Gender and Consumer Culture in France from the Late 1800’s Through the 1920’s

Today when consumer culture in France is thought of the first thing that come to mind is high end clothing, fancy jewelry, expensive boutiques, and who could forget Louis Vuitton. The consumer culture of today in France is geared towards high-style, well dressed women but this was not always the case.

This culture has been many years coming. Many changes in this consumer culture came about in the time periods surrounding World War I.In this essay I will be tracing the change in women in the consumer culture in France in the late 1800’s to through the 1920’s, using the works of Mary Louise Roberts Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Woman’s Fashion in 1920’s France, and Judith G. Coffin’s Credit, Consumption, and Images of Women’s Desires: Selling the Sewing machine in late Nineteenth- Century France. 1880’s and 1890’s mark an important turning point in the history of advertising and credit. In the larger cities in France such as Paris this new way of buying and selling took off.

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Paris was a city that contained large department stores and was host to world fairs, ushering in new ideas about consumerism (Coffin 764). Dufayel was one such department store that played a pivotal role in developing credit and advertisements. The department store would conduct surveys to the target consumers could be accurately identified. It was found that buying public was predominantly female. “Money spend on or channeled through the home was the emergent economy’s lifeblood, and it flowed through an unmistakably gendered vessel” (Coffin 765).This new idea of women being the dominant gender in consumer culture shaped countless markets. The sewing machine was a vital stepping stone in women’s entrance to consumer culture in France.

In 1880 the Singer sewing machine company began advertising a sewing machine for sale that was to be used in the home. Sewing was thought of as women’s work and the advertisements of sewing machines exemplified this stereotype. Singer used certain images in their advertisements to draw the attention of women to their product.The “Singer girl” appeared early on in adds as a way for Singer “to associate itself with home model and to win the female market” (Coffin 759). Appling to women through advertisements was not the only way that Singer tapped the female consumer market.

They also changed the design of their machines. They changed the design from a bulky, ugly model with exposed gears, that could only be operated standing up, to a more female friendly model. Singer designed a new model with “curved iron legs, rounded the machine’s body, polished the finish, and added artistic touches” (Coffin 761).This converted the sewing machine from a clunky piece of machinery to a sleek feminine piece of furniture. This conversion was an important step towards gaining female approval. While Singer successfully tapped into the growing female consumer market a critical problem arose; many women of this period did not have the means to pay for such an expensive piece of “furniture”, so models costing as much as 400 francs (Coffin 761). The establishment of credit offered the working class women the ability to purchase the same items as women in the middle class (Coffin 755).

This gave working women independence form factory working. These women could purchase a sewing machine on credit and work out of their home. This gave them the ability to work for who ever they places at what time they pleased (Coffin 756). This independence would shape the consumer industry in France for many years to come. Consumer Culture underwent a drastic change in the beginning of the 1920’s.

Postwar France was a changed place. Female and male roles were also changed. When men went off to war women had to step into formally male dominated jobs and responsibilities.This blurring of gender roles led to a significant change in women and women’s fashion. Women cut their hair short and changed their style of dress to exemplify these new active roles in the public sphere. Historians see “short hair and a looser, more carefree style of clothing as a reflection of a new freedom of movement women enjoyed in both the professional and social circles that was itself brought about by the war. ”(Roberts 662) Women began to cut their hair short in a bob. This fashion trend was rumored to be started by Coco Chanel, she chopped off her long locks in 1916.

This bobbed short hair cut was called “a la Jeanne d’Arc” after the short hair of Joan of Arc. Women who wore this hair style were thought of as a new kind of woman. These women were associated with modernity, independence, and style (Roberts 659).

Women no long would let their hair grow long and wrap it in a tight bun, instead they ventured out into the public sphere of the consumer world to get their hair done by a hair dresser. Women of this period saw the hair cut as “a gesture of independence; a personal venture” (Roberts 662).This alludes to the fact that women saw their new style not only as a fashion statement but as a symbol of their new found power and place in the public consumer sphere. This change in hair style did not come without its critics. Many conservative parties such as Natalists and Catholics saw this change in hair style as “a refusal among women to pursue traditional gender roles. ” (Roberts 661). Many saw this change as a rift in the existence of the traditional French family. It was thought that when woman cut their hair were not just cutting hair, they were cutting the ties to their responsibilities as a woman.

It was feared that these “new women” were not will to marry or have children, when in fact there is little evidence to support this claim (Roberts 661). This new found “freedom” was also not accepted by the fathers of the “new women”. Some even went as far as to take legal action agents the hairdressers who chopped the locks of young women, without the permission of the father (Roberts 658). The “new women” did not only exemplify her new style in a short bobbed hair cut, but also by the way she dressed.

During this period women changed their style of clothing from long billowing dresses with tight corsets to a more liberating way of dressing. Women new active life style in the public sphere need a new style of clothing Women’s ability to ventured into the public sphere at the department stores was key in this change of style. The department store was responsible for making the new style of dress openly available to the modern woman (Roberts 666). Designers like Coco Chanel were able to mass produce their clothing.

Chanel’s new clothing was made up of “radically shortened skirts to well above that ankle… male fashions, short hair, ties, collars, long tailor-cut jackets, and pyjamas” (Roberts 667). These new styles personified the image of liberation and female hegemony. How could the new women get around in the consumer world in a corset? Chanel created clothing that were “comfortable, practical and compatible with an active life” (Roberts 667). This message of freedom was amplified through advertisements geared towards women and their new modern, free lifestyle.

Women’s role in consumer culture changed through out the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. Women went form having little recognition is the public sphere to being the center for advertisement and style. Women craved out a path in this changing world for themselves.

They dared to cut there hair short and change their clothing. They gained intendance and fashion. They stepped out of the classic roles of traditional French family life into a public life of department stores and hair salons. These key changes help shape consumerism in to what it is today.



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