Fashioning La Française: The Invention of Good Taste in Revolutionary France

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Haverford College. Department of History
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The image of the French in the cultural imagination is one of elegance and class, a people possessing a certain je ne sais quoi that sets them apart in their sense of style and sophistication. This idea of the French is so inherent to their image that it seems like it has always been that way. In my thesis I ask the question of how good taste became an integral part of French national identity. I argue that good taste became part of the French identity during the French Revolution, as changing attitudes towards consumer culture and gender that occurred over the later half of the eighteenth century took on specifically nationalist characteristics in light of the Revolution. Over the course of the eighteenth century, French society transformed from a "moral economy," in which dress signified social status, to a consumer economy, in which the middle and lower classes had access to fashion. This sartorial confusion broke down the traditional Ancien Regime visual hierarchy. As fashion ceased to signify social status, it became, instead, an indice of gender. Inspired by Rousseau's model of domestic femininity, the luxury industry promoted fashion as a way for women to please men and fulfill feminine goals such as finding a husband. As fashionable consumption became a "natural" desire for women, it was rejected as equally "unnatural" for men. In order to adapt to the changes in consumption wrought by the burgeoning consumer revolution, luxury industries adopted a new vocabulary of consumption. In the first half of the eighteenth century, luxury lost its sinful connotations and became a source of national prosperity. Moralists awkwardly tried to categorize different kinds of luxury with terms such as "useful" or "harmful" luxury. The concept of "taste" developed as an inclusive, egalitarian criterion for consumption that was well-suited to the rapidly expanding market. Taste acquired positive connotations of commerce, while the vocabulary of luxury was linked to the corruption of the Ancien Regime. In the world of fashion, "good taste" was associated with simplicity and naturalism. Taste and luxury thus acquired moral connotations that became politicized during the Revolution. Good taste was linked to republican virtue, while luxury represented aristocratic corruption. During the Revolution, the moral judgments applied to luxury and taste solidified the boundary between men and women and relegated them to their respective places in the new political order. While the transformation from subject to citizen occurred easily for men, who renounced luxurious dress for republican sobriety, the role of women in the Revolution remained ambiguous. The fashion industry held up the stereotype of the female aristocrat-- luxuriously dressed, sexually voracious, and meddling in politics--as the epitome of bad taste. Its definition of good taste emphasized modesty and feminine self-restriction. Nevertheless, it did not fully subscribe to the domestic ideal of the republican wife and mother. The fashion industry resolved this ambiguity by endowing women with symbolic power. As women found themselves excluded from the political sphere, the fashion industry repositioned them as nationalist symbols whose fashionable good taste projected the glory of the French Republic across Europe. As women had been disassociated from the political sphere, the myth of La Francaise long outlasted the French Revolution. It endures up to the present day in our image of the elegant French woman dressed with impeccable good taste.