‘However, when she was going through the silk scarves and glove departments, her will weakened once more. There, in the diffused light, stood a bright, gaily coloured display which made a delightful effect’.
In 1883, Émile Zola (1840–1902) – at that time barely known beyond the borders of France – described in a surprising manner what we now call shopping fever or impulse buying. The author, famous for his socio-critical studies of society, became, from the late 1870s, increasingly interested in the ambivalent meaning of public or semi-public spaces such as the department store. He condensed his observations into his epochal novel The Ladies’ Paradise (originally: Au Bonheur des Dames). One should try to remember the following: exactly at that time, the department store, with its attractive displays of different brands, was created as we know it today; and with it came fashion-specific mechanisms such as the compulsion and even system-inherent necessity for innovation, on the one hand, and the emergence of standard sizes, and thus the longing for the ideal figure, on the other – along with a capitalist logic of growth that resulted in the concept of the clearance sale. Although all these aspects are now regarded as problematic, and must be vigorously questions, it should not be forgotten that the birth of department stores has also brought some positive effects, in that they have promoted—and in some cases, even initiated—desirable changes for society, particularly with regard to equality between men and women.
The concept of protected shopping arcades was already established as early as the 1770s; in particular, a law in 1791 – the Loi Le Chapelier – enabled the freedom to trade without restrictions. The French Revolution set in motion a progressive democratisation of consumption; in the beginning of the 1870s, Auguste Hériot (1826–1879), with the Grands Magasins du Louvre, and Aristide Boucicaut (1810–1877), with his Le Bon Marché, heralded the start of a new era of the large department store. On an artistic level, a fascinated and, at the same time, critical observer of this development was Félix Vallotton (1865–1925). His painting Le Bon Marché (1898, private collection) has the shape of a triptych and illustrates the artist’s ambivalent, sacral disposition, towards what Zola described as cathédrales du commerce moderne. Of astonishing timeliness in this painting is the sea of people: Then, as now, department stores are a collection of individuals who pursue their personal needs, indifferent to their neighbours’ backgrounds. Even though then, as now, purchasing power still decides who leaves the place with more or fewer purchases, revolutionary developments emerged: A department store is, historically, seen as the first place after church where women are allowed to leave the house unaccompanied and where, due to the lack of obligation to purchase, all social groups also mingled. The immersive character of the displayed merchandise and the fixed price tags, as seen in the outer wings of Vallotton’s triptych, had not previously been shown in this way. The engaging character of the merchandise becomes even more obvious in Vallotton’s woodcut Le Bon Marché (1893, no. 1), executed five years before the painting, where the potential client seems virtually submerged in the touted merchandise, similar to the billowing waves of the sea. The association is not coincidental, the advent of railway travel at that time, strongly favoured a new leisure activity: beach tourism. The sensation of being in flux was also intensified by gas lighting, and at the turn of the century, electric lighting and glazed skylights. They were first used by architects such as Louis-Auguste Boileau (1812–1896), one of the inventors of iron architecture. Conspicuous in Vallotton’s print and the painting is the interaction between men and women: In both cases, men serve the predominantly female clientele. The artist thus addresses the new issue of socially intolerable encounters between married women and unknown men. At the time of the artwork’s creation, however, this perceived danger was already remedied by employing women as shop assistants. Women were previously employed mainly at home or in the factory; however, with the vendeuse, the saleswoman, a type of work emerged that enabled women, for the first time, to advance in society, regardless of marriage.
Zola addressed this new development in his novel The Ladies’ Paradise, and those who read the book could follow the daily routine of a saleswoman. Remarkably, the author did long-term, on-site investigations of the real conditions in order to write as naturalistically as possible about a middle class that increasingly enjoyed consumption. The typical saleswoman could have looked like Vallotton’s Marthe Mellot (1898, no. 2). Although Mellot (1870–1947) was an actress in the ensemble of the famous Parisian avant-garde theatre Théâtre de l’Œuvre, the painter depicted her in a self-determined but inconspicuous manner. Black clothes were appropriate and, at the same time, fashionable with women who worked in public, such as actresses (while they were not on the stage) or simply saleswomen. Making a virtue out of necessity, Mellot decorated her black dress with shimmering silk ribbons on her chest, and she let their original spirals flow onto her fashionably pronounced shoulders. Black also befitted the female employees of Le Bon Marché because they had to appear respectable and, at the same time, should not provoke any sense of competition with potential buyers. In Karl Stauffer-Bern’s (1857–1891) Portrait of Lydia Welti-Escher (1886, cat. no. 3), the subject in her white dress seems to contrast with the black of Marthe Mellot, but is essentially another expression of the same tendency in fashion development that can be traced back to the Mois du Blanc, the Month of White. This, in turn, harkens back to the entirely new sales strategy of Le Bon Marché’s founder Aristide Boucicaut: Instead of a profit margin of 40 to 50 percent, there was only a 13 percent margin on goods. As a result, Le Bon Marché was able to offer its products at the cheapest price and thus attracted the most female customers while it was at the same time bogged down with surplus goods. In January 1883, Boucicaut came up with the idea of a clearance sale in which he offered the remaining, regular-priced white clothes and top-quality goods – initially annually and then seasonally – at bargain prices. Thus, the portraits of Marthe Mellot and Lydia Welti-Escher stand for two contrasting and, at the same time, complementary dynamics. While the wealthy, non-working Welti-Escher indulges in the frivolous whims of fashion, Mellot’s appearance suggests the ability to combine the reputable elegance of a public figure with the then disreputable occupation of an actress. Thanks to the range of products on offer in the department store, the two women have a connection: They have been able to escape the conventional everyday work of sewing, and thus can pursue other activities.
What began with individual persons, such as the Contessa di Castiglione (1837–1899) and her eccentric, but truly artful self-staging in elite circles which coincided with the beginnings of photography – in 1865, Pierre-Louis Pierson (1822–1913) took photographs of her (no. 4) – became the general social credo of self-determination; the affordable ranges of products increasingly penetrated the everyday life of the middle class. As one of many consequences of industrialisation, this development took place internationally: Department stores emerged not only in France, of course, but also in England, the United States, and soon afterwards in German-speaking countries. Prerequisites for this development included glass-iron architecture, which had first appeared on the occasion of the big world exhibitions, the invention of the industrially manufactured sewing machines by Isaac M. Singer (1811–1875) around 1851, and the growing mobility thanks to the railway that not only fuelled but also inspired the already existing rivalry between fashion nations France and Britain. The fashion magazines, which enjoyed massively growing circulation, offered a means for those who could not afford such clothes to at least get a picture of what was à la dernière mode in the metropolises of Europe and especially in Paris (Stéphane Mallarmé, 1874). Regardless of whether the growing independence of the affluent middle-class woman correlated with an ever-greater reliance on insatiable consumption, Aristide and Marguerite Boucicault (1816–1887) laid a new groundwork for employee rights in their business Le Bon Marché, rights that we now take for granted. As early as 1877, Le Bon Marché employed around 1,800 people and, in 1887, operated 74 autonomously managed departments that included silk, women’s clothing, ties, shirts and cosmetics, along with a mail-order business. The Boucicaults, who were motivated not least by their experiences of social disturbances such as the July Revolution (1830) and the Commune (1871) as well as by their own modest origins, introduced social institutions such as company-owned housing, free evening training courses and a pension fund.
Let us step back and turn our attention from the individual to the general, to what fashion can trigger when viewed by crowds of people. A huge change in public space, which became apparent during the 19th century, was the growing presence of elegantly and conspicuously dressed women in parks, on the streets, in cafés and tea houses, in railways, on racecourses, on beaches as well as at major events such as world exhibitions and, of course, in the grand magasins described above. Artists impressively revealed the transformations in how men and an increasing number of women staged themselves in the public space (fig. no 5, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8). These artists included around 1815, Johann Nepomuk Hoechle (1790–1835) in Vienna, Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767–1855) in Paris and George Cruikshank (1792–1878) in London, Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) in the 1850s and then especially Félix Vallotton, Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) and Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940) . The latter three artists, all of them members of the artists’ group Nabis, strikingly portray people merging with their environment – architecture and the crowd – yet standing out through the pattern of their garments’ fabrics. Vallotton’s L’arverse, Le coup de vent (no. 8) and also Pierre Bonnard’s Femmes au jardin clearly illustrate these two aspects: Certain fabric patterns occur repeatedly and thus demonstrate the industrial, inexpensive, mass production of printed cotton as well as its fashionable value. The fascination with the hypnotic power of fabric patterns continues in art to this day; for example, Sylvie Fleury (b. 1961) takes this up through her decontextualisation of a Valentino pattern in a painted tondo.
Difficulties such as weather conditions and road pavements made new demands on women’s clothing. Although the restoration of the Second Empire resulted in a reactionary wind blowing again, the end of the cumbersome crinoline and constraining corset was inevitable, as short skirts were already known as soon as the 1830s and women’s trousers during the 1850s. Overall, however, the increasing presence of women in public spaces also became apparent in the disconcerting development, which was already indicated in the prints of Daumier and Vallotton and which still seems to have general validity today: While a woman’s wardrobe is becoming more diversified, a man’s wardrobe is becoming more uniform and restrained. This corresponded (and still does today) with a male-dominated society which claims that to not be distracted from the externalities of one’s counterpart when dealing with political and economic concerns, one should appear in a dark suit and with a top hat or in a military uniform.
The ever-increasing mobility of women inevitably demanded more practical clothing. Thus, the clothing reform movements that began in 1881 with the Rational Dress Society in England and from 1887 in France gradually became institutionalised as an expression of a far-reaching profound social change, namely that of equality between men and women. However, the most famous impulse of the reform dress movement came not from the country of the declaration of human rights, but from the German-speaking world and was initiated by Peter Behrens (1868–1940), Anna Muthesius (1870–1961), Henry (1863–1957) and Maria van de Velde (1867–1943), the Wiener Werkstätten, as well as Emilie Flöge (1874–1952) and Gustav Klimt (1862–1918). This artists’ movement is considered as one of the most important and most comprehensive contributions to fashion history. From today’s perspective, Henry van de Velde’s visionary and commendable claim, however, also leaves mixed feelings in light of his chauvinistic, patronising overtones: ‘I think I can rightly say that the efforts we have made have also forced the big Parisian houses to follow the principle of ‘reasonable dress’...if reason sets a limit to the arbitrariness of Parisian fashion houses, we hope that they will learn more from us, but especially that the essential beauty of a fabric consists of the play and life of its drapery. On this basis, one must create cuts of clothes which produce these folds and give these fabrics this life that no ‘French’ cut has offered for a long time’.
Just as unflattering in terms of women's independent thinking and willingness to make decisions, the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) was also influential in his time, seeing money as the main form of expression in fashion. In so doing, he ignored the fact that the new fashion industry was beginning to focus its attention mainly on the female middle class, which had risen through industrialisation, and had been neglected thus far: ‘The assumption is that the more society, especially the affluent classes, develop...the faster fashion changes and the more grotesque and unbearable forms it takes on’. This polarising statement places much more emphasis on social differences than on the equally promising potential for equality, as also expressed in a problematic way in a work such as An den Hallen in Paris (At "Les Halls" in Paris, 1903, no. 5). At a time when the choice of clothes became increasingly personal, motivated independently of rank and education, this painting shows, in the tradition of Gustave Courbet’s (1819–1877) study of poor people in A Burial at Ornans, also called A Painting of Human Figures, the History of a Burial at Ornans (1849/50, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, no. 9), that dismantling old social barriers simultaneously created new ones, including those of money. And so, the new amenities of the exhilarating nightlife of the Belle Époque – in contrast to the new wholesale department stores – were reserved for the affluent. Although this charge against the elite is undoubtedly valid, an interesting observation emerges thanks to the images that highlight the nightlife: In the intoxicating and aphrodisiacal atmosphere combining dance, music and alcohol, norms of behaviour, as well as clothes, are stripped off in centrifugal movements, as in Giovanni Boldini’s (1842–1931) Le public de l’Opéra Garnier (1886) or Suzanne Perrottet’s (1889–1983) naked dancers on Monte Verità and at Lake Maggiore (1914).
The worldwide, triumphant march of the myth of the Parisian woman as the epitome of the fashion-conscious and, simultaneously, self-determined woman was, however, unstoppable. Socio-politically important court ladies such as Madame de Pompadour (1721–1764; no. 10), the first fashion designers such as Rose Bertin (1747–1813) at the side of Marie-Antoinette, the merveilleuses of the directorate or Madame Récamier (1777–1849) during the empire, laid the foundations for a long tradition that fell on fertile ground with the establishment of large department stores such as Le Bon Marché. The series of postcards in mass circulation such as La Journée de la Parisienne (c. 1900; no. 6), also provide information, little noticed by cultural history, on the true subversiveness of the Parisienne’s lifestyle: As you can see here, the protagonist decides on her daily routine, and dresses appropriately for each part of the day (sometimes practical, sometimes jaunty, sometimes elegant and seductive), and even, at half past one, self-confidently enjoyed a relaxing cigarette, which at that time – as well as the bob hairstyle and Marlene Dietrich’s trouser suit thirty years twenty years later – was regarded throughout Europe as a distinguishing feature of the emancipated woman.
This text has first been published in a longer version in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Fashion Drive. Extreme Clothing in the Arts, Kunsthaus Zürich, taking place from April 20 until July 15, 2018. For further information see also http://www.kunsthaus.ch/fashion-drive/