Dressing Up: The Women Who Influenced French Fashion

MIT. Oct. 2021. 296p. ISBN 9780262045841. $34.95. DEC ARTS
The title Dressing Up underscores art historian and editor Block’s thesis that wealthy 19th-century women wore French couture to improve and emphasize their social positions. Their informed choices encompassed couturiers, milliners, hairdressers, and perfumers as well as interior designers and portrait painters. Meanwhile, the emergence of fashion journalism, department stores, couture houses such as Worth and Félix, and accessible international travel gave certain women with Gilded Age fortunes new agency in shaping the fashion industry itself. Block has meticulously researched the 19th-century sphere of fashion influences, with Paris at the center and American women (from Astors and Vanderbilts to actresses and opera singers) as major conduits of conspicuous consumption. Written at a scholarly level for those with some knowledge of the subject, this study thoughtfully explores markets and tariffs alongside portraits by John Singer Sargent and gowns in museum collections. Block’s extensive bibliography of contemporary and historical sources provides a valuable foundation.
VERDICT Revising the traditional view of fashion history as a parade of (mostly male) genius designers, Block highlights the stylish customers, along with enterprising female dressmakers and businesswomen, whose tastes shaped the look of the Gilded Age.
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