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.

Tell the truth about race but tell it slant

Upward Bound Language Arts Class title page

I just finished teaching a new two-week course for Upward Bound this summer. It was called “Amazing! Finding Identities in Fantasy and Reality,” and it involved visits to the Rare Books Room and the Snite Museum of Art, as well as readings of Margaret Mead and Herman Melville. What a joy to teach such talented youth; this summer was the best ever. All 8 did their homework on time, and the grades ranged from 91-98 (and you know I am not an easy grader).

Race was woven into the choice of rare books at the Hesburgh Library. We looked at books such as Moby-Dick (1851, 1930, 1943), focusing on the three chapters (10-12) where Queequeg and Ishmael become bosom friends. It was also fun for the students to realize where “Starbucks” comes from! We enjoyed the sexy cover of Coming of Age in Samoa (1928; repr. 1960), which features two islanders dancing. The kids appreciated The Wreck of the Whale-ship Essex (1935) and 19th-century works of natural history too. The Wreck of the Whale-ship Essex includes a very odd list of crew members. It takes students a minute to realize what it is that bothers us about the list. It is the word “black” noted next to some men, of all status and rank, dead and missing. Why bother?  Also odd are the cultural presuppositions of the naturalists in question. They write assertively about issues such as the “Chinese” accents of the Sioux Indians, and the pragmatic ambition of the “American race.” “L’Américain est chercheur,” writes one savant, before admitting the simple needs of the nation, that is, preaching. Whether Protestant or Catholic, the American is a church-goer.

Also fabulous was our visit to the Snite Museum of Art. We began by reading my model story, “The Summer of Wendy,” and talked about what makes a “golden detail.” Then they set off independently in search of something in a work of art that could serve as a “golden detail” to add to their own story. Amazingly, two of us chose the same thing! Here is the sentence I wrote: “On her arm I glimpsed a greenish-black metal bracelet of a lion facing a sheep; although I couldn’t remember it exactly, the figures conjured up vague memories of some ancient myth.” (This was in relation to a bronze bracelet, 6BC.) Their theme was to write an essay, viz. Queequeg and Ishmael, about two people from very different cultures who become friends (fiction), and to interview another person and write an anthropological analysis of that person a la Margaret Mead. The results (5-6 pp) are astonishing.

So this is not an article about the French Revolution, but rather something quite American. But it needs to be said. Kids need to talk about race.

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-two. Even the Beatles thought twice

Being a revolutionary is hard. An example of hard choices you have to make can be found in the evolution between two Beatles’ songs of 1968: “Revolution 1” and the better-known “Revolution.” You may be surprised to learn why John Lennon’s change in wording in “Revolution” generated outrage among the Left.
What was their reason for outrage?
1. He replaced Che Guevara with Malcolm X
2. He withdrew his support for violent action
3. He improvised and sang, “all you need is love” instead of “well then you can count me in”
4. All of the above.

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 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.

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,051 other followers