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Fashion, sex, 'gray market of power' helped lead to French Revolution

Clare Crowston
Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois history department

Research on French female fashion merchants in the 1700s led history professor Clare Haru Crowston to new insights about the doomed queen Marie Antoinette and a pervasive system of influence and power that the French Revolution would seek to end – part of the story she tells in her new book “Credit, Fashion, Sex: Economies of Regard in Old Regime France.”

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11/22/2013 | Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor | 217-333-2894; cdchambe@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Today we call it influence, clout, “who you know.” It gets junior into the top school, swings the big business deal, gets legislation passed or killed.


“Credit, Fashion, Sex: Economies of Regard in Old Regime France” is published by Duke University Press.

Depending on the circumstance, we say it’s unfair, corrupt, illegal.

But in France of the 1700s, before the French Revolution, it was the way of the world, Clare Haru Crowston says in a new book. The term at the time for all manner of one’s reputation, status, influence, clout, connections, and financial trustworthiness was “crédit” – or, in English, “credit.”

Your “credit” took in every aspect of life, from your business reputation to your fashion sense, from your extended family to who you slept with, according to Crowston, a University of Illinois history professor and the author of “Credit, Fashion, Sex: Economies of Regard in Old Regime France,” published by Duke University Press.

“The way people used the word ‘credit’ was as a very self-conscious and frank way to discuss how their world was controlled by the exchange of reputation, influence and power,” Crowston said. “They even talked about the credit of the saints to intercede with God.”

This “regime of credit” functioned as a “gray market of power,” she said. One aspect of that market was that women, especially some of higher status, had much more power and influence than might be apparent.

“Women talked all the time about their credit in letters and other forms of writing,” Crowston said. “They could not talk about their authority; they didn’t have positions of authority. But they did have a great deal of informal power, which they described as credit. They acquired such power by various means: family connections, the prestige of fashionable clothing and through sexual ties to important men.”

One of those women was Marie Antoinette, the French queen, who attempted to use fashion to gain attention and influence in the royal court, in the process forming an unusually close and controversial relationship with a female fashion merchant, Rose Bertin, Crowston said.

That relationship, tied with the queen’s lavish spending, King Louis XVI’s perceived weakness and government debt, would provide ample fodder for those determined to discredit the regime, Crowston said.

“The queen became a potent symbol for opposition to the crown because the movement to discredit all the old, traditional forms of credit was well underway,” Crowston said. “The attacks on her give us a better understanding of what the opposition was aiming at. The ‘regime of credit’ she represented is what they were trying to bring down.”

Antoinette and her relationship with Bertin “embodied at once monarchical rule, social inequality, economic debt and women’s sexual power – all of the things that one could tie together under the title the ‘regime of credit,’ ” Crowston said. “The opposition felt they must eliminate all of them together, and in the end cut the head off the whole regime.”

Writing so much about the French court and the lead-up to the French Revolution was not part of Crowston’s original plan. She began her research looking at female fashion merchants, following up on an earlier book about French seamstresses and their all-female guild. She knew that the merchants’ reliance on extended financial credit and debt was part of the story, especially since the aristocracy was notoriously lax in paying its bills.

Crowston searched for references to “credit” using newer tools of the historical trade, such as databases of digitized printed sources, and was surprised to discover the more-complicated picture. “It opened the door to a whole new way of thinking about this society,” she said.

For the modern-day observer, the “regime of credit” can seem “utterly corrupt” and hard to understand, Crowston said. “They could calculate and convert the value of things that we consider totally different: friendship, marriage ties, loans of money, influence and favors, nepotism. Those could all be part of the same exchange.”

They did not think of economics as a separate realm from politics, society and culture, as we do today, though the 1700s is when that began to change, Crowston said. This was the point when the idea of a free market begins to take hold, she said. “It’s a notion born in this context in which everybody is aware of how completely unfree the market is and how enmeshed it is in other domains of life.”

But though we might see people then as being very cynical and frank about exchanges we now think of as “totally illegitimate,” Crowston said, they might have lessons for us today.

“Understanding this world helps us to see that there was a time when people understood very clearly how society and culture and politics and economics were interrelated. I’m not suggesting we go back to that world, but its inhabitants at least had the benefit of being very honest and open about the way things actually work. By denying these connections, we do not make them disappear, we just make them more difficult to understand and evaluate.”

Editor's note: To reach Clare Haru Crowston, who is on sabbatical in Paris through spring 2014, email crowston@illinois.edu. She also is available by phone at 33-6-62-98-93-54 (for U.S. callers) or Skype (crowstonclare), with prior notice.

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