It is now over sixty years since the publication of The Second Sex, a pioneering text written well before most of the so-called seminal texts of "second wave" feminism. Although many women, as Toril Moi (2010) has reminded us, have stressed that this particular book actually changed their lives in the 1950s, in later years, she argues, it was not always accorded the respect it might deserve. Feminists of the 1970s seemed to misread the text; it is, I would suggest, a passionate and personal polemic clearly shaped by the sociohistorical context of a traumatized postwar France. The book is a mixture of philosophy, psychoanalysis, literary criticism, and a kind of fieldwork, a subjective sociological methodology; it could not be written within our specialized academy.
If some second-wave feminists mistook her intention, seeing a seemingly elitist universalizing of her own milieu, many still pounced with delight on the half chapter she devoted to dress. Here we find a seemingly straightforward equation of elegance with bondage in a description of the haute-bourgeoise, the "woman of fashion" who "has chosen to make herself a thing" ( 1997, 550) in order to showcase her social status and to please her affluent husband. This gave second-wave feminists invaluable ammunition in their sustained attack on fashion as a man-pleasing manipulation of the "natural" woman.
In 1985, Elizabeth Wilson in Adorned in Dreams argued convincingly that fashion, feminism, and socialism could happily coexist; she started with the observation that Beauvoir's seeming strictures had become the "orthodox view within feminism" (100). So persistent has been this reading [End Page 197] of Beauvoir that later feminist writers on fashion still feel compelled to dismantle her arguments (see, for example, Bruzzi 1997).
I would argue that Beauvoir has been unjustly treated, first by those who did not appreciate the overtly political nature of her intervention in 1949 and second by those who still read the pages on "fashion" as an unambiguous attack on pleasure in dress and self-adornment. It is problematic to separate the section on dress in the chapter "Social Life' "from the full text of a book that itself may best be understood through a full appreciation of its context.
Its genesis was the political turbulence of postwar France, perhaps doubly difficult for women after the comparative though problematic freedoms of the war years. Daniel Purdy argues that because "it had such a strong influence, the book has been read today too often as a historical document" (Purdy 2004, 126) But what he means here is that the book has a "historical" place within feminist literature; he is not so much concerned with postwar Paris.
In 1948 and 1949, France was still damaged, physically and psychologically, and struggling to readjust. The country had suffered humiliation and division during the war years under the collaborationist Pétain regime. Some had colluded with the government, others were quietly resigned, while the most politically active—including Sartre and Beauvoir—either joined or supported the French Resistance. The aftermath was a series of bitter reprisals, including the public trials of known collaborators; there was the shaming and ritual on-street head shaving of women known to have slept with Germans, so eloquently captured by the camera of Henri Cartier-Bresson. However, leading fashion designer Coco Chanel, who had spent the war years living in luxury at the Ritz Hotel with her Nazi lover, was fortunate; she was simply exiled to Switzerland. Perhaps this simple fact helped fuel Beauvoir's suspicion of high fashion, particularly when coupled with Christian Dior's "New Look" of 1947. This much copied collection, whose influence lasted for nearly a decade, imprisoned women in waist-cinching corsets and long skirts evocative of the early years of the century.
In France there was widespread poverty during the postwar reconstruction of its devastated infrastructure. Here, as across Europe, this reconstruction was funded by the American Marshall Plan, which meant the necessity of accepting American supremacy. Women, meanwhile, in [End Page 198] France as elsewhere were expected to return to...