Dressing Up: The Women Who Influenced French Fashion
Elizabeth L. Block
The MIT Press, 2021
How wealthy American women—as consumers and as influencers—helped shape French couture of the late nineteenth century; lavishly illustrated.
French fashion of the late nineteenth century is known for its allure, its ineffable chic—think of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X and her scandalously slipping strap. For Parisian couturiers and their U.S. customers, it was also serious business. In Dressing Up, Elizabeth Block examines the couturiers’ influential clientele—wealthy women in the United States who bolstered the French fashion industry with a steady stream of orders. Countering the usual narrative of the designer as solo creative genius, Block shows that these women—as high-volume customers and as pre-Internet influencers—were active participants in the era’s transnational fashion system.
Block describes the arrival of the U. S. nouveaux riches on the French fashion scene, joining European royalty, French socialites, and famous actresses on the client rosters of the best fashion houses—Charles Frederick Worth, Doucet, and Félix, among others. She considers the mutual dependence of couture and coiffure; the participation of couturiers in international expositions (with mixed financial results); the distinctive shopping practices of U.S. women, which ranged from extensive transatlantic travel to quick trips downtown to the department store; the performance of conspicuous consumption at balls and soirées; the impact of U.S. tariffs on the French fashion industry; and the emergence of smuggling, theft, and illicit copying of French fashions in the American market as the middle class emulated the preferences of the wealthy. Lavishly illustrated, with vibrant images of dresses, portraits, and fashion plates, Dressing Up reveals the power of U.S. women in French couture.