Monday, February 15, 2010

Mallarmé & The Fashion Magazine

by Alex Goldman

This week’s selection by Furbank and Cain focuses on Stephane Mallarme: a poet who started a decorative and informative publication titled La Derniere mode in 1874, Paris. La Derniere mode is considered one of the earliest fashion magazines in history. It debuted during the beginning of the Third Republic. German reparations had been paid off, the Franco-Prussian war was over, but France was still politically and economically unstable.

La Dernière Mode was a limited edition fashion magazine/art project created by 19th century poet Stéphane Mallarmé.


While Furbank discusses La Derniere mode as a publication, Cain talks about La Derniere mode as a reflection of the dawn of the Third Republic, and how it fit into the society of the day. Cain characterizes this new Third Republic as having “laws of governance but no constitution, until its demise in 1940, but its whole existence was always ghostly. Similarly, in 1874 France had no capital; the government sat in Versailles, but Paris, punished for its Communard activities, had no special place. Like the Thermidor revolution, this was the revenge of the provinces on Paris” (212). La Derniere mode appealed not to the provinces, but to the Parisian upper-class, and continued to reaffirm Paris as the art and culture capital of France.


In mid-19th century France, there was tension between the middle class and the upper class, which translated directly to tension between the peasants in the provinces and the urban Parisians. Cain explains that while the Parisians were the landowners that had the monetary wealth, the people in the provinces were considered these unruly masses, and although they had land, they despised and feared the dominance of Paris. The rise of department stores preceded La Derniere mode in the 1860s, and transformed the act of shopping into as much of an outing for the wealthy as going to, as Cain exemplifies, the Louvre. Bear in mind, that during this time the middle classes were still buying raw textiles and making their clothes with sewing machines (a new invention at the time) at the home, and had no use for department stores or magazines that talked about the newest and latest styles.


Mallarmé, b. 1842- d.1898


Furbank emphasizes that as a poet, people thought that Mallarme was crazy. He edited, designed and wrote everything in La Derniere mode “under a variety of pseudonyms,” named Madame de Ponty, Miss Satin, and Ix. (5). Mallarme’s “Madame de Ponty” persona, for example, discusses fashion as materialism: “A fashionable woman does not suffer financial pressures, because Fashion has, precisely, full power to defeat them….The ‘bon ton’ of Fashion, which forbids it to propose anything aesthetically or morally disgraceful…” (10). ‘Her’ ideology about fashion appealed only to a Bourgeoise audience, and makes strong assumptions about the relationship between fashion and economic status. It is interesting that the Furbank writes of Mallarme’s pseudonym characters as though they have their own mutually exclusive opinions and personalities. Madame de Pont and Miss Satin, “represent two different traditions in magazines themselves, both of which Mallarme inherits. As well as the fashion magazine properly speaking there was another kind of publication, aiming at helping the bourgeoisie overcome the pitfalls which might await them in their social ascent” (214).


Furbank and Cain note that there were other philosophers and theorists writing about fashion during Mallarme’s time, such as Baudilaire and Gautier. Baudilaire saw fashion as a logical evolution. He believed that women used fashion to separate themselves from nature, and in his opinion, fashion and nature exist in two completely separate, non-intersecting spheres. Mallarme on the other hand believed that there was no separation between nature and art, or nature and fashion as an extension of art. “Again, one of the favourite tropes or principles of Madame de Ponty, as of Ix, is that the monde (world) in the ‘high-life’ sense (i.e. the scene of worldliness and fashion) is synonymous with the monde or world in the everyday sense (i.e. meaning everything that there is); and this is closely related to a further trope, that ‘Nature’ is a false concept, ‘Nature’ and the man-made are not to be distinguished” (9).


Stéphane Mallarmé, Le Hasard, 1881

Furbank writes however that Mallarme possessed qualities distinguishing him form these other fashion theorists. Mallarme made himself both a fashion designer and a “parody of …several different kinds of fashion journalists, and this opened up to him possibilities not available to a mere critic or theorist, like Gautier or Baudelaire” (10). La Derniere mode served as Mallarme’s outlet for philosophizing and theorizing about fashion, and sharing his vision about fashion that extends beyond the clothing. For example, Furbank and Cain describe the layout of each issue of La Derniere Mode on pg. 13, explaining that each included sections dealing with “fashion and its nature and principles,” food, interior decoration, a poem, a short story, a lifestyle section dealing with books, theatres, and travel, a “column of correspondence with subscribers,” and an advertising section (13). Mallarme showed that all of these categories correlate to a fashion of the time, and he would influence and direct the Bourgeoisie’s opinions on which foods, destinations, books, shows, etc. were fashionable by writing them as so in La Derniere mode.

Printemps publication, 1874 and and La Dernière Mode, 1874

Critics of Mallarme include Jean-Pierre Lecercle and Roger Dragonetti, who wrote about La Derniere mode over 100 years after it debuted. Author Roger Dragonetti (1992) Claims that La Derniere mode didn’t even exist at all except as a “…piece of private publication for the eyes of a group of friends, who were bound by a vow of secrecy about it. It was not merely, under one aspect, a fantasy about and take-off of a real fashion-journal (which indeed it was; it was wholly a fantasy or ‘phantom’)” (11). There is evidence that the publication was indeed real, but Dragonetti, in his critique, is convinced that Mallarme was creating too much of a parody to have actually been interested in Fashion (12). This suggests that Dragonetti believes that those who were or are truly interested in Fashion take it with the utmost seriousness.

The illustrator Edmond Morin, Le Monde Illustré (Mars 1885) - Original en Couleur


Excerpt from La Dernière Mode, 1874

During Mallarme’s time, life in Paris essentially was a fashion show, a display, to see and be seen. Especially at the theater, which Mallarme “rightly devoted a large part of La Derniere mode to” (215). In the mid-1870s, there was a genre of theatre called “Pieces a femme,” which was like an early fashion show, where both the “spectators become spectated; everything is spectacle” (216). La Derniere mode had fantasy-like qualities that made it appear to be out of touch with reality, while it actually served as a brilliantly devised social commentary, mixing all that was in fashion with the politics of the era.


Anonymous, Inauguration du Palais Garnier en 1875

One of Cain’s final points is that in La Derniere Mode, Mallarme translates France’s political and economic instability and uncertainty at the end of the Second Empire “into the field of fashion” (219). In fact, the Fashion industry in Paris from the mid-late 1800s, up until post World War II, was a significant contributor to the upswing of the French economy. (214). Disasters of the Franco-Prussian war put a freeze on dressmaking in Paris. This shows how politics affected fashion. During this time, women began to wear men’s clothes out of necessity due to the lack of women’s clothing available, and people were convinced that this was the demise of France. Cain makes a final suggestion that in a country as eager to achieve secularism as France, it is no wonder that fashion had become women’s object of ‘worship.’ (221).

To summarize, Furbank and Cain discuss how revolutionary a publication La Derniere mode was. Mallarme designed, edited, and wrote it under pseudonyms that each had individual, smart opinions about life and fashion in the haute society of 1870s France. He did not reveal that these “writers” were all him, and no one at the time had a clue. All the while that this Bourgeoisie publication was geared toward steering the fashion and life decisions of the upper class, it reflected the revival of France after the Franaco-Prussian war and the idea that Fahsion would be a key player in rebuilding France’s economy.


See more on La Derniere Mode here
See the chronological history of the fashion magazine here


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