Upon a visit to the Royal Ontario Museum’s Library and Archives, I was completely taken with the fashion plates dating from 1885 to 1886 that were printed in the Revue de la mode. These plates are reminiscent of grand portraits, given their masterfully depicted lines and vibrant colours. Adding to that, although on the surface they may come across as mere fashionable models to be coveted and copied, upon closer inspection, they are signifiers of socio-cultural, economic, and historical issues. In fact, as will be discussed in relation to Figure 1, these images were produced to be consumed by the French social elite—who could afford such elaborate fashions—but more importantly, they were also embedded with global implications relating to trade, textile production and consumption, as well as colonization.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, a fashion plate is a picture, typically in a magazine, illustrating a new or current fashion in clothes. Although that may be true, we certainly know that is not all that they illustrate. In fact, as mentioned above and will be discussed further, these images tell the viewer other important narratives. And of course, given that we are talking about the relationship between fashion, language, and images, there is certainly one name that comes to mind: Roland Barthes. In his highly influential book The Fashion System, Barthes outlines ways in which images found in popular fashion magazines could be read through the use of semiotics (Jobling, 132). As such, for this reading to take place, there needs to be a sign which consists of two components: a signifier and a signified. Subsequently, in order to further engage with this fashion plate and read it using Barthes’ semiotic methods, we are going to engage with another French theorist, Pierre Bourdieu. Considering their sartorial choices as well as their ability to be holidaying on a beach-side, these women must have surely belonged to the upper classes of society which provided them with access to such means as identified by Pierre Bourdieu in “The Forms of Capital”. In fact, depicted in this single image are underlying notions of economic, cultural, as well as social capital.
I must mention that, initially, I thought the text accompanying this image would provide me with more context as to the narrative being alluded to. I mean, there is always a narrative or theme embedded within fashion images, even the highly stylized editorial spreads in glossy fashion magazines of today. That said, given the fact I can’t read or understand French, I asked a colleague if she would kindly translate the passage for me. Well, to my surprise, all it really says is:
Mrs. Dubuc’s Dresses . 19 Grammont Street. Petticoat and corset from the Maison Plument . 33 Vivienne Street. Fabric from the Maison Le Houssel . 1 Aubert Street. ***
Needless to say, I knew there had to be more to this image than the mere address of where the models of dresses could be obtained! That said, it has been brought to my attention by Dr. Alison Matthews David that, given its ideal location in a very fashionable area right across from Paris Opéra, it is easy to deduce the type of luxurious textiles offered to the Parisian elite by this particular firm. In fact, as shown in figures 2 and 3, this was the only firm in Paris where one could obtain authentic Indian cashmere. The emphasis on the authenticity of the origin of the textiles is telling of popularity of these textiles as well as, the non-authentic and copied version circulating around Europe.
In this image, we see two women taking a walk on a beach. There is sand under their feet; children playing and building sand-castles, while their parents and other adults are relaxing nearby. The blue water is visible in the distance as is also a series of domes reminiscent of the Taj Mahal in India (Fig 4). This remarkable Seventeenth-Century mausoleum of white marble was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
In fact, although I was initially drawn to this particular fashion plate for the bright floral pattern on a garment worn by one of the figures, it is this architectural detail in the background that propelled me to try and decipher it further. With that in mind, the question that one might ask is: where is this beach? Is it in the east? If yes, then why is everyone dressed in European attire? Given the fascination with Orientalism and the exotic east, it would not have been uncommon for wealthy nineteenth century Europeans to travel and holiday in such locales. With that in mind, at this time there was also a renewed interest in an oriental Indo-Islamic architectural style influenced by those dating from the Mughal empire.
In light of this, I would say these women are depicted holidaying in an imaginary destination, however, one that resembles a place much closer to home—and the amazing architecture in the background is reminiscent of the Royal Pavilion—in Brighton, England (Fig 5). The Royal Pavilion was built by English architect John Nash, between 1815–1823 as a private residence for King George IV. Just as a side note, ironically, the construction of this palace also coincided with the Napoleonic Wars between England and France (Victoriana.com).
Continuing on this line, I find the imagery of the oriental influence even more relevant considering the actual materiality of the garments depicted. Here these French women are shown wearing beautifully tailored garments using the finest Indian cashmere in all of Paris. Furthermore, as it was highlighted by the advertisement for the firm, Indian cashmeres were popular textiles during the spring and summer months for those with substantial economic capital. With that in mind, one can’t disregard the importance of Indian textiles on the global fashion system in general and European fashion in particular. In fact, due to the bright floral pattern on the dress depicted, I initially assumed that they were made using Indian cotton. Of course, in this case both of these outfits are made of cashmere. However, not only were Indian cotton textiles quite popular in Europe, they were also considered as one of the most important global consumer commodities and a major player in shaping what is known today as consumerism (Lemire 222).
Historically, the origin of cotton dates back to 3200 BC, on the banks of the Indus River in India (Riello and Parthasarathi 2). Fast forward to end of the fifteenth century, when finally, Europeans reached Asia through a direct sea route made possible by the opening of the Cape of Good Hope (Riello 89). However, it was in the seventeenth century that numerous European East India companies were formed including, the French East India Company in 1664. The forming of these East India companies meant direct trading relations with the East which resulted in the downpour of Indian cotton textiles into Europe. An important factor contributing to the popularity of cotton textiles in Europe was the ability of Indian producers to customize their prints and patterns according to European tastes. For example: European consumers preferred textiles with light-colored backgrounds (Fig 7) which had “characterized notions of cleanliness and decorum” whereas other markets may have preferred lighter patterns set on dark backgrounds (Riello 100).
Of course, even after achieving the basic production of plain white cotton textiles, the process of adding patterns (Fig 8) required an immense amount of trial and error, given the fact Europeans did not possess the same painting and printing skills as their Indian counterparts (Riello 121–123).
Perhaps it is time to try and see if we could read this image (Fig 1) using the theories of Barthes and Bourdieu. This image is a sign of economic, social, and cultural capital. Their impeccable garments from Paris, ability to enjoy and financially afford a summer holiday with others from a similar social standing are all signifiers of their various “forms of capital” as posited by Bourdieu. In addition, woven within the fibers of their luxurious dresses; constructed in the faint outline of an architectural style are historical, political, social, religious, cultural, and economic factors.
Ultimately, these underlying notions of colonial power and societal norms are embodied in the figures of the European travelers’ present, in contrast to the racialized and colonized bodies of the distant and forgotten other (Fig 9). With that in mind, hopefully, by discussing the importance of imported Indian textiles as a global commodity, we have also acknowledged and honoured the Indian producers who through sharing their skills, made a significant impact on cross-cultural exchange of patterns and costumes.
***With special thanks to Dr. Alison Matthews David for her expertise in 19th century fashion and Lauriane Bélair for translating some of the French text into English for me.
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Smelik, pp. 132–148.
Lemire, Beverly. “India, Europe, and the Cotton Trade.” Riello and
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Peck, Amelia, edited. Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800. Yale
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