Book Review: Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

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Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
Yale University Press

"Fashion, which its detractors have called slight, inconstant, fickle, and frivolous, is, however, fixed in its principles... We see how constant it is in seizing all remarkable events, adapting them, recording them in its annals, IMMORTALIZING them in memory."
~ Cabinet des modes, ou Les Modes nouvelles, 1786

"The dissemination of fashions follows the dissemination of ideas, and sometimes drives it."
~ Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette is the first book by fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. Lavishly illustrated and filled with fascinating information, this book is definitely a worthwhile investment for anyone who is interested in fashion history or the eighteenth century. Fashion Victims explores one of the most infamous periods in fashion history, the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the end of the eighteenth century. Chrisman-Campbell discusses the extravagant and inventive fashions which reigned supreme in the decades before the French Revolution, as well as the important role fashion took during the turbulent Revolutionary years. As the press release truthfully states, "The absorbing narrative demonstrates fashion’s crucial role as a visible and versatile medium for social commentary, and shows the glittering surface of 18th-century high society as well as its seedy underbelly."

Fashion Victims is divided into four main sections, "Court and City", "New and Novel", "Fashion and Fantasy", and "Revolution and Recovery". Within these sections is a comprehensive look at the French fashion industry, with all of it's quirks and inventiveness. We learn about the politics of fashion, the influence of the court, the rising domination of women within the fashion industry, and the myriad of popular fads which swept fashion and popular culture. This wealth of information is accompanied by large, full-color images of paintings, fashion plates and illustrations, and extant garments from the period. Fashion is by it's nature a visual medium, so the addition of so many images is particularly helpful in fully understanding all of the information presented.

It's difficult to pick a favorite part of this book, but I particularly enjoyed Part III: Fashion and Fantasy. This section starts with an excellent quote from the Magasin des modes nouvelles
"We have prepared, almost without thinking about it, materials for the historian who is bored with reading newspapers. She will find, in a hat, a monument to the conqueror of Grenada, a single ribbon will teach her that the nephew of Tipoo-Saïb crossed the seas to become acquainted with this France which kings visit." 
This quote not only perfectly summarizes what a rich historical source fashion can be, but also the importance and prevalence of topical trends in fashion. To the untrained eye much of fashion history seems like a lot of the same. But through little details such as the style of a hat or design on a ribbon, we can see that, just like today, fashion was constantly changing in response to what was happening in politics, the arts, the economy, technology, philosophy, and popular culture. This section of Fashion Victims decodes some of those small details, revealing a few of the myriad of trends which influenced style. The subsection "Fashions a l'Américaine" explores fashions influenced by the politics of the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s and famous Americans who visited France such as Benjamin Franklin. Another subsection, "Figaro and Fashion" looks at the extraordinary impact the 1784 play, Le Mariage de Figaro, by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais had on fashion.

There are many books on this period in history, and Fashion Victims stands up as a worthy addition to the canon. It is an excellent addition to the bookshelf for both the scholar and those with a more casual interest in history.

Stay tuned for an exclusive interview with author Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, coming next week!!

With many thanks to Yale University Press for the review copy of this book.

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