V. Dressing the Part

“Fashion… in a word, all that is used for ornamentation and luxury. Thus, fashion can be considered politically and philosophically.”

 —“Fashion,” Encyclopédie, vol. 10 (1765)   

“Nature seems to have conferred upon men the right to govern. Women have had recourse to art to free themselves.”

— “Woman,” Encyclopédie, vol. 6 (1756)

The Encyclopédie notes that followers of fashion can be men or women. But, like many other sources of the time, it ultimately identifies fashion as a female weakness. The new ideas about the nature of femininity—the delight in artifice, coquetry, adornment, the “instinctive” desire to please—made fashion the natural province of women. An emergent fashion industry and fashion press emphasized women’s particular relationship to fashion. Publications about fashion were an especially important vehicle for the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas about women and femininity, and played a significant role in redefining womanhood. At the same time, fashion was the focus of philosophical critiques of women for their frivolity, caprice, and obsession with their appearance.

Traditionally, costume and fashion had functioned as a form of display: lavish dress was a sign of status for men and women. Even for Queen Marie-Antoinette, the first true “fashion queen,” la mode was an expression of privilege. But by the late eighteenth century, Parisian actresses vied with the queen as arbiters of la mode. It could be difficult to tell the difference between a lady of fashion and a lady’s maid.

In the latter part of the century as Nature and “the natural” themselves became fashionable, styles of dress, hair, and make-up moved away from the extravagance of earlier moments, and instead reflected the new taste for simplicity and “naturalism” — modes that were themselves political and philosophical.


Image: Jean-Simon Fournier. French, 1770–c. 1820. The Desired Letter, n.d.Oil on canvas.