- Credit, Fashion, Sex: Economies of Regard in Old Regime France by Clare Haru Crowston
In Credit, Fashion, Sex: Economies of Regard in Old Regime France, Clare Haru Crowston explores worlds of credit to paint a vivid portrait of France between the age of Louis XIV and the French Revolution. Acclaimed for her analytical rigor and archival research, Crowston musters her considerable skills as an historian of gender, labor, and commerce to explain how credit shaped everyday relations of power among men and women during the old regime. Although the book addresses a range of questions about the evolution of French social order in a period of dynamic change, its main concern is to investigate the interplay of two different forms of credit—“sociopolitical” or cultural credit and “economic” credit – and to show how the convertibility of credit from one form to another (and back again) was an essential mechanism of old-regime society. One of the stated goals of the book is to reintegrate economic history with political and cultural history, and it succeeds brilliantly in doing so by studying credit from multiple perspectives.
The first part of the book treats what Crowston calls sociopolitical or cultural credit. By sociopolitical credit, the author means the kind of informal influence elites enjoyed under the old regime, especially at court. “I am in credit, for people do what I want,” boasted the character Arlequin in Marivaux’s 1724 play La Double inconstance (21). Credit, Fashion, Sex makes two basic points about this kind of power, widely invoked as crédit by contemporaries. First, women possessed it as well as men. Crowston acknowledges that women’s exercise of crédit was viewed in an increasingly negative light over the course of the eighteenth century as critiques of court life mounted, but she resists teleological interpretations that end with an inherently misogynistic French Revolution. Second, sociopolitical credit and economic credit were eminently convertible. Challenging sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s formulation of cultural capital, which ontologically privileged economic over [End Page 256] cultural capital, Crowston insists that neither cultural nor economic credit was primordial. Both generated value, and processes of convertibility ran in both directions. (Here she also challenges Jay M. Smith, who first noted the cultural significance of the term crédit and argued that economic credit increasingly took precedence over cultural credit in the eighteenth century). Lest one doubt that contemporaries understood credit in such multivalent terms, the book draws on a mountain of textual evidence compiled from literary databases to illustrate the extraordinarily broad semantic range of the word credit. If anything, Crowston is too enthralled by the power of digital search engines, citing more examples for the use of “credit” than the reader needs to know.
The second part of the book turns to the fashion industry, which reveals the comprehensive imbrication of economic and cultural credit. The book claims to pursue credit across French society, but its focus is in truth more narrow. It deals mainly with the upper reaches of the social hierarchy and the specialized Parisian retailers who catered to them. Nobles and wealthy bourgeois, seeking to enhance their reputations at court and in the city, engaged the services of fashion merchants, who in turn sold them all manner of trendy clothing and accessories on credit. Thus, in the fashion merchant’s boutique we find a direct link between the drive to expand sociopolitical credit and the proliferation of economic credit. From painstaking research on the bankruptcy records of fashion merchants, Crowston reconstructs the daily business practices by which these (mostly female) tastemakers bought raw materials from (male) merchants, ingeniously crafted fashionable accessories and articles of dress, and hawked them to a (mostly female) elite clientele. The whole system was based precariously on credit, as fashion merchants attempted to stave off the merchant-creditors who supplied them while pressing their own customers to make good on their debts. Because the dictates of social deference made it difficult to induce elite clients to settle their bills, even the enterprises of high...