Hiner on Brevik-Zender (2015)


Brevik-Zender, Heidi. Fashioning Spaces: Mode and Modernity in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. Pp. 363. ISBN 978-1-4426-4803-6

Susan Hiner, Vassar College

The impact of Fashioning Spaces lies in the promising juxtaposition of its title words: the book successfully interweaves theoretical discourses of space and fashion to produce convincing readings of both familiar and less frequently commented literary works of Third Republic France. Key to the author’s approach to nineteenth-century Paris and fashion is the concept of “dislocations,” which Brevik-Zender identifies as “spaces of disruption in which challenges to traditional relationships of power—primarily those of class and gender—provocatively occur” (7). The spaces typically associated with Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s Paris—the boulevards, cafés, monuments, and parks that have been pictured and analyzed in many works representing and analyzing Parisian modernity—are replaced here by apparently less spectacular, but no less rich, venues for viewing and performing fashionability. Instead of the familiar spatial emblems of Parisian modernity, Brevik-Zender productively moves marginalized spaces (staircase, antechamber, fashion atelier) to the center of her analysis and explores their symbolic and practical functions.

The decision to organize a book about fashion around spatial categories is both unexpected and fruitful; it has facilitated a creative approach to the contextualization of fashion discourse in literary texts and visual materials. By foregrounding “(dis)locations” as the book’s structuring system, the author opens the analysis of fashion to critical discourses related to space and politics—both domestic and beyond—and draws on ideas such as Michel Foucault’s “heterotopia” to point to the false grandiosity of Guy de Maupassant’s Duroy, Yi-Fu Tuan’s distinction between “space” and “place” to illustrate Georges Feydeau’s cheating doctor’s shifting social status, and Michel de Certeau’s conception of “tactics” to highlight Rachilde’s challenges to and appropriation of patriarchal practices. Such theoretical engagement enriches our understanding of how fashion’s structures, shifts, and trends may express cultural anxieties and other latent phenomena.

Part one engages the structure/space of the staircase—for both servants and tenants—to analyze works by Émile Zola, Rachilde, Maupassant, and Alphonse Daudet in terms of class fluidity. This discussion gives rise, among other things, to ruminations on Zola’s social critique of modernity and his implicit reflection on the Commune in Au Bonheur des Dames. The ways in which vertical space is represented in this section, coupled with the anxiety/pleasure surrounding class instability, recalls Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, whose Rastignac suffers from much of the same sweaty angst as Maupassant’s Duroy as he enters the grand houses of Paris underdressed. Part two, focusing on the antechamber (such as theater foyers and dressing rooms) in Zola’s Bonheur and Nana, as well as Maupassant’s “La Parure” and Bel-Ami, introduces a cogent discussion of colonialism and the domestic importation of its violence. Turning to “stasis” and waiting as meaningful activities to be considered in relation to the modern city, Brevik-Zender disrupts some of the tropes associated with modernity, such as speed, mobility, and progress, and invites us to perceive alternative aspects of modern existence.

Although Brevik-Zender returns to several of the same texts over multiple chapters, each new discussion is fresh; this is because the book is not structured around novels or strict chronology, but rather, around overdetermined spaces. Part three takes up the fashion atelier—the masculinized designer’s studio in its multiple incarnations and the feminized workshops of the Parisian garment industry—in Feydeau’s vaudeville play Tailleur pour dames, Zola’s La Curée, and in several works by Rachilde. To my mind, this third section contains some of the book’s most successful readings, in part because the author tackles genres such as the vaudeville play that are less frequently examined. Brevik-Zender’s reading of Feydeau is agile and clear—no small feat when summarizing vaudeville’s escapades without losing sight of the central themes of social instability, betrayal, and imposture. Indeed, the entire book is fluid and elegantly written, making the breadth of materials considered and the variety of methodological approaches employed accessible and useful.

Mining different traditions, sources, and methodologies—literature, architecture, fashion—Brevik-Zender has written a lucid and dynamic account of the work of fashion in the less visible spaces of Third Republic Parisian culture. Most original, however, is the author’s use of select material objects of fashion to illustrate structures and ideas pertinent to each phase of her analysis. The illustrations throughout are germane and analyzed with care, but the inclusion of images of the embellished dress, the British bustle, and the refashioned jacket that punctuate the book is a tribute to the lived, embodied reality of fashion. It is rare that scholars of literature and culture successfully integrate real fashion objects into discussions of the cultures of fashion. But Brevik-Zender has done so with attention to the relevance of each object to the argument she is making and has thus shown that while fashion is an idea, a discourse, and a socializing structure, it is also a material object that deserves its place in the archive.