily seduced. New theories as to why women loved frivolities and novelties arose, seeking scientific explanations. By the end of the 18th century women's interest in clothing was viewed as normal and "necessary for marital harmony." However, it was believed that women's "consumer desires" should be channeled into domesticity, rather than coquetry.
As women consumers increased, to did women merchandisers. These women became the principal fashion merchants of their day. Fashion trades were believed to be suited towards women, and there was a difference between what was considered virtuous work for women and virtuous work for men. People worried about the morality of shop girls, who were surrounded by luxury. "They were risking their own moral ruin and that of others." The fashion boutiques of Paris were equated with harems and brothels.
Contemporaries feared that female "marchandes de modes" would corrupt young women who worked in them and the female customers - and ultimately imperil the economy. The relationship between Marie Antoinette and her dressmaker was a heightened version of broader cultural concerns.

        This article was interesting because it talked about the conflicting view of women being part of the consumer industry. Views of women as consumers and merchandisers often conflicted throughout the 18th century as the idea of women needing the distraction of luxury developed, but the fear of women being such a prominent part of the economy led to worries over morality.
        Gender and employment/work are the important themes relating to this article, as it discusses the complicated interaction that they have with each other.

1 comment:

  1. Rebekah,

    I am glad you chose to focus on the theme of women and consumerism that is discussed in this article. One of the things that came to my mind as I read your commentary is that, much like the "woman question" has always been present, I would argue that this debate over consumerism has persisted well beyond even this point in time. Perhaps we should say that the mid-19th century was when the connection between women and consumerism was first drawn? However, I believe the theme is one that we have touched on often since then. This was highly pertinent with mechanization and industrialization, as more women entered the work force and had disposable incomes. Additionally, female consumerism was a source of much contention as the end of the Victorian era gave rise to the "New Woman." Again, society faced the contradicting gender roles of a woman confined to the domestic space of the home, and the "New Woman" who went out to the theater (she was a "consumer" of movies) and engaged in public spaces. In thinking of these themes, I am also reminded of Émile Zola's "The Ladies Paradise," which critiqued the consumerism that emerged following industrialization, and the negative effects it had on women, particularly in terms of the enslaving employment positions. I noted in another history class of mine--European Society--that this consumerism was characterized by the manipulation of the consumer. In Zola’s "Ladies Paradise," the female protagonists Denise notes that Octave Mouret’s department store “…was all regulated and organized with the remorselessness of a machine; the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force" (p. 16).

    Of course, this theme continues well into the 20th century, particularly in the enormous post-war economic boom. Knowing the longevity of the tie between women and consumerism, what, then, does this say about Western society? Is this a product of the modern period? Has consumerism as a topic eventually transcended gender?

    Just some thoughts.