- The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America, 1900-1929 by Caroline Evans
A photographic album from 1927 details quotidian activities in the house of Worth in Paris and provides an invaluable glimpse into the behind-the-scenes working life of one the leading French haute couture businesses of the interwar period. As expected, the album reproduces scenes from salons and sales rooms, showing mannequins who model exquisite new dresses to clients. But it also details other, less alluring spaces and activities in this "factory of elegance," which created, in seasonal patterns, work for thousands of employees (144). Seamstresses, sketchers, furriers, telephonists, cooks, and Jean-Charles Worth himself are depicted in this revealing photographic study that unveils the business procedures of an industry that emphasized luxury, exclusivity, and art. In fact, as Caroline Evans notes in her comprehensive and compelling new study, the allure of exclusivity that emanated from couture houses such as Worth's was built on and generated by a set of tightly controlled, carefully concealed Fordist and Taylorist business practices imported straight from the mass-manufacturing industries in the United States. These were the sides of French haute couture that private clients were never supposed to see.
Nonetheless, this dialectic between exclusivity and mass production, between art and commerce—between France and the U.S., respectively—structured production and marketing techniques of French fashion at the beginning of the twentieth century. While the fiction of individuality and exclusivity was maintained by mannequins modeling gowns to private clients, the French couture houses relied increasingly on foreign exports. In this context, the U.S. market developed into the most significant recipient of those exports. Advance fashion shows were reserved exclusively for professional buyers from big U.S. department stores, buyers who standardized, adapted, and simplified the original French designs for mass-production and for the ready-to-wear industry at home. Jean Patou's 1924 publicity stunt—he recruited six American mannequins to accommodate the American physique on the French catwalk—was similarly designed to cement Franco-American business relations and to increase French sales figures abroad. It was also part of ongoing attempts to synchronize the look and appearance of mannequins in fashion shows, which had started to replicate the mechanical aesthetics of the chorus or production line. As these examples illustrate, at the beginning of the twentieth century the French and American fashion trades engaged in business relationships that were at times co-operative, at times competitive, but always mutually constitutive.
In The Mechanical Smile, Evans addresses a topic that so far has not received its due attention. She retraces these intersecting narratives about commerce, art, technology, and aesthetics, all of which shaped the development of the early fashion shows in France and the U.S. Her meticulous archival work, which draws on turn-of-the-century photography, film, fashion magazines, and fashion show programs, combined with her erudite critical analysis of these varied sources, leads to an important intervention in fashion history. Theory is woven seamlessly into the discussion at appropriate points, and the names of Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, and Pierre Nora appear in relevant places, as do those of Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel, and other well-known fashion theorists. But Evans is at her best as a cultural historian when she recovers aspects of the daily life and work of early twentieth-century mannequins and thus addresses the "historical invisibility of these women whose job it was to be visible" (186). The discussion of the above-mentioned photographic album of the Worth firm, like descriptions of backstage scenes in the mannequins' cabines, provides a case in point. Such moments vividly bring to life not only the glamor and the extravagances but also the drudgery and dreariness that dominated work in the French couture houses. [End Page 793]
Encyclopedic in its excavation of fascinating historical details, Evans's study returns to coordinating concepts to organize the wealth of assembled material. The relational terms "movement" and "stasis" form...