Archive | April 2014

The creation of the Angel of the House

The-First-Kiss-of-Love-La-Nouvelle-HeloiseJulie, ou la nouvelle Heloïse is a Rousseaunian work of 1761, a novel of these, a fictional work which aims to be witness of its author’s ideas. Rousseau is not a simple character: if it is true he is an enlightened it is also true that he had his particular ideas very different from some of his contemporaries as for example, Voltaire. Rousseau exalted reason but also feeling, criticized religious dogmatism and praised virtue to an heroic degree. Julie is an idea, a model, it is indeed a female perfection: what a woman should be. No less important is, I think, what joins the name of Julie, la nouvelle Heloïse, not very considered by its critics, as far as I know, but something I intend to insist on. Rousseau had no need to call his novel as he did, it may very well be called only Julie without implying a change in the text as it is all based on her and its aim is, as I said, to show us Julie’s perfection. But he did make a reference to the story of the medieval lovers, Heloïse and Abelard, and this fact will not leave me rest till I find why. Up to now, I consider the possibility that Rousseau, as enlightened, intended to create the woman of virtue, born in the 18th century as a reply to Heloïse, a woman of the medieval age, that is, for Rousseau, an obscure and catholic period. If Heloïse succumbed to Abelard’s seduction being, Rousseau would say, perverted and, as he actually said, dishonest – I guess for being faking her religious feelings all her life -, Julie is the new Heloïse: chastity, virtue, reason and honesty are her adjectives, which, of course, may be those of the Enlightenment according to Rousseau.

And here it is: the angel of the house. Julie has a limitless heart full of goof feelings, she  is full of virtue marrying her father’s candidate against her will and being able to love her ‘lover’ chastely; but she will also love her husband eventually being an impressive wife and mother. The text dedicates a part to describe how Julie manages the house, every single detail is in her mind, and this house is, indeed, as heaven. But all that was not enough for Rousseau, Julie dies saving her son’s life, and as her husband notes, she is la martyre de l’amour maternel. Even after her death, it is possible to feel her spiritual presence in the house, that is, as an ever present angel. Victorians will love this female expression, and we see how Victorian critics need to repetitively talk of the angel of the house, something which will die at the turn of the century with Modernism. But before that, I think Flaubert already puts in danger this glorified creation of the woman; and I think that a very interesting point. Some critics say Flaubert to be a proto modernist, some even dare to affirm he is a modernist, I do prefer the first option. One of the moments in Mme Bovary where it is possible to see this path towards Modernism is the moment of her death. Emma like Julie dies in bed, but unlike Julie the description of her body is terribly realistic – and a great piece of modern art . If Julie does not loss her perfection while dying, Emma does, indeed one can see the putrefaction of her body, her decay. Is this decay not the the end of the angel of the house and the advent of the new woman? May not the difference between the two dying bodies be the expression of one type of woman and the other?

To finish, I wish to note that if Rousseau presented a new Heloïse against Heloïse, one was real, not the other. Heloïse was a real woman with a real story, Julie did not exist: the angel of the house was a creation which filled for years and years an idea of femininity: Julie is never angry, never does wrong, never feel weak, never falls into temptations, she always wins her passions, and always remains happy.

I am definitively Heloïse.

Coco Chanel ou la Femme au Garçon

Gabriel Chanel was a French low class girl who grew up with her sister in an orphanage after her father having abandoned them there. She never intended to be neither popular not even a dress maker; her aspirations were to be able to make a living by herself without a need for a husband. Her situation was completely different from that of Ives Saint-Laurent who was a bourgeoise with very clear aims within the fashion world and whose master was Dior. The last film about his life affirms the idea that he was the most important fashion designer and changed radically women fashion, something I completely disagree with. I may advocate for Channel as being the most important and radical fashion designer for women, something these two pictures may help to clarify comparing what her contemporaries dressed and she did:

1900mccallsb               coco-chanel-3

Her fashion originated in her views on the corsican: a very useless piece of underwear that limited women’s movement, freedom and comfort. She was the one to remove it allowing the female woman to move freely under her clothes, her flesh to be less carefully controlled by the corsican’s tightness and avoiding thus the formation of the predominant silhouette. The corsican may be seen as a meaningful piece of underwear linked to a particular ideas of the function of women and the representation of her body, probably, related to the decorative idea of woman in the family house, an extreme version of which is the Victorian idea of the angel of the house. The body limitations the corsican imposed show indeed the lack of movement in a woman, that is, her static place at home, and the standing out of her body which may be beautiful, decorative. The corsican’s pressure made even eating difficult, of course strong exercises too as it hindered the breathing. The New Woman at the turn of the century needed indeed to give up corsicans: the new released woman may take upon her manly duties; but even before that, the new dress very well anticipates the female role in society. The Great War served to assert this new fashion as the absence of men made women work on their husbands’ duties.

It is significant that Chanel belonged to the low class: she needed to work and to breathe freely; she loves simplicity, her dresses are no more full of decorations as she is not a decoration but a worker. Her status together with her rejection of marriage helped her to build her ideas on fashion. In 1918, she looked like that:

chanel trousers

That is, she looked like a man. Her short hair au garçon outlining as well its practicality was another cause of criticism becoming a fashion in the 1920s. Chanel changed radically women’s fashion since then; two of her most popular dresses were the little black dress -having been a lady in black a complete unusual and distasteful idea-, and the Chanel suit, that is a work piece for ladies (being both of them reworked till today):

the-little-black-dress2                   jackie-kennedy-in-chanel-suit

Ives Saint Laurent: Fashion, Art and the Body


The new French film Ives Saint Laurent shows the life and work of the well-known fashion designer; even if the film is slightly more dedicated to his personal life than professional work it is still worth watching as life and work are especially closed in an artist’s life. That is what Ives S. Laurent was: an artist. A deeper insight in a fashion designer’s life like him or, say, Chanel, changes what could be a common idea among intellectual people of fashion: pure banality. But it is not at all such a thing; of course here I am talking about the great fashion masters, and up to today, I am only aware of these two I mention here, so it is not an easy think to find around. What I refer to talking of them is mainly two things: the ability of seeing dress as art properly speaking, and the power to change the approach to the female body. Ives S. Laurent did so.

Ives’s passion for drawing is of an artistic nature, and his capacity to see beyond actual customs is properly of a genius. One of the most interesting things this high fashion is able to do is to cause a new conception of the feminine and the female body, it remakes woman. Ives’ collection ‘Libertine’ in the 1980s was a claim against bourgeoise society and, as he said, it made women not equal to men but more than equal: their rivalries:


The dress above is indeed manlike and provocative. This designs were accompanied by a high sexualised add evoking a kind of hetero- and homosexual orgy. In another of his collections he literally turns art into dress:

YSL's modrian dress

The body may also be conceived as artistic as it is the place where art takes really its form, that is, there is no artistic fashion without a body to wear it. Therefore, art affects the body and what is considered art may influence the approach to the body. To dress the human body, if majestically, is a powerful act; it gives the body a meaning, and with that, a purpose. The conception of human being is made by the way it is dressed, by an act of creation able to re-imagine the subject. The human being is, in a way, already behind the designs of an artist who can change the individual, it is born again in every pencil draw. Thus, fashion belongs to a particular century and its predominant philosophy, it is its more visual, immanent and tangible part of the conception of woman, or man, in a place and a time.