- Coiffures: Hair in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Culture
Carol Rifelj's new book on hair is a refreshing addition to a growing body of scholarship in the field of French fashion studies. By penetrating into the cabinets de toilettes of nineteenth-century bourgeois women and focusing on an element of fashion that is extremely visible and yet heretofore unexamined—hair—Rifelj brings fresh eyes to some of the most studied texts of the nineteenth century. She also illuminates technologies of the self that have long been taken for granted and calls attention to the ways in which a natural human feature may become laden with multiple meanings in various cultural contexts. Hair, it turns out, is quite a bit more complex than it would seem, linked as it was to concepts such as ideal beauty, respectability, fashion, sexuality and even nostalgia.
Coiffures argues that hair deserves to be taken seriously and that its "physical, social, and symbolic dimensions" should be studied as a repository of knowledge about how nineteenth-century subjects viewed both themselves and the social world around them (31). Although Rifelj's principal primary sources are literary (she draws from a wide range of novels by Balzac, as well as from Gautier, Flaubert, Maupassant, Sand, Zola, and others), she also offers incisive analyses of the fashion and etiquette writings that were contemporaneous to these texts. Her deftly juxtaposed readings provide social context to the novels she explores, and her selection of illustrations aptly complements those readings. The book weaves together the multiple valences of hair as symbol, as key signifier in nineteenth-century realist novels, and as physical embodiment of woman.
The book is organized into five chapters following a brief introduction outlining the prominence of hair both in novelistic discourse and in other cultural media, such as fashion illustrations and treatises on beauty. By establishing interconnections among chapters, which take up subjects such as hair's relation to sexual identity, the cultural connotations of hair color, the secret spaces and rituals of hairdressing, and the hair trade, Rifelj builds a strong argument for the rich signifying value of hair. Each chapter offers not only a thorough examination of the theme at hand, but also detailed readings of literary works illustrating that theme. [End Page 335]
Chapter One, "The Language of Hairstyles" proposes a model for fashion studies and presents a more fully developed presentation of the book's subject. Acknowledging the caveats of the language metaphor for the study of fashion, Rifelj then adapts this metaphor in productive ways, focusing on historical context, the connotations of styles, and the thematic and metaphoric uses made of these styles in literature. Her discussion of the radically short "Titus" cut so popular in the first decade of the century lays the groundwork for her analysis of gender in Barbey d'Aurevilly's "Le Rideau cramoisi," and her developments on curls, bandeaux, and dangerously loosened hair, supported by textual and visual analyses, underscore for the reader just how awash in popular fashion culture the great realist novelists of the nineteenth century actually were. Each detail is meticulously chosen and developed as the study progresses, thus contributing to an elegant unfolding of the layered and multiple meanings of hair.
Chapter Two develops the cliché that we still recognize of long, luxuriant hair as the hallmark of femininity, ultimately proposing that hair in the nineteenth century came to be understood as an "indirect representation of sexuality" (118). Rifelj analyzes a contradictory body of literature attributing moral characteristics to hair color by cleverly staging these texts in juxtaposition with some of the most misogynistic treatises of the period in Chapter Three, entitled "Color." Her examination of the dangers of hair coloring and its attendant moral connotations recalls Marni Kessler's work on the dangers of maquillage (Sheer Presence: The Veil in Manet's Paris, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). This chapter might have been enriched through conversation with Kessler's work on visual culture, for Rifelj suggests vital connections between the literary and...