Brown on Block (2021)

Block, Elizabeth L. Dressing Up: The Women who Influenced French Fashion. The MIT Press, 2021, pp. 282. ISBN: 978-0-262-04584-1

Fashion is power; power is fashion. In her new book, Dressing Up: The Women who Influenced French Fashion, Elizabeth L. Block investigates the transatlantic links between French haute couture and American fashion in the nineteenth century. Criticizing the one-dimensionality of existing understandings of the centers of power in the fashion industry during this period, she instead finds a more nuanced structure to be at work and seeks, “to change our conception of the power sources within the complex, transnational fashion industry” (14). Block characterizes four primary sources of power within the industry: 1) “a large, multicultural labor force” (211); 2) the “interconnections of the various professionals in each specialization” (211); 3) the “various channels of the press and local imports” (213); and 4) the “later engagement with couture and coiffure by influential patrons” (213). In order to engage “the consumer perspective,” Block “repositions wealthy U.S. women buyers as active participants in the large, transnational fashion system while looking critically at the cultural impulse toward all things French” (3). She divides her research into three sections with the ultimate goal of “following the dresses […] to discover an extraordinarily powerful center of a transnational network or cultural exchange” (213). Bringing together images of dresses, period advertisements, and technical fashion-industry information through her archival research, Block’s interdisciplinary book will certainly be of interest to researchers across multiple fields.

The first section, “Power Dressing,” introduces the subject of power in the fashion industry by considering the French and, perhaps more importantly the American, tastemakers who influenced the consumption of fashion in the mid-nineteenth century in the U.S. During this time period, American consumers, and primarily women, were attracted to what Block calls “the cachet that French goods carried” (15) regardless of whether they were actually from Paris. Even if these consumers, as individuals, were unaware of the role they played in this economy, these women, such as Mary Swift Thoms and Mary Leiter Curzon, purchased French couture and also employed local dressmakers who imitated the haute couture from across the Atlantic. Block uses this first section to set the stage for “understand[ing] the complexities of the transnational industry in which the women were active participants” (34).

Over the course of her book, Block presents the different individuals from both sides of the Atlantic who created the various looks that the women of their societies sought: coiffeurs, couturiers, milliners, and perfumers. Rich with images taken from magazines and newspapers, as well as portraits with the corresponding dresses from museum collections, part two, “Paris as the Center of Haute Couture and Coiffure” discusses the evolution of names and brands throughout the end of the nineteenth century. As immigration increased to America from across the Atlantic, it became easy for individuals to “rightfully or deceptively” claim French heritage (67). Block describes the “transnational network of royalty, social leaders, actresses, and singers that mixed with and obscured one another to the great benefit of the industry” (84). She explains that the new social mobility across national borders broke down societal structures just enough to enable the admittance of American women onto the scene.

Part three, “The U.S. Market for French Fashion,” examines how the American market contributed to the transformation of the fashion industry into a global industry in the mid-nineteenth century. Block acknowledges, “the traditional focus on couture houses’ concerns about authenticity but, in equal measure, […] show[s] that U.S. consumer desire put pressure on the French providers, ultimately forcing them to change their business practices and supply licensed goods” (207). The push for expensive clothing came along with gowns being reused or pieces being repurposed, or even sending gowns back to the company for remodeling. Block considers this power as having an effect on the overall fashion industry, creating a market for “legal and illicit” channels to provides goods to the consumers of French couture.

Block includes full-page color photos to support her archival research, showcasing fashion collections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Fashion Museum in Bath, England, and the Kyoto Costume Institute, among other museums, and allowing the reader to compare the dresses with portraits or photographs of important women wearing the outfits. The most striking pairs include a drawing of a Hornet costume compared to a photograph of Constance Rives Borland wearing the costume at the Vanderbilt ball in 1883 (150-1); or the black-and-white photograph of Emily Thorn Vanderbilt Sloane in a Little Bo Peep costume on the facing page of the costume itself displayed at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles (160-1).

This book provides important context that will allow critics not only to visualize—thanks to the full-page color as well as black and white images—but also to understand the structures at work in the fashion industry in the nineteenth century. If the title might lead a potential reader to think that this text is primarily about influential individual women, the work nonetheless examines transatlantic economic power dynamics and the development and adaptation of the sartorial market. Readers interested in the overlap of the French and American fashion industry will appreciate the in-depth interdisciplinary research communicated through her meticulously structured chapters. In her book, Block helps the reader—from fashion and art historians, to critics studying transatlantic relations in the nineteenth century—understand the origins of this power that has come to stereotypically define France’s intrigue internationally.

Noëlle Brown
Kennesaw State University