- On Rereading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex After Thirty-Five Years
I was in my midtwenties when I first read The Second Sex (1972; first published 1949). At that time, the late 1970s, I identified as a feminist and, while I don't remember reading Beauvoir's classic antifashion statement, it was clearly compatible with the feminist antipathy to fashion of that decade. "Dressing up," she wrote, is "feminine narcissism in concrete form; it is a uniform and an adornment; by means of it the woman who is deprived of doing anything feels that she expresses what she is" (Beauvoir 1961, 543). Beauvoir went on to describe fashion as a form of work, something like Foucault's idea of the care of the self, in which women establish their social identities though appearances at the cost of having any other kind of identity. Furthermore, she wrote, women, unlike men, were required to transform themselves into an "erotic object" through fashion, the purpose of which was to offer themselves as "a prey to male desires" (543). The only men Beauvoir excluded from this generalization were homosexuals and what her first translator, H. M. Parshley, endearingly called "fops" (543).
What a reductive view of fashion this seems today. Yet how paradoxical, too, because Beauvoir's text is so sensual in its appreciation of fashion, as if the words say one thing and the imagination runs away with another. At the same time as she excoriates a woman's role, she describes her intimate relationship with "the feathers, pearls, brocades, and silks she blends with her flesh: their iridescent hues make up for the harshness of the erotic universe that is her lot" (584). This resonates with me today—not that we were all such grandes horizontales in the seventies, even if we did trail around in a selection of thirties and forties evening dresses. While Beauvoir preposterously asserts that the reason many lesbians dress mannishly is that they do [End Page 194] not need "the caress of velvet and satin because they find the same passive qualities upon a feminine body," she also quotes some lyrical passages on the fashioned self from the memoirs and novels of many spectacularly dressed women, ranging from the actress Georgette Leblanc to the novelist Edith Wharton. So if woman is an object, as Beauvoir bluntly asserts (548)—and as many of us argued in the 1970s—there is also something more complex in her engagement with fashion. Beauvoir's literary sources describe the power of self-transformation and renewal through dress, its capacity to remold the world and the self simultaneously. If, as Beauvoir claims, "elegance is also a bondage" (548), who would not choose to submit? Fast-forward past Beauvoir's colorful claim that enslavement to fashion can lead even well-to-do women into criminality and prostitution, and you will find a text that celebrates the creative possibilities of fashion for all women, not only the rich.
Yet I remember that in the 1970s I didn't like Beauvoir's book. Its lofty tone and monolithic pronouncements annoyed me. I was alienated by her overarching assertions about "woman" as if it my entire sex were no more than a generic category. I disliked her claim that women were innately rivalrous. She seemed to have an antediluvian concept of the sexes, women as well as men. And then, I have never taken kindly to being told what "women" (i.e., people like me) are like; I didn't like it any better when the person doing the telling was a woman.
The book I did like was Beauvoir's picture book on Bardot published ten years later, in 1959, and which I had read as a very bored teenager. In the dubiously titled Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome, Beauvoir described Bardot and her cinematic representation, particularly by Roger Vadim, as simultaneously complicit and feral. While Beauvoir's picture of Bardot as both a child of nature and an "erotic hoyden" was just as much a construction as her description of the bored bourgeoise in The Second Sex, it did attribute an appealing degree of sexual agency to Bardot: "She...