Interview with Fashion Victims Author Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

12:46 PM

Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell recently published her first book, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. After looking through this lavish text, I wanted to know a bit more about how this book came together. What is the story behind the story? Find out in my exclusive interview below!




Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing this book. How did you first come up with the idea for the content? Were there any interesting places that your research took you?

There have been a lot of good books on eighteenth-century fashion, but most of them cover just that: the whole eighteenth century, from 1700 to 1799, as if fashion followed a linear progression with a beginning, middle, and end. The Louis XVI period--from 1774 to 1793--was so different from everything that came before and after, socially and sartorially. I felt like it deserved a book of its own. Partly because of the French Revolution and partly because of the nature of fashion and collecting, objects from the period have ended up all over the place. My research took me to France, of course, but it also took me to museums and archives in Sweden, Canada, England, Scotland, and Austria. If I'd had the time and funding, I would have added Russia and Portugal to that list. The strangest place I found myself was the ornithology department of the Royal Ontario Museum, where a specialist helped me identify the feathers embroidered on a robe parée supposedly made for Marie-Antoinette with the help of a vast collection of dead birds.


One of the joys of looking through museum collections and archives is discovering hidden treasure that you didn’t know of which really help your research. Were there any of those moments?

So many of those moments! The hardest part is knowing when to stop, because there's always going to be another amazing portrait or document or garment lurking somewhere if you just keep looking. One that stands out is the Revolutionary waistcoat in LACMA's collection; I came across it very late in my research and now I can't imagine the book without it. There's a Figaro costume at FIDM that I wish I'd included, but I didn't know about it until too late. Sometimes you have to publish first in order to find these things; there's an alms purse in the book that I was able to have photographed at the last minute because a curator friend read my article on alms purses in PieceWork and realized she had one in her collection! It's the only one I've ever seen that has a solid provenance; they're usually cataloged as gambling purses, because they're identical except in how they were used. 


What were some of the challenges and rewards of publishing a book?

I loved every minute of the research and writing process, but the road to publication was slow and frustrating. Something I've learned is to start with the images and work backwards. You don't want to get to the end of writing a book or an article and then discover you can't use the images you need, because the publisher is only going to let you have three illustrations or because the rights are unavailable or unaffordable. I learned a lot, however, and I could not be happier with the way the book turned out in the end.

(For more information on Dr. Chrisman-Campbell's publishing journey, click here!)


There are many books written about this period in history, including a wide range of fashion history texts. What do you think makes your book stand out?

I'm a stickler for primary sources. There are a lot of fun myths about Marie-Antoinette floating around, but the truth is far more interesting, and you have to go back to eyewitness accounts to find it. Anything written in aftermath of the Revolution tends to be revisionist history. Also, I think I'm the first person to look at the French émigré fashion industry, which was hugely important to the development of European fashion in the 1790s and early 1800s. Finally, my book has 220 illustrations! I made a conscious effort to include a balance of paintings, prints, fashion plates, and objects, including textiles and decorative arts as well as garments and accessories. Many of them have never been published before.


What is the biggest myth about Marie Antoinette that you’d like dispelled?

She probably never wore a ship on her head, but if she had, it would not have been controversial at all! Personally, I don't think she was as much of an innovator as she's been given credit for. Although I'm generally sympathetic to her, I find her a bit boring; women like Rose Bertin and the stylish Duchesse de Chartes were the true trendsetters. Marie-Antoinette was a little like Princess Diana: young, pretty, rich, and extremely famous, but not exactly cutting-edge in her fashion choices. As queen, she couldn't afford to be. Even her riskiest fashion statement, a chemise gown with a straw hat, had been worn by Madame Du Barry two years earlier.


When people ask me why I love the eighteenth century so much I never know where to start. So I’ve ended up just saying “The wand chooses the wizard” to avoid a five hour speech on why the eighteenth century is my great passion in life. So, with the knowledge that this is an impossible question to answer, why do you love the eighteenth century?

I love your answer! I could name a hundred reasons, but I think it all boils down to the irresistible allure of big hair and puffy shirts and skirts. It's the most extreme, inventive, over-the-top period in fashion history; it's the Formula One of fashion.


If you lived in the late eighteenth century, what fashion trend would you embrace with relish? For me, it’s putting ships on my head!

I've done that, and I don't even live in the late eighteenth century! The coiffure à la Belle Poule is practically a character in my book; I'm obsessed with it. And I'd have the biggest hoop petticoat in town. I love how women took up so much more space back then. It made them impossible to ignore.


Do you have any pet periods of history?

For the past few years I've been working on American fashion of the 1960s and 70s, and it's a whole different kind of research, with entirely new types of source material--including oral histories, sketches, photographs, and even film--as well as new challenges. It's a fascinating period that has a lot in common with the eighteenth century in terms of massive political and social upheaval reflected in fashion.


What’s next for you? Can you write a million more books please?

I'd love to! I have a couple of books in progress, with no publication date in sight: one on a subject closely related to Fashion Victims and one not related at all. I will never get tired of the eighteenth century, but it's nice to visit other time periods once in a while. I also wrote an essay on Marie Antoinette's shoes for the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition catalog Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, which will be published in June. I'm an occasional contributor to TheAtlantic.com, Slate.com, and Ornament Magazine, and I just started writing the FIDM Museum blog.


Do you have any advice for aspiring fashion historians?

Join the Costume Society of America! It's a great way to keep up with new research, make connections, and make friends.


Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world. She is a frequent contributor to books, scholarly journals, and magazines, as well as an experienced lecturer. Her areas of expertise include European fashion and textiles and French and British painting and decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries

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2 comments

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  2. Great interview! I'm stealing your "wand chooses the wizard line" btw.

    ReplyDelete