On “Gender Flux” in today’s fashion: Is there a message behind those pants?

uniquo sweater incroyable

A gushing New York Times article on gender flux in today’s fashions rang a warning bell in my mind. Was I the only one to feel startled by an article that considers the opinion of 12- to 19-year olds as guiding wisdom? Certainly culture has been enriched by the contribution of some adolescents, such as Arthur Rimbaud and J.D. Salinger.  But the adolescent desire to experiment does not exist in a vacuum; each generation has its own. What makes Ruth LaFerla’s article fall flat is its lack of context. For all the praise of gender blurring that one finds here, and increasingly in today’s media, rare are the critics who recall how the most cutting-edge fashion trends have, over time, often swung back to punish.

Praising the cool new attitude toward the body manifest in designs by couturiers such as Muji, Everlane, and Uniqlo (seen above), critic LaFerla claims that “the whole perception of sexual orientation is being challenged by the millennials. […] the lines between male and female are becoming increasing blurred.” In order to test this view, she consults a historian of revolutionary France who points out the obvious: “We may think we are in a new phase, but we aren’t necessarily.” While the parallel between present-day American styles with those of France in the 1790s is intriguing, the conclusion is a disappointment. Instead of recalling the political forces pushing fashion and consumerism, the historian lamely concludes, “every time these trends come up they push the boundaries a little bit more.”

Beware, lithe young readers! Not only will your own bodies necessarily disappoint, as you Millenials (Millenia?) and Generation Z-ers move through the decades ahead, but your society’s attitudes toward gender may prove less fluid than you’d like to think.

Consider the 1790s as a life lesson.

It is true that a certain “gender flux” marked the 1790s in France, when women stepped out of their whalebone corsets for a time. But it is also true that the primary beneficiaries of that time’s gender flux were men, not women. As any fashionista knows, the avant-garde of the 1790s was male: it was the militant reactionaries known as Incroyables (seen above) who along with their floppy ties and huge lapels bore clubs to beat up errant Jacobins. When women attempted their own version of fluid, comfortable cross-dressing, it was nipped in the bud.

A case in point: when a new fashion for female travestissement or cross-dressing was brought to the attention of the Paris police in summer 1799, the response was dead serious.  Police archives from Germinal to Prairial Year 7 reveal that an important number of agents and spies were mobilized to suppress this vogue among Parisian women.  Why?  Because it was alleged that: 1) such women could be potential émigrées; 2) travestissement was bad for public morals; and 3) it was against the law.  One agent nevertheless challenged the Minister’s order.  His arguments seem ironclad to us, yet they only resulted in stricter enforcement.  Citing a law dated August 1, 1789 which condemned women to 15 days in prison for wearing men’s clothing (and three months for repeat offenders), he argued that such a law could not be upheld because it was created by a provisional government and thus was no longer valid.  He also reminded his superior that women were authorized to wear men’s clothing if they had to ride horses for their health and had a doctor’s order.  He agreed that public morality was a crucial preoccupation, yet he implicitly refused to arrest the women who had been seen strolling through the Tuileries gardens en travesti.  One year later, a new law was published to quell such tergiversation.  Disseminated to all police commissioners in the country in November 1800 (Brumaire Year 9), the law formally declared it illegal for women to wear men’s clothing.

When compared to the extravagantly effeminate styles of the Incroyables—the self-appointed vigilantes of the monarchist set, whose flowing bows and effeminate poses influenced the Romantics—it is evident that the brief moment of “gender flux” lying behind the style en travesti ended soon after birth. And that Napoleon’s burgeoning political ambitions were behind the repression.

What political forces are looming on the horizon for today’s young? Time will tell. But readers would be wise to remember how commodification often clobbers its most creative kin, just as the dominant drivers of the economy will doubtless prevail. You may wear all the loose-fitting androgynous uniforms you want, but if you spend your life working 18 hours a day in a corporate cubicle you’re not really “pushing the boundaries” on anything.

Bastille Day Anti-Quiz: Answers!

Answers to the daily mini-quizzes published as “From Prairial to Pop Culture: The French Revolution in 2015” (June 12 – July 13, 2015)

  1. June 12. No. 3. “Prairial” is the name of a popular revolt in Paris on May 20, 1795 against the policies of the Thermidorian Convention; widely considered the last popular revolt of the French Revolution begun in 1789.
  2. Jun 13. No. 2. “Those minorities” signifies members of the government, teachers, intellectuals and journalists, according to an angry flyer found nearby the Sorbonne in late May 2015.
  3. June 14. No. 1. Judging from the décor in this ad for Audible books, Le Rouge et le Noir / The Red and the Black by Stendhal would make the most sense.
  4. June 15. No. 2. “Fête Nat” is the name of the character played by Abdoulaye Diop in Coup de torchon (1981).
  5. June 16. No. 4. L’Assignat is the name of a restaurant near the Monnaie de Paris (the Paris Mint).
  6. June 17. No. 3. Le culte théophilanthropique was all the rage in the 1790s, including among statesmen such as La Revellière.
  7. June 18. No. 4. All of the incidents occur in the story “Robespierre et les deux orphelins, ou Histoire secrète des derniers jours de Robespierre.” (No wonder he stayed out of sight for so long!)
  8. June 19. No. 2. Jason Schwartzman, of Moonrise Kingdom, played Louis XVI in Coppola’s film.
  9. June 20. No. 3. “Hoppy” is the equivalent of Messidor.
  10. June 21.

No. 1. “We do not comprehend why Camille Desmoulins, who was so openly protected by Robespierre, is crushed in the triumph of this dictator,” are the last words of A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel.

No. 2. ” But I do not. I do not,” are the last words of Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly.

No. 3. “Surely, before the expiration of half a century, since the return of Louis, France will congratulate herself on another restoration,” states Anthony Trollope at the end of La Vendée.

No. 4  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” are the final words of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

  1. Jun 22

No. 1. “‘Remember me, but forget my fate'” echoes Patrice Higonnet at the end of Goodness beyond Virtue.

No. 2. “But that, as they say, is another story,” are the last words in Marisa Linton’s Choosing Terror.

No. 3. “The French Revolution ended with the triumph of Hobbes over Rousseau,” notes Howard Brown in closing Ending the French Revolution.

No. 4. “Old and strong forces were woken by the Revolution, they began to know themselves in a new way, and they changed the world,” announces James Livesey at the end of Making Democracy in the French Revolution.

  1. June 23. No. 1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the author of the shocking quote, “Pectore si fratris gladium,” in his Discours sur l’origine et des fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755).
  2. June 24. No. 1. The Constitution de l’An I / Year One was adopted today in 1793.
  3. June 25. No. 3. Françoise de Graffigny is the innovative author of the best-selling Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), where you’ll find that interesting early usage of classe to denote economics, not taxonomies.
  4. June 26. No. 4. The Conciergerie prison remains almost as ghoulish as in Marie-Antoinette’s day. You can easily imagine the large river rats scurrying down the halls.
  5. June 27: No. 4. Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just declared that happiness was a “new idea” in March 1794. Thanks to Laurent Loty from bringing this to light in his excellent article, « Des Lumières à la Révolution : le bonheur en Constitution », Les Cahiers de l’Observatoire du Bonheur, 2, numéro spécial « Bonheur et petits bonheurs » dirigé par Michèle Gally, 2011, pp. 12-15. You can also read his article on this blog, posted on September 24, 2011.
  6. June 28: 3. Abbé Barruel, author of Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism full of virulent charges of conspiracy: he claims the Revolution was the result of a long-term plot hatched by philosophes, freemasons, Illuminati, anarchists, and économistes. Notre Dame own three titles by Barruel, including the five-volume Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme (1798-99); and the 1798 English translation in four volumes. It sounds like a lot, but that is a small fraction of his output.
  7. June 29: 4. All of the above. In other words, lots of people made profit out of the Revolution, but in the short run, things did not go better, they went worse, for the weak, vulnerable, and the poorest urban dwellers. It was not until the Third Republic that France would become the amazingly supportive state it became (at least in American eyes).
  8. June 30: No. 3. Les Enragés is the name of a political group. I like the way they describe it on Wikipedia: “la réflexion enragée d’une critique de la représentation nationale s’appuie sur une méfiance permanente envers les représentants du peuple.”  Hmm, sounds like some of my friends in Paris.
  9. July 1: No. 4. La mauvaise mère pardonnée par l’état is the correct answer, that is, an imaginary title. All the other books are real titles one can see on WorldCat.  Pierre Augustin de Beaumarchais, L’Autre Tartuffe ou la mère coupable, Paris, 1791. Pigault-Lebrun,  La mère rivale. Paris, 1791. Nicolas Thomas Barthe, La mère jalouse, Bruxelles, 1792.
  10. July 2: No. 1, Soupe Jacobine (actually “Jacobin sop”) is a medieval dish: a kind of French potage with cheese.  For a recipe and a great explanation of its history, see http://www.coquinaria.nl/english/recipes/08.1histrecept.htm
  11. July 3: No 4., le traître or traitor, has been in existence since 1080, acc. to Le Grand Robert de la langue française.  The other three words were coined during the 1790s.
  12. July 4: No. 2. There was no république sœur named “La République deutsche.”
  13. July 5: No. 5, the Loire River, is in the names of the following six departments: Loire Atlantique (called “Loire-inférieure” until 1957); Maine et Loire; Saône et Loire; Indre et Loire; Haute-Loire; and Rhône et Loire.
  14. July 6: No. 4. All of the above. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to finally know that.
  15. July 7: No. 4, a cherry, cerise. Seems fitting for this sweet, luxuriously green summer in South Bend.
  16. July 8: No. 1, Olympe de Gouges’s claim to fame is a rather humble little place near the old Bourse du travail in the 3rd arrondissement. You can get there by metro Filles du calvaire or Oberkampf, or bus Jean-Pierre Timbaud. While in the neighborhood, why not have a bite at the Caffé Soprano 2, rue Dupetit Thouars? possibly under the platane trees…. right across the street from the old Temple prison where the royal family awaited their fate! At least they put her in an interesting neighborhood!
  17. July 9: No. 3 Hoppy took the place of Messidor (June 20-July 19).
  18. July 10: No. 2, the poissarde or fishmonger, a fascinating figure in French literature. Check out the article on this blog entitled “How to Translate a Poissarde?” in homage to Sonja Stojanovic’s amazing translation of “Le Falot du peuple.”
  19. July 11: No. 3, “Madame Guillotine” will soon cut off their heads, said the mean Jacobin in Simon Bruté and the Western Adventure, by Elizabeth Bartelme (1959).
  20. July 12: No. 3. In fact, Camus writes that: “The Catholic Church, for example, has always admitted the necessity of the death penalty . . . not only as a means of legitimate protection, but also as a powerful means of salvation.” This comes about, Camus writes, because “even the worst criminal examines his own conscience when faced with the actuality of execution.” As a Swiss councilor wrote in 1937 and Camus cites:  “He repents, and his preparation for death is made easier. The Church has saved one of its members, has accomplished its divine mission.”  Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” 1st ed. 1957, repr. in Evergreen Review Reader, 1957-1967, ed. Barney Rosset (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 88-106.  Citation from p. 103.  That was news to me!
  21. July 13: No. 2. The Left was furious with Lennon’s revised “Revolution” because he withdrew his support for violent action. Watch the interviews about Lennon & Yoko Ono’s honeymoon where he explains why. (All you need is love.)

33:  ANSWERS PUBLISHED!   Happy Bastille Day!

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Thirty-One. On Albert Camus’s “Reflections on the Guillotine”: can you spot the faulty logic?

Albert_Camus,_ United Press International
In his powerful essay, “”Réflexions sur la guillotine” (1957), the French philosopher Albert Camus denounces capital punishment.* Remember that capital punishment in France was carried out by the guillotine from 1792, when the beheading machine was first used during the French Revolution, right up until 1981.
Let’s test your instincts on existentialism and the guillotine.

All of the following reasons, but one, are part of Camus’s rhetorical assault on the death sentence. Remember the continuum in Camus’s thought as seen in The Stranger: he admits human frailty and irrationality, all the while stressing the essential freedom of humans to chart their own course in life.
OK, knowing all that, it is your turn to pick. I falsified one of the answers below to make it look like a quote by Camus.
Which of the following arguments feels wrong here?
1. Capital punishment cannot provide a meaningful deterrent to crime because “many honest men are criminals without knowing it,” given the passionate, spontaneous character of murder, especially.
2. The fright factor is ineffective because “the State conceals the circumstances and even the existence of its executions,” by conducting such ceremonies at dawn and far from the public gaze.
3. The Catholic Church has always fought such punishment and has “never admitted the necessity of the death penalty.” The French people should follow the lead of this great spiritual force and submit to the Lord through their savior, Jesus Christ.
4. To decide that a man is to be definitively punished means denying him “any further opportunity whatsoever to make reparation for his acts.”

* Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” 1st ed. 1957, trans. Richard Howard. In Evergreen Review Reader, 1957-1967, ed. Barney Rosset (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 88-106.

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Thirty. Holy bakers and outlaw priests

Simon Bruté and the Western Adventure priests as bakers giving hostSimon Bruté and the Western Adventure priest on horseback

One of the intriguing connections between popular culture and literature that I’ve unearthed this summer is the figure of the criminal priest. He is only “criminal” because of the prohibition against Catholicism declared in the early years of the Revolution, and his only “crime” is to celebrate traditional masses after they have been outlawed.  This is a field rich with irony and pathos: perfect ingredients for story-telling.

Readers may recall Balzac’s thrilling story of outlaw clergy in “An Episode under the Terror,” which begins in a bakery where a nun is spending her last louis d’or on a batch of illegal hosts.  But I bet you have not heard of the holy bakers of Simon Bruté and the Western Adventure!*  It opens with a scene under the Terror as well, when young Simon was living in his hometown of Rennes, in western France.**

Thanks to the boy’s piety as well as his home’s location—in the Palais de Justice right next door to the town prison–Simon has a special job.  He works with two priests disguised as bakers who come to sell bread to prisoners.  After all the prisoners have received their ration of bread (and secretly, Holy Communion via the hosts hid in the bakers’ baskets), the republican guard yells out harsh words that break the tranquil moment captured in the illustration.

Fill in the blanks with the mean Jacobin’s words (or the most likely thing a mean Jacobin was imagined to say):

“Enough,” said the guard firmly. You’ve fed them enough for today. They’ll all be dead anyhow, so why fatten them up? _________________________ will see to their needs. Enemies of the Republic! They’ll eat no more bread.”

  1. Le croquemitaine (aka the bogey man, who will scare them straight)
  2. L’homme au sable (aka the sandman, who will give them sweet dreams)
  3. Madame Guillotine (aka the blade, that will cut off their heads)
  4. Père Duchêne (aka the group of lawyers who, volunteering their time in The “Père Duchêne Project,” saved many a prisoner from the Tribunal’s wrath)

*Elizabeth Bartelme, Simon Bruté and the Western Adventure (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1959), 15.

** Simon Bruté is best known as the Bishop of the diocese of Vincennes, Indiana (1834-39)

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Twenty-nine. Of finance ministers and market women

Rutledge Necker

I just finished an amazing book on Necker, the finance minister under Louis XVI.* The most interesting discoveries for me were the revelation that Necker was a friend of the rich (although that was not a big surprise), that he had promised but reneged on his promise to help the poor (ditto), and that he apparently also reneged on a promise to a certain Comtesse de C. This last nugget is wrapped around an artful device by the writer, James Rutledge.
Tucked within the pages of vitriol about Necker’s financial double-dealings is the story of a certain Countess de … to whom he owed 1,000 louis and perhaps her virtue. When she refuses to drop her case or the demand for reparation, It appears that Necker has her mauled by a mob of unruly workers who demand that she say, “Vive Necker” [Long live Necker]. At that point, the countess refuses, but not before shifting tactics and shouting out, “Vive le Tiers” [Long live the third estate]. Thereby one with the cause of the people, she is embraced by the formerly hostile mob, who joins her in touting the Tiers! The inset tale ends with the mob inviting her to join them for a drink.
Prominent in the resolution to this drama is the work of a symbolic figure that is often found in revolutionary literature. She is typically portrayed as hot-tempered, sometimes drunkenly, and prone to funny malapropisms, but her sense of loyalty to her sisters in the marketplace is equal to none. What is she called?
1. A couturière or dressmaker
2. A poissarde or fish-monger
3. An épicière or grocer
4. A pastry-maker or pâtissière

*[James Rutledge], Vie privée et ministérielle de M. Necker, Directeur général des finances, par un citoyen. Geneva: Chez Pellet, 1790. With thanks to Princeton University who sent it here via Interlibrary Loan.

Below is the very odd illustration which opens the “Supplement” where more evil deeds are laid out for public view. Il looks like Necker is taking a sledge hammer to the foundation of the republic. At its top stand symbols of the ancien regime who seem to be aiming at him. If anyone has any idea other ideas about what this symbolism means, please write in!

Rutledge Supplement

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Twenty-eight. “Tycoons to the barricades” = A feeble echo of what radical event of 1789?

slides.015 why have we not yet stormed the barricades

The New York Times printed an intriguing article about socially-responsible billionaires the other day, featuring the surprisingly generous words spoken recently by people such as Jeff Greene, a real estate investor, and Johann Rupert, the merchandising mogul. It appears that a small group of the super-rich are now assailing income inequality and feeling a pressure to do something about it, at least in words. Will their actions live up to their verbal bravado?  We shall see…

During the Revolution, the super-rich did not just talk about abandoning their privileges, they actually did it!

What radically generous event of 1789 puts the modern-day hand-wringing of Jeff Greene and Johann Rupert to shame?

  1. The Night of August 4th, when privileges were discarded by the noble members of the Assembly with astounding aplomb. This powerfully egalitarian gesture effectively made all (male) citizens equal before the law, and laid the groundwork for the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen.
  2. The Night of July 29th, known in history as Le Baiser de Lambesc or “the kiss of Lambesc,” when deputies on both the Left and the Right joined together to pledge unity in addressing the nation’s financial ills. Following that symbolic embrace, they pledged to donate 50% of their income to state coffers, and 100% of the Assembly paid up within one month.
  3. The Night of July 14th, when crowds of happy workers and tradespeople of the nearby Faubourg Saint-Antoine, seeking to honor the generosity of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, brought flowers and picnic dinners to share with neighbors and prisoners in the Bastille courtyard.
  4. The Night of May 1st, known as la Fête de Jeanne d’Arc (of the Feast of Joan of Arc), when joyous parishoners, in tribute to the new accord between the French Throne and the Roman Catholic Church, gave particularly large donations to their local parishes at a special midnight mass.

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Twenty-seven. Women worthies

street-in-le-marais Paris

Which of the following noteworthy women of revolutionary France has a square named in her honor in the chic Marais neighborhood of Paris?

  1. Olympe de Gouges: playwright, author of Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la citoyenne(1791), who was executed for seditious behavior and conspiring to reinstate the monarchy in November 1793.
  2. Queen Marie-Antoinette of France, who was executed for treason in October 1793.
  3. Marie-Jeanne Roland: diarist and author of vast political correspondence, and salonnière, who was executed for seditious speech and conspiring against the republic in November 1793.
  4. The Princesse de Lamballe, wife of the Prince de Lamballe–heir to the greatest fortune in France–who was member of an ancient family of Savoy and an intimate of Queen Marie-Antoinette at Versailles. She was beheaded during the September Massacres of 1792.
  5. All of the above.

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