A Date with History: Fashion, Food and Feminism – Report

Themes : Society - Fashion - Food - Feminism - Events

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On 15th June, the third edition of - A Date with History - our annual Franco-British collaboration with the York Festival of Ideas - explored three iconic symbols of French and British culture: fashion, food and feminism. Bringing together leading French and UK historians, this third edition explored the mythical images of glamour and femininity, and discussed issues linked with gender and cultural history. Six selected UK students attended this one day conference. To find out more about A Date with History: Fashion, Food and Feminism, have a look at their reports below.

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Is Fashion Only French?

Sophie Rees and Alexandra Stuart

The first panel of A Date with History produced an illuminating insight into the concept of haute couture as integral to French culture, whilst questioning its perception and identity as exclusively French, given its widespread exportation and appropriation abroad.

In the wake of her current exhibition at the V&A, ‘Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams’, curator Oriolle Cullen cast Dior as the ultimate case study for Parisian fashion in the last seventy years. Cullen first conveyed the mixed response both home and abroad to Dior’s 1947 debut. The international fashion press raved about his ‘New Look’, which with its sloping shoulder line, tiny waist, padded hips and calf-length skirts was a stylistic rebirth after the boxy war-time silhouettes. But the couturier’s flagrant display of luxury also attracted criticism in the societal context of post-war hardship and rationing. Cullen quoted British historian James Laver, who had complained that Dior’s skirts would never catch on, as they drew attention to the ankles and feet, “neither of which were a British woman’s strong point”. Despite initial criticism, Dior succeeded in building up an international fashion empire, opening branches in countries from Venezuela to Japan. While Dior continued to draw inspiration from the femme Parisienne, ‘crystallizing the look of fashion’ for decades, he opened haute couture up to a wide and diverse audience. Finally, Cullen returned to the question at hand, highlighting how designers from all over Europe, such as Gianfranco Ferré (Italy) and John Galliano (Britain) have taken up creative directorship at Dior and produced ingenious haute couture that is anything but purely French.

It seemed fitting for Sophie Kurkdjian, (CNRS/IHTP historian) to then invite the audience to deconstruct the clichés of the ‘fashion capital’ and the ‘Frenchness’ of haute couture, which the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the regulator of the couture system, helped establish. It came as a surprise to some that the origins of the haute couture system lie with a Briton, Charles Frederick Worth, who founded the House of Worth in Paris in 1858, a fact emblematic of the multiculturalism amongst Paris’s most renowned designers. Kurkdjian went on to emphasize the impact of migration in the last century on the development of industry techniques and styles. The atelier became a refuge for many skilled textile workers who had fled their homes in Eastern Europe due to genocide and war; their contribution cannot be easily quantified, but it ought to be recognised and valued. Kurkdjian’s research encourages us to question the myth of strictly ‘Parisian’ fashion and see haute couture for what it truly is: a transnational construction.

Farid Chenoune’s (Institut Français de la Mode) focus was sociological, considering the husband’s perspective of couture and the sexual status of the couturier. Chenoune first examined the cover of a 1955 issue of Collier magazine entitled ‘That Friend of Your Wife’s named Dior’, revealing the American man’s irrational and ironic anxiety towards the platonic ‘Third Man’ in his relationship who dresses his wife. Chenoune began a close character analysis of Christian Dior, the ‘ceremonial’ relationship he had with his clients, in which Dior played the role of chevalier servant (the knight in shining armour). In la cabine, the sacred fitting room of the couture house, Dior upheld an ‘unspoken contract’ with his client’s husband whereupon he did not touch or desire her, rather appreciated her as an ‘artefact’, a vision of hyperfemininity. For Chenoune, this concept is comparable to the scenes in Montmartre’s cabarets, where dancers would dress to please their male audience, but from a spatial and physical distance. Finally, Chenoune questioned whether French nationhood, entwined as it is with the notion of haute couture, should also be perceived as ‘weird, magical and fantastical’ due to its cabaret origins.

Keen to shatter stereotypes through applied theory, Caroline Evans (University of the Arts London) questioned the title of the conference, viewing fashion as a transnational hybrid rather than an autonomous, national product. Nevertheless, by offering a historical reappraisal of Franco-British relations, Professor Evans illustrated the root of extant stereotypes, in which the sartorial was viewed through a satirical lens. From as early as the sixteenth century, an emphasis on classification has inhibited the diversification of fashion. Furthermore, a rhetoric of ‘us’ and ‘them’ emerged that has continued to plague the fashion industry, manifesting itself today as cultural appropriation. Evans contends that although caricaturists like Darley and Bunbury may appear harmless, their drawings reveal crude generalisations that are rooted in a warped sense of ethnocentrism. However, Evans idealistically outlines the arrival of globalisation as heralding a new era. Here, national identity is not fixed, but contingent, and stereotypes are worn as badges of honour, reflecting the porosity of borders and ideas.

To conclude, Jenny Lister (V&A curator) delivered an incisive commentary on the museum’s current retrospective on Mary Quant. Drawing upon her comprehensive knowledge of this Sixties icon, Lister paints an intoxicating picture of Quant as the face of Swinging London. From her small boutique on King’s Road, Quant had an immeasurable impact on the democratisation of fashion, by creating affordable designs for the youth market. Significantly, Lister dispels Quant’s invention of the miniskirt as a myth, claiming this thigh-high sensation was an international improvisation. Nevertheless, Lister contends that Quant used British stereotypes to her advantage, by subverting traditional motifs yet working within the infrastructure of the cottage industry and later, on a global industrial level. By satirising stereotypes, Lister argues that Quant not only blurred the boundaries of credibility, but also those of gender and identity. The distinction between mens and womenswear had become harder to pinpoint, with androgynous styles favoured internationally by the 1970s. Consequently, Quant’s inversion of tradition and expectation created a brand that catered to international tastes but remained distinctly British in flavour.

The panel discussion, chaired by Shahidha Bari (London College of Fashion), followed in a similar vein by focussing on the permeation of fashion across borders and time periods. Cullen emphasised the timeless appeal of Dior’s ‘New Look’, with many elements of the iconic silhouette being incorporated into contemporary collections. Similarly, Evans illustrated the diffusion of fashion across accepted boundaries, through the ‘masculinisation of the female wardrobe’. This was tempered by Chenoune, who advocated that women have two wardrobes, as opposed to the sole male wardrobe, a point with which Evans agreed. Although this astute observation rescues female fashion from patriarchal infringement, the tendency to pigeonhole gender into binaries still plagues fashion theory. The location of the new fashion frontier was a question that greatly excited the panel. Both Kurkdijan and Cullen praised the emergence of the African fashion scene, which the former argued was authentically relayed to the international market. Nevertheless, Chenoune’s concerns over cultural appropriation are well-founded. Despite the industry’s best efforts, the vogue for national stereotypes continues.

What’s Cooking in the History of Food?

Jasmine Harwood and Sadie Stevens

Chaired by food historian Christopher Kissane, the second panel of the event celebrated the differences between French and British attitudes to food and cooking. The first speaker was Loïc Bienassis, an historian of French regional cuisine, who focused on the correlation between food and national identity in France. Indeed, developing strong links among citizens is essential to the development of a national identity, and food is a tool of patriotism which reinforces cultural and social identities. Bienassis first explored the terms ‘food identity’ and ‘food heritage’ as socio-historical subjects. In brief, food identity can be explained as ‘food belonging’ and may partially define individuals, although this belonging is actively accepted rather than imposed. Food heritage, on the other hand, is artificial, as heritage status is communally granted to dishes in an act of national and regional preservation. I found this concept of ‘food heritage’ to be entirely foreign; I have never experienced the same national pride that Bienassis described when speaking of French cuisine, and although his conviction of its superiority may have been for comedic effect, I doubt it is far from the truth. This patriotic, unapologetic pride in its national cuisine has allowed France to forge a powerful and enduring culinary heritage, which has been promoted by chefs and restaurateurs worldwide.

Following on from the superiority of French cuisine, the next speaker, Chef Joshua Overington, provided the audience with a British perspective on traditional French cooking techniques versus modern-day techniques. Discussing his classical French training in Paris, Overington explored the reasons why he had originally perceived his training as old fashioned and ‘uncool’. He went on to explain how he took inspiration from tiny French bistros and their reinterpretation of the classics, looking back in history and examining old gastronomy books to find traditional techniques that could revolutionise his food. The audience learnt about different historical recipes and equipment, such as hare à la royale or a flamboir à lard, and how such techniques could be used to produce unique flavours that modern techniques cannot replicate. Overington’s most intriguing example was a dish that he regularly serves in his restaurant: guinea fowl cooked in a pig’s bladder, used as a traditional alternative to modern day sous-vide techniques. Overington concluded by arguing that it is better to look back in history, in order to both move forward in cooking and to preserve the authentic, regional flavours of a dish. This insightful and personal discussion enlightened me to how valuable and understated historical techniques can be.

Turning our attention to food history on the other side of the channel, Professor Diane Purkiss discussed the incomprehensible ‘menu French’ that used to appear regularly in the UK. She explored how poor replicas of haute cuisine, which became popular in post-war Britain, led to a declining admiration for French food. Naturally, the repayment of war debts and increased wealth led to a British food renaissance, but ’English’ cuisine has always been porous and susceptible to foreign influence. In terms of food identity, Britain still considers itself as a trading empire, something which is clearly not reflected in French food identity. The resemblance of English medieval cuisine to Moroccan cuisine, as well as the foreign origins of tea, were two examples used to illustrate Purkiss’s argument. Just a mere 5-minute walk from the famous Betty’s Tea Room, I thought it was rather appropriate that Purkiss went on to discuss afternoon tea, its origins and its commercialisation. In her concluding remarks, Purkiss stressed the importance of writing down recipes in order to sustain food culture, using the demise of the once-famous York mayne bread as an example. Her discussion left the audience both hungry and eager to write down their treasured recipes as soon as they got home.

Yet while food may empower and unify populations, it is also a site of gender division. Frances Atkins, a Michelin-starred female chef, related her own experience within the field to explore the interweaving of gender history and food history, examining how the position of women in kitchens has shifted through time. Atkins mapped the gendered trajectories of cooking, explaining how the appearance of haute cuisine impeded female influence. In the 18th and 19th centuries, well-travelled male chefs from France dominated the culinary world given their knowledge of a variety of cuisines, while women were considered poorly suited to a job requiring such a degree of manual and administrative know-how. Women were thus confined to low-status domestic cookery, while high-status professional cuisine became the preserve of men, entrenching an asymmetrical culinary infrastructure which persisted for centuries.

The democratisation of the industry over Atkins’ 40-year career has brought greater creativity and experimentation, and the future of food appears more exciting than ever as more women enter top kitchens around the globe. However, Atkins stressed that we must also recognise the female culinary pioneers of the past, and on this note, the panel delved into further discussion of women in the history of food; in particular, how to include these remarkable women in historical narratives and ensure that their contributions do not go ignored or dismissed. The speakers questioned the utility of recipe books as sources, acknowledging that as many food historians do not attempt the recipes they encounter, they do not appreciate how they shaped cultural and regional identities. York-based chefs Overington and Atkins mused on how location influences food, concluding that the ‘taste of Yorkshire’ is achieved by using its water and the surroundings to achieve the maximum potential of an ingredient, and therefore proving that food identity cannot be understood merely through studying recipe books.

The discussion was later opened up to the audience, who asked the panel a variety of questions. Key themes included the role of men in the domestic kitchen, where to source quality ingredients, the rise of artificial foods and perspectives on vegetarian diets. The event concluded with a reflection of how food can be a fascinating way to think about ourselves and our identity, and how similar debates about food are echoed throughout history.

Love and Sex Across the Channel

Amy McTurk and Blanche Plaquevent

The final session of the day, Love and Sex Across the Channel, brought together experts from history and sociology to discuss how gender and sexuality shape socio-political landscapes on both sides of the Channel. The panel was chaired by Laura Beers, Associate Professor of British History at the American University in Washington, D.C., who invited the three speakers to reflect on the deconstruction and the persistence of gender stereotypes in recent decades.

French historian Sylvie Chaperon from the Université Toulouse 2 began with an insightful presentation on Simone de Beauvoir and women’s emancipation, on the year of the 70th anniversary of the publication of the Second Sex. She aimed to restate Beauvoir’s visionary positions on women and sexuality in the Second Sex. Indeed, Beauvoir took a stance in favour of contraception and abortion as early as 1949, and then supported the feminists’ campaigns in the seventies. She questioned heteronormativity in a chapter on ‘The Lesbian’. She also opposed the biological destiny of women as mothers-to-be, in a context where French policies remained extremely natalist. Moreover, Chaperon claimed Beauvoir’s political ideas dialogued with her own private experiences. In both her occupation as a writer, and in her love and sex lives, Beauvoir experimented with the female independence she defended: she lived alone, never married her partner Jean-Paul Sartre, explored her bisexuality, and never became a mother as she thought this would impinge on her freedom to write and live independently. Chaperon concluded that Beauvoir should be considered a very inspirational sex reformer, as influential for women’s sexual freedom as Reich and Marcuse were for men.

Following Chaperon’s discussion of what was a fundamental text for modern feminism and gender theory, Zoe Strimpel highlighted the phenomenon of intergenerational conflict, as she considered the reaction of an older generation of feminists to the #MeToo movement. Strimpel, a journalist and a historian of gender and relationships in modern Britain, expressed surprise at the relatively negative reaction of feminists who came of age in the 1970s to the #MeToo movement, given their celebrated declaration that ‘the personal is political’. Indeed, #MeToo’s testimonies of sexual violence would seem to be coherent with this stance. Strimpel questioned why, despite this apparent connection, some feminists of the second wave are among the harshest critics of the movement, denouncing it as self-victimisation and deferred complaint. Referencing Germaine Greer’s vocal critique of the movement, Strimpel foregrounded the question of power, especially economic power, in relation to sexual harassment. This observation created an interesting link with Chaperon’s observations of Beauvoir’s romantic relationships with younger female students and provoked the question, ‘is it ever possible to have a fully consensual relationship when there exists such a disparity between partners?’ Still in relation to Greer’s comments, Strimpel examined the claim that the voices of the #MeToo movement are ‘whinging’ and interrogated the place of such ‘whinging’ in political movements. Indeed, the questions she posed regarding these critiques of #MeToo are vital to tackling the patriarchal power structures that dismiss women’s voices by delegitimising their complaints. She also observed a similar reaction in the French context, mentioning ‘Balance ton porc’ and the open letter published in Le Monde that denounced sexual violence while defending the ‘art of seduction’. She concluded by sharing her curiosity as to how future historians will view the impact of #MeToo on gendered and romantic relationships.

Finally, Vanessa Jérôme from the Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne presented her sociological research on sexuality in political parties. Beyond the simple study of how sexual issues are discussed in parties, she argued that looking at love and sexuality as a part of everyday political activism sheds light on gender and power dynamics in the political sphere. She demonstrated how parties provide single activists with opportunities to meet partners with similar values and lifestyles. She insisted on the intimacy and the seduction associated with campaigning, with late nights at work and frequent discussions behind closed doors. This provides opportunities for burgeoning relationships. Her research showed that couples were more successful when both partners were activists, and that the best way to reach a powerful position was to be a man in a relationship with a female activist. However, Jérôme also showed this intimacy between activists provided opportunities for patriarchal power to exert itself on female activists, especially through sexual harassment. Indeed, her work focused on the Green Party in France (Europe Ecologie Les Verts), where scandals of sexual harassment were revealed in the wake of #MeToo. She argued that similar patterns and power dynamics around sexuality and politics could also be found in other French and European parties.

As Laura Beers pointed out in her concluding remarks, the three speakers addressed the connection between sexuality and politics. Indeed, Strimpel and Chaperon reminded us of the historical process that saw sexuality become a political issue, with the emergence of the feminist idea that ‘the personal is political’, which Beauvoir epitomised. And Jérôme demonstrated how political activity is inseparable from sexuality. Jérôme’s sociological study on power dynamics and gender pointed to the continued existence of sexual harassment and therefore led to a certain pessimism, as she argued that the political game continues to be designed by and for men, thus offering few possibilities for progress or for the transgression of power dynamics by women. Strimpel wondered if a more emancipatory vision of female sexuality was possible and if there was any potential way for women in politics to escape from gender. She argued convincingly that power was not inherent to people’s functions and that sexuality could also be a way for women to subvert power dynamics. This seems especially relevant in a post-#MeToo era and in a time where female sexual pleasure is increasingly discussed, especially online. However, looking back at Beauvoir’s trajectory, it is striking to see that she was already fighting for this sexual emancipation seventy years ago. Despite the continuous effort of women to live their sexuality on their own terms, the fact that these issues are still discussed today shows how slow societal evolutions are and how fragile they remain in face of backlashes.

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Published on 02/08/2019

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