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Modernity and the Spectacle of Women

The wholesale rebuilding of Paris in the second half of the century, in the grand scheme concocted between Napoleon III and the Baron Haussmann, transformed it into the city we know today and allowed the development of the ‘society of the spectacle’ which, I have tried to indicate, still resonates in the imagery of the contemporary fashion show. 26 In the rebuilding of Paris the old, medieval quartiers were broken up and replaced with wide boulevards, open spaces and parks.

With industrialization came urbanization and massively increased consumption. Paris became a city for the production and sale of luxury goods, and its parks and squares became new sites of the term ‘spectacle’ derives from Guy Debora’s The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Malcolm Miry, London: Verso, 1888 (first published 1967) in which Debora argues that everyday life is colonized by a new phase of commodity production.

Debora, however, situates this phase in the 1920s, whereas others locate it as far back as the court of Louis XIV: Williams, Rosalind H., Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France, Berkeley, Los Angeles & Oxford, England: University of California Press, 1982 and Jay, Martin, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought, Los Angeles & London, England: University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993, p. 432.

I have discussed modernity in the context of nineteenth-century Paris, following both Walter Benjamin and, more recently, Clark, T.J., The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Mamet and his Followers, London: Princeton UP, Princeton, & Thames & Hudson, 1984. Thomas Richards provides a useful model of the application of Debora’s ideas to nineteenth-century Britain in The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914, London & New York: Verso, 1991.

Lastly comment

A very useful consideration of the convergence of spectacle and modernity, in relation to late nineteenth-century woman, is Heather McPherson’s ‘Sarah Bernhardt: Portrait of the Actress as Spectacle’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, vol. 20, no. 4, 1999, pp. 409-54. Thanks to Carol Tulloch for bringing this invaluable article to my attention.

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