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France & French Collections at the Library of Congress

Fashion & French Women's Press

Femina. Cover of the French Women's Magazine, Femina, 1919. Library of Congress General Collections.

The origins of the French women's press date back to the second half of the 18th century with titles such as Journal des Dames, Le Cabinet des modes and Le Magasin des modes nouvelles, françaises et anglaises. The French women's press is a way to trace the experiences and evolution of women in society. The most successful woman's journal of the 18th century, Journal des Dames was published from 1759-1778. It was a monthly publication with a literary slant. While not political it did invite women to explore their own intellect and engage in the public sphere in a new way which foreshadowed their increased civic participation during the 1789 Revolution. Women's roles during the French Revolution of 1789 became more politicized, which naturally brought many women's publications into existence. The evolution of women's press is not a straight trajectory that becomes increasingly radical. A digitized collection of Presse Féministe is available from the Bibliothèque nationale de France External. There are cycles in French history that influence the tone and message in these publications, just as the publications themselves influence the women of that era. This is a dynamic that scholars continue to analyze by close textual readings of these titles, and a deep understanding of the culture during which they were produced. Liberties were granted to women in the years following the Revolution of 1789, however in the early 19th century their rights were curtailed by the rule of Napoleon who strongly disfavored women's involvement in politics (having a particular dislike for the renowned scholar and writer Germaine de Staël). The Bourbon Restoration continued to retract gains from the Revolutionary era and looked back to the Ancien Régime as a guide. In 1816 divorce was again made illegal, and women were encouraged to find their main purpose in raising and educating their children. Between 1830 and 1840 about 60 publications were created. Some titles made feminist demands, while others such as the Journal des femmes et des modes, confined themselves to a more traditional representation of the role of women. Proto-feminist sentiment was revitalized during the uprisings of 1830 and 1848 and debates about the education of women figured more prominently. The best-known and most popular feminist daily (newspaper) was Marguerite Durand’s La Fronde (1897-1905) and the journal generally viewed as the first feminist daily publication is La Voix des femmes, published in 1848. Both elicited some fear among the general population of France as attacking tradition gender roles.

At the turn of the century, the first modern-day women's magazines appeared: Femina, La Vie Heureuse, Midinette, La Gazette du bon ton and Vogue. Intended for a female readership, and often produced by women, these titles addressed areas such as cooking, home decor, fashion and leisure, but also depicted women in roles heretofore unheard of: driving cars, riding horses, and playing sports. While not all will call these publications feminist, they altered the way women saw themselves and created a space for them to establish an identity outside of the home. They also created a community of women and gave a platform to women that made their intellectual and professional contributions known to the larger public. This era of the Belle Époque (1871-1914) or "beautiful period" coincides roughly with the Gilded Age in America and the Victorian Age in England. It was around this time that the widely-revered art form of the fashion plate was replaced by photography. Rachel Mesch's illuminating study, Having it all in the Belle Epoque covers the evolution of this "modern woman" in France, and how photography and fashion played a role in helping women redefine their femininity and their identity beyond the role of the traditional French woman, yet less severe than the femme nouvelle who was sometimes seen as a British import. These publications rejected the feminism of La Fronde and strove to create a model of an independent and modern woman who still retained aspects of her femininity. This is sometimes termed Belle Époque literary feminism. A more detailed analysis of publications during the Belle Époque is available in this blog by the Library of Congress.

Modern scholars such as Siobhán McIlvanney (Figurations of the Feminine in the Early French Women's Press, 1759-1848 External ) have restored much-deserved respectability to these publications which had been overlooked or dismissed by scholars in the past as the magazine equivalent to "chick lit". McIlvanney divides the publications into four basic categories:

  • Early Fashion Journals (e.g. Le Cabinet des Modes (1785-1793) and Journal des Dames et des Modes (1797-1839)
  • Domestic Press which covered homemaking and motherhood (e.g. Le Courier de l'hymen, ou journal des dames (1791), Le Journal des femmes (1832-1837), and Le Conseiller des dames (1847-1892)
  • Early Feminist Journals (e.g. Les Étrennes nationales des dames (1789), L'Athénée des dames (1808), La Femme libre (1832-1834) and La Voix des Femmes (1848)
  • La Femme Moderne (e.g. Femina (1901-1914) and La Vie Heureuse (1902-1914).

Jennifer Jones' study Sexing la Mode: Gender, Fashion and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France tackles the myth of "frivolous fashion" espoused by feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft, and argues that the development of a fashion culture afforded women a degree of independence and power as they were able to dictate what products they wanted, and in many cases shape the development of commerce in France away from the mass-production embraced by Britain, in favor of handcrafted luxury items that became the Hallmark of French products and a precursor to today's patriotisme économique and la consommation patriotique. In addition, with the proliferation of department stores modeled after Le Bon Marché (such as la Samaritaine), and the emergence of "shop girls", women were in some ways liberated from the domestic realm and released into a public sphere that had previously been accessible only to men. The examination of women's press continues as society seeks to understand the power that women exerted as writers, editors, leaders in fashion and individuals with an increasingly formidable "power of purse".

Following the First World War, fashion for women experienced a huge shift. The so-called "Flapper" style, complete with short haircuts, led the way to a trend removing restrictions such as corsets and crinolines. Designers, most notably, Coco Chanel sought to make functional and wearable fashions for active women that were still stylish and chic. Her involvement with the Nazi's during WWII diminished her popularity in France, but her fashions were extremely popular in the US. The scandal of the jupe-culotte (a take off of the "split skirt" by Parisian Paul Poiret in the 1920s) demonstrated the discomfort that society had envisioning women as capable of engaging in the same activities as men. Practical inventions such as zippers and pockets made their way into women's fashion. Madeleine Vionnet invented the draping bias cut which showed feminine curves without inhibiting movement. It is interesting to note that after WWII Christian Dior's opulent styles were in direct contrast to Chanel. His bell-skirt shaped "bar suit" brought back the hour glass figure and many were nostalgic for this flashback to a more feminine look. Famous women designers of this century include Paloma Picasso (daughter of Pablo Picasso and Françoise Gilot) who got her start designing jewelry for Yves Saint-Laurent and later Tiffany & Co.; Jeanne Lanvin, and Virginie Viard. The best English-language survey of French fashion from the 14th century to the modern era is Valerie Steele's pioneering work, Paris Fashion: A Cultural History.

One of the most extensive collections of Presse Féminine External is digitized on Gallica by the Bibliothèque national de France. Also available on Gallica is Les Robes de Paul Poiret racontées par Paul Iribe External which revolutionized the art of fashion illustration and dress. The full run of Femina from 1910-1914 can be consulted at the Bibliothèque de la Ville de Paris and at the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, which also houses the full run of La Vie Heureuse to that date. Both magazines can be consulted on microfilm at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Femina issues from January 1910 to December 1912 are available on Gallica. Below is a select bibliography on the topics of women's press, fashion, and the evolving status of women during these critical eras in French history. The Library's holdings of the titles themselves are also listed below.

Books on Fashion & French Women's Press

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Women's French Press: Holdings at the Library of Congress

Modern French Fashion Magazines