Democratizing fashion

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Copying and Copyrighting Haute Couture: Democratizing Fashion, 1900–1930s
Mary Lynn Stewart

Since the seventeenth century, French manufacturers and exporters have traded on their reputation for tasteful luxury products and have represented the French as possessing a more refined taste than other nations. As Leora Auslander has noted, this concept of taste was rife with contradictions, for theFrench were divided by class and gender. Moreover, taste was allegedly innate yet capable of improvement, as well as both individually and socially defined, and it was contrasted to the more transitory, historically specific notion of style. Until the twentieth century, taste was largely an expression of bourgeois class formation and consolidation, guided by a burgeoning number of ‘‘tasteprofessionals,’’ who distinguished between tasteful and merely fashionable products. Within the furniture industry, this meant large numbers of copies of royal styles. Rather than produce exact reproductions, manufacturers, distributors, and consumers preferred historical pastiches ‘‘inspired by’’ Louis XV– and Louis XVI–era furniture. Claiming ownership of these historical pastiches was accordinglydifficult, even under the copyright law of 1902, which protected industrial models. One consequence was wide-scale production and consumption of pastiche ancien régime furniture in France.1 Fashion arbiters also employed rhetoric about the superiority of the taste (defined as discretion, distinction, finesse, grace, tact) of French and especially Parisian women, notably after the disruption of internationaltrade during the First World War and during the
Mary Lynn Stewart is professor of history and women’s studies at Simon Fraser University. Her most recent monograph is For Health and Beauty: Physical Culture for Frenchwomen, 1879–1939 (Baltimore, 2000). She is writing a book tentatively titled ‘‘Dressing Modern Frenchwomen, 1919– 1939.’’ An essay by Christine Senailles, ‘‘Lutter contre la copie,’’in Madeleine Vionnet: Les années d’innovation, 1919–1939 (Lyon, 1994), inspired this article. 1 Leora Auslander, Taste and Power: Furnishing Modern France (Berkeley, CA, 1998), 1, 20, 58, 261–62, 290, 321. French Historical Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Winter 2005) Copyright © 2005 by the Society for French Historical Studies



Great Depression.2 However, fashionresponded to a different set of contradictions than furniture. While fashion arbiters drew distinctions between good taste (le bon ton) and style (le dernier cri ), they did not dismiss new styles: varying styles could be successfully blended in a wardrobe if they cohered in an elegant look or a personal style.3 Instead, the logic of fashion was ‘‘based on the tension between originality andreproduction,’’ much like the logic of contemporary modern art. In her recent study of Paul Poiret, Nancy Troy stresses this couturier’s adoption of an artistic persona, employment of modern artists and appropriation of the business practices of modern art dealers, such as signature labels on clothing (la griffe). Following Bourdieu and Delsaut, Troy considers signature labels ‘‘a signifier of value which,in fashion as in art, is a function of rarity.’’ She interprets Poiret’s artistic persona and practices, which included lavish decoration of his salon, as means of distancing himself from commerce and advertising. Poiret also fought but failed to halt widespread piracy of his models in America. During the Great War, he tried to introduce a line of ready-made clothing, described as ‘‘genuinereproductions,’’ ‘‘exclusively for the women of America.’’ Otherwise, Poiret resisted the simplification and rationalization of his models that more modern couturiers would adopt to take advantage of a wider if not mass market for couture.4 While many of these couturiers embraced and publicized their artistic (more commonly called creative) qualities, they prudently separated their creative and...