- Dressing Modern Frenchwomen: Marketing Haute Couture, 1919-1939
As a legitimate academic discipline, I think it safe to say that only a single generation of scholars have been trained in the discipline of fashion studies. Many of us have come to it through the back door, through other disciplines, whether it be art history, film studies, history, or [End Page 481] women's studies, to cite only a few. Some only dabble, given its fashion-ability. Others, on the other hand, have made a successful and thoughtful transition. What makes current scholarship in the field of fashion studies exciting is the multiplicity of methods and means to cut through fashion's multiple personalities and histories. Women's history scholar Mary Lynn Stewart's Dressing Modern Frenchwomen lies uncomfortably somewhere between these two experiences. The book does, however, offer her reader scholarship, which is at once focused and yet broad enough to understand why fashion should matter.
Drawing exclusively from material from the interwar period, Dressing Modern Frenchwomen portends to provide a 'multidicisplinary approach to women's fashion between the two world wars by combining French fashion history with women's, gender, and cultural history.' In large measure Stewart, who draws primarily on magazine reportage, does attempt to provide a cross-section look at the culture of women's fashion in a period often reified, celebrated, and yet misunderstood by scholars and the public at large. The book is divided into four broad thematic sections, each dealing with one specific overarching concern. In 'Gender, Genius and Publicity' Stewart ostensibly lays the groundwork for her investigation of gender, her conceptual framework, and the marketing of haute couture. In part 2 she gets down to 'Business and the Workplace,' while in part 3 she attends to the fraught concept of the democratization of fashion as it relates to copyright and consumption. Finally, in part 4 she tackles the ever-expanding definitions and realities of the notional 'modern woman.'
Like a few other scholars before her, Stewart marries the seeming incompatibility of fashion and feminism. She contends that these two cultural forces conjured important synergies for the advancement of women's identities in the interwar period. Fashion was and remains integral to how women negotiated their identity, their experiences of modernity, and their entrance into cultural venues. Significant is how she clearly illustrates that couturiers did not simply impose their designs on women of the time, but rather that fashion was a result of a complicated relationship between consumer and couturier. Simply put, women were not dictated to by a group of homosexual designers who did not understand women's bodies or needs, as is often the perception; women were in charge of their sartorial and cultural decisions.
Stewart also problematizes the sartorial tendency in the interwar period to sport androgynous fashions made popular by designers like Coco Chanel. Manish and androgynous clothes were the site on which feminist and anti-feminist wars were being waged in the press. 'Antifeminists,' as Stewart claims, 'tried to link feminism with cross-dressing, by which they meant women wearing trousers with tailored jackets, shirts, and ties.' What this resulted in, according to the author, was a 'hybrid modernity' that at once allowed for femininity to be articulated, yet provided for [End Page 482] women's emancipation. Here the art deco style, what she re-labels as 'hybrid modern,' serviced as 'an eclectic style, combing the traditional and the modern, the functional and the decorative, the familiar and the exotic, the fine and applied arts, even hand-made and machine-produced goods. The exhibition itself promoted a kind of "hybrid," or feminized, modernity.' She qualifies the interwar period as one in which the fashions and designs were characterized 'by a mix of modern and traditional elements,' that is to say, her neologism of 'hybrid modern.' But for this reviewer, the question of whether it is really necessary to provide yet another label for the style or period arises. Unfortunately, where Stewart's scholarship falls short is her neglect fully to work with and...