The Latest Style: The Fashion Writing of Blanca Valmont and Economies of Domesticity
The middle class, consumerism and fashion provided the structure for generations of men and women in urban Spain to forge new identities and create social networks. In her recent book, Professor Kathleen Davis examines how and why women might have been influenced in their fashion choices and how they reconciled its expense with the dominant ideologies of domesticity during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Davis analyzes the "lifestyle" and fashion articles by columnist Blanca Valmont published between 1888 to 1899 in La última moda. The breadth of information covered is impressive and Davis offers keen insights into the ways that Spanish female readers were informed about a myriad of political, social and cultural events of the fin de siglo through the prism of fashion. Blanca Valmont addressed the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Panama Canal, stock market fluctuations, positivism, feminism and women's property rights, in addition to topics more immediately germane to domesticity, such as children's education.
The book's unique contributions to our understanding of nineteenth-century Spanish literature and culture stem from Davis' departure from previous studies that have focused on various anti-consumerist stances in contemporary novels; The Latest Style dismisses concerns over possible conflicts between domesticity and consumerism and builds upon a reading of Valmont's sustained pro-consumerist discourse in La última moda to analyze how "consumer values mediate social hierarchies, economic systems, family structures, and gender roles" (121). It is with this perspective that Davis undertakes a reading of Galdós' Lo prohibido (written the year that Valmont began her columns) and Oller's La febre d'or and analyzes how the two authors employ the idea of the creative power of fashion to, quite literally, self-fashion one's identity within and through social stratification. Davis does not propose any absolute conclusions as to these authors' stances on the slippery topic of consumerism, but her analyses of its complexities enrich our understanding of the novels. Finally, while Davis reads Galdós alongside Valmont as cultural text, she astutely reminds us of Galdós's use of the reliable narrator to "ensure that we read the text as art, not tract"—an admonition that is applicable to many of his works (139). [End Page 275]
While biographical profiles of authors are usually unnecessary for literary analysis, in this book, crucial information about Blanca Valmont is wanting. The majority of The Latest Style focuses on the columns of this "important" and "longest-running voice" in the world of Spanish fashion and readers would benefit from knowing the basic contours of her identity. Given that Davis was unable to uncover any information about her, this reader wonders whether or not Blanca Valmont existed as a historical person or only as a periodical personality. Did her profile encompass several ghost writers and ideologies? Whatever her historical identity, it would be useful to know who paid for her promotion of the fashion industry and what bearing they might have had on the course of the commercial outlet for which she wrote. Was she backed by any specific French designers? Are there extant records from the magazine or notarial archives in Paris, where Valmont resided?
The Latest Style is well written and a pleasure to read. Ten pages of illustrations complement Davis' text. However, there were a few surprising repetitions of quoted material; moreover, the very brief conclusion opens with a paragraph that reproduces exactly a passage from Chapter 2. Her conclusion would have been an excellent place to summarize the related topics that Davis uncovers in this book but leaves to future researchers. Her highly suggestive book invites scholars to ponder the role of fashion in economic and cultural imperialism, as readers outside of Madrid were guided by Valmont to use French fashion to remove all markers of their provincialism and pass for urban and consequently, international citizens. Similarly, Valmont's lessons to her readers on the economics of imperialism that underwrote the development of haute couture anticipate current discussions of the authenticity of "national culture" and globalization (35-36).