The best books on beauty and the politics of fashion

Who am I?

As a child (and budding feminist), I inhaled historical fiction about queens and other formidable women. This led to my scholarly interest in female power and authority. Aristocratic women had meaningful political influence in Old Regime France through family networks and proximity to power. However, with the French Revolution of 1789, women’s exclusion from political power (and the vote) was made explicit. This led me to examine the tools women had to accumulate political and social capital, including beauty and the control of fashion. We need to take the intersection of beauty, fashion, and politics seriously to understand the operation of power in both history and the modern world. The books I chose privilege my own interest in eighteenth-century France, but have a broader significance. And they are all really fun to read!

I wrote...

The Creation of the French Royal Mistress: From Agnès Sorel to Madame Du Barry

By Tracy Adams, Tracy Adams, Christine Adams

Book cover of The Creation of the French Royal Mistress: From Agnès Sorel to Madame Du Barry

What is my book about?

This study explores the emergence and development of the position of the French royal mistress through detailed portraits of nine of its most significant incumbents. While kings have always had extraconjugal sexual partners, only in France did the royal mistress become a quasi-institutionalized political position.

Beginning in the fifteenth century, key structures converged to create a space at court for the royal mistress. The first was an idea of gender already in place: that while women were legally inferior to men, they were men’s equals in competence. For example, because of their legal subordinacy, queens were considered the safest regents for their husbands; in a similar fashion, the royal mistress was the surest counterpoint to the royal favorite. Second, the Renaissance was a period during which people began to experience space as theatrical. This shift to a theatrical world opened up new ways of imagining political guile, which came to be positively associated with the royal mistress.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Jennifer M. Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sexing La Mode as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The connection between fashion, femininity, frivolity and Frenchness has become a cliche. Yet, relegating fashion to the realm of frivolity and femininity is a distinctly modern belief that developed along with the urban culture of the Enlightenment. In eighteenth-century France, a commercial culture filled with shop girls, fashion magazines and window displays began to supplant a court-based fashion culture based on rank and distinction, stimulating debates over the proper relationship between women and commercial culture, public and private spheres, and morality and taste. Mary Wollstonecraft was one of those particularly critical of this 'vulgar' obsession with 'tawdry finery', declaring it…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Morag Martin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Selling Beauty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Morag Martin's history of the cosmetic industry in France examines the evolution of popular tastes and standards of beauty during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As the French citizenry rebelled against the excesses of the aristocracy, there was a parallel shift in consumer beauty practices. Powdered wigs, alabaster white skin, and rouged cheeks disappeared in favor of a more natural and simple style. Selling Beauty challenges expectations about past fashions and offers a unique look into consumer culture and business practices. Martin introduces readers to the social and economic world of cosmetic production and consumption, recounts criticisms against…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Amelia Rauser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Age of Undress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Neoclassicism recast as a feminine, progressive movement through the lens of empire-style fashion, as well as related art and literature

The Age of Undress explores the emergence and meaning of neoclassical dress in the 1790s, tracing its evolution from Naples to London and Paris over the course of a single decade. The neoclassical style of clothing-often referred to as robe a la grecque, empire style, or "undress"-is marked by a sheer, white, high-waisted muslin dress worn with minimal undergarments, often accessorized with a cashmere shawl. This style represented a dramatic departure from that of previous decades and was short lived:…

Book cover of Fashion in the French Revolution

Why did I love 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.

By Aileen Ribeiro,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fashion in the French Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Aileen Ribeiro's book explores the changes in dress during the French Revolution and links them with the rapidly shifting political climate. At a time of immense and violent change, clothing could sometimes be used to demonstrate either conformity or reaction to the prevailing situation. The author looks at the elaborate dress of French society and the court in the 1780s and the way in which plain clothing became identified with "democracy". The part played in the Revolution by the "sans-culottes" with their "bonnet rouge" and "pantalon", is explored, together with the role of militant women and the emergence of feminism.…

Book cover of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Why did I love 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.

By Caroline Weber,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Queen of Fashion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Washington Post Book World Best Book of the Year

When her carriage first crossed over from her native Austria into France, fourteen-year-old Marie Antoinette was taken out, stripped naked before an entourage, and dressed in French attire to please the court of her new king. For a short while, the young girl played the part.

But by the time she took the throne, everything had changed. In Queen of Fashion, Caroline Weber tells of the radical restyling that transformed the young queen into an icon and shaped the future of the nation. With her riding gear, her white furs,…

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Interested in clothing, France, and fashion?

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