The best books on beauty and the politics of fashion

The Books I Picked & Why

Sexing La Mode: Gender, Fashion and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France

By Jennifer M. Jones

Sexing La Mode: Gender, Fashion and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France

Why this book?

A major divergence in the nature of elite men's and women’s clothing styles took place in the eighteenth century that symbolized a new understanding of both femininity and French national identity. The fancy dress men wore at court transformed into the sober black suit of the male professional, while women’s clothing became increasingly ornate, fussy, and “feminine” in the modern understanding of the term. Jones links fashion and gender systems to social, cultural, and economic practices—including the rise of consumer culture—and demonstrates why the study of fashion and sexuality are far from frivolous.


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Selling Beauty: Cosmetics, Commerce, and French Society, 1750-1830

By Morag Martin

Selling Beauty: Cosmetics, Commerce, and French Society, 1750-1830

Why this book?

Women have long used face paint, hair dyes, and perfumes, despite the health risks associated with them.  Martin skillfully analyzes the ambivalence women feel towards cosmetics, pushed by marketers who play on their desire to be beautiful, while moral philosophers attack the vanity and corrupting effects of artifice. The Age of Enlightenment introduced the paradox that still exists today: women are supposed to be “naturally” beautiful, but marketers convince us that beauty requires cosmetics to enhance our “natural” beauty. Like fashion, beauty is a commodity with political overtones.


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The Age of Undress: Art, Fashion, and the Classical Ideal in the 1790s

By Amelia Rauser

The Age of Undress: Art, Fashion, and the Classical Ideal in the 1790s

Why this book?

The neoclassical style of dress—sheer, high-waisted muslin dresses that displayed a woman’s arms and eschewed traditional undergarments—that appeared in the late eighteenth century shaped European female fashions for nearly thirty years. Historians have often labeled the neoclassical movement associated with the Enlightenment and Age of Revolution as austere and masculine in its effects. However, Rauser effectively makes the case that women were at the center of 1790s neoclassicism in its most intense and embodied form, as creators and patrons—and that fashion, more so than other forms of art, reveals an era’s artistic and political culture.


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Fashion in the French Revolution

By Aileen Ribeiro

Fashion in the French Revolution

Why this book?

Ribeiro is the author of numerous books on beauty and fashion, but this is the one I always come back to. Here, she explicitly connects social and political trends to changes in dress, beginning in the 1780s to the rise of Napoleon. The analysis is straightforward and compelling, although she also acknowledges the nuance. It’s a terrific introduction to the political importance of fashion during a period when fashion could not have been more politically salient.


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Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

By Caroline Weber

Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Why this book?

This book makes a bold argument: that Queen Marie Antoinette’s clothing choices played a part in determining both her own fate during the French Revolution as well as that of the Old Regime itself. The gripping narrative of the young Austrian princess from the time of her marriage to Louis XVI until her death on the guillotine takes place against the backdrop of her highly political role as a fashion icon. Traditionally, royal mistresses had been trendsetters in France; Weber makes the case that it was highly unusual and dangerous for the queen to show such an interest in dress. Her sartorial excesses left her vulnerable to charges of financial profligacy at a time when the French public was suffering; she became the ultimate symbol of the thoughtlessly frivolous woman, too focused on fashion.


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