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Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (2000) 523-541

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Switching Codes: Class, Clothing, and Cultural Change in the Works of Marivaux and Watteau

Amy Wyngaard *


The affinity between the works of Marivaux and Watteau is a lieu commun of eighteenth-century French studies. Scholars have long remarked on the connections between their gallant themes and rococo frivolity, seen as capturing the essence of Regency society. One of the most compelling recent studies, Robert Tomlinson's La Fête galante: Watteau et Marivaux (1981), interprets the similar visions of love and nature and the parallel visual and verbal "arabesques" found in Watteau's paintings and Marivaux's plays within the aesthetic context of early eighteenth-century theater. 1 While much scholarship exists exploring their shared themes, structures, and social context, their complementary treatment of cultural and material issues of clothing in relation to class remains largely unexplored. In this essay, I would like to propose a comparative reading of their works as a means to illuminate the forces and mechanisms behind the changing hierarchies of status and appearance in early eighteenth-century France.

The common thematics and modalities of the masquerade seen in Marivaux's and Watteau's works must be viewed within the context of the social tension and confusion of the Regency. Between 1715 and 1723, France witnessed the beginning of a dramatic reorganization of society. The death of Louis XIV in 1715 brought about a crisis in the aristocracy as the noblesse d'épée became engaged in a losing battle with the noblesse de robe to assume the country's leadership. 2 Meanwhile, members of the bourgeoisie were becoming increasingly powerful, rapidly making large fortunes through speculation, overseas trade, and commerce. 3 Even members of the lower classes [End Page 523] found opportunity for financial gain during the turbulent years of the Law System (1716-1720), and stories of the dramatic rise of servants contributed to the widespread impression of significant social and economic flux. This sense of social confusion was compounded by the gradual effacement of the apparent distinctions between classes as members of the bourgeoisie and domestic servants were increasingly acquiring elegant clothing, fine furniture, and decorative objects, once luxury goods that only the aristocracy could afford. 4

Above all, clothing became the highly charged symbol of this emerging conflict of social systems and hierarchies. In the spectacle of the city street, an individual's garments and accessories allowed for the most visible and effective conveyance of signs of real and desired success. 5 During this time, the (il)legibility of clothing emerges as a dominant theme in literary and artistic representation, providing a mimetic and metaphorical means to explore related issues of class and hierarchy. In the works of Marivaux and Watteau, manipulations of clothing and status allow for an elaboration of the changing significance of vestimentary signs. Their plays and paintings not only demonstrate, but also literally perform, the destabilization of the traditional equivalence between rank and appearance. Sustaining a dialetic relationship with contemporary society, their works both imitated social practices and served as a paradigm to help construct them.

In this essay, I will examine scenes of social and vestimentary transformation in Marivaux and Watteau within their socio-historical context, interpreting their modes and significance through an analysis of the attitudes and reactions of the contemporary public. I will first look at servant role-play and mobility in Marivaux, exploring how his works demonstrate and encourage the questioning of traditional hierarchies. I will then turn to Watteau's fêtes galantes, proposing that the confusion of signs and statuses in his works both simulates and realizes the ephemeral social reversals and equalizing performed by the elite masquerade. By examining their works within the context of contemporary theatrical and artistic trends, I will suggest that generic transformation and social subversion are inextricably linked in their works, providing another interpretive standpoint from which to view the complex relationship between society and cultural production in early eighteenth-century France.


The plots of a number of Marivaux's works revolve around...


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