In 1919, the French poet and intellectual, Paul Valery, wrote two letters in which he contemplated the end of the Great War. In his website, The History Guide, Steven Kreis noted that these famous letters were actually of English origin: “The Crisis of the Mind” was written at the request of John Middleton Murry. “La Crise de l’esprit” originally appeared in English, in two parts, in The Athenaeum (London), April 11 and May 2, 1919. The French text was published the same year in the August number of La Nouvelle Revue Francaise. In his first letter, Valery began by saying, “We later civilizations . . . we too know that we are mortal.” He made the point that history was replete with examples of fallen civilizations from ancient history, but the Great War, he acknowledged had ended a European civilization. “We are aware,” he wrote, “that a civilization has the same fragility as a life. The circumstances that could send the works of Keats and Baudelaire to join the works of Menander are no longer inconceivable; they are in the newspapers. That is not all. The searing lesson is more complete still. It was not enough for our generation to learn from its own experience how the most beautiful things and the most ancient, the most formidable and the best ordered, can perish by accident; in the realm of thought, feeling, and common sense, we witnessed extraordinary phenomena: paradox suddenly become fact, and obvious fact brutally believed.” Valery continued, “An extraordinary shudder ran through the marrow of Europe. She felt in every nucleus of her mind that she was no longer the same, that she was no longer herself, that she was about to lose consciousness, a consciousness acquired through centuries of bearable calamities, by thousands of men of the first rank, from innumerable geographical, ethnic, and historical coincidences..The military crisis may be over. The economic crisis is still with us in all its force. But the intellectual crisis, being more subtle and, by it nature, assuming the most deceptive appearances (since it takes place in the very realm of dissimulation)…this crisis will hardly allow us to grasp its true extent, its phase..No one can say what will be dead or alive tomorrow, in literature, philosophy, aesthetics; no one yet knows what ideas and modes of expression will be inscribed on the casualty list, what novelties will be proclaimed.” Valery went on at great length and felt compelled to write a second latter, more anguished and more impressionistic, a epistle of darting sentences. By “Crisis of the Mind” Valery meant that the superiority of European civilization, society and culture was in doubt. His writing is full of dread that another force will come and dominate Europe.  Today, over one hundred years later, we see his writing as a warning of things that would come to pass, but not in the way he expected. What he did not see, was events unfolding under his watchful eyes which were, apparently, turned elsewhere. 

Paris after the War was the Mecca for the creation of the “modern,” which had created itself in ways that Valery had not anticipated. The city was full of displaced people, Russians driven out by the Communists, returning veterans, now “lost,” African-American refugees, musicians of Jazz and singers and dancers, like Josephine Baker, fleeing the brutal regime of segregation in the South, and the New Woman, newly independent, increasingly disruptive and completely determined to assert herself socially and creatively. The conservatives, led by religious leaders, managed to beat back early attempts to allow French women to vote, but no one could restrain the new invention, the Garçonne.

The post-war situation produced new kinds of women: those who were openly lesbian (to be discussed in another chapter) and those who were openly single. The War had taken the men who they would have married and did not return them and the women left behind had to make their way on their own. The War had trained women to be self-reliant and, except for the upper classes, they opted for jobs and increasingly looked to alternatives that were not domestic. The result was an extended national debate in France, which, at the time, seemed urgent, but in retrospect was probably futile. Undeterred by discourse, women were already self-fashioning themselves. It must be pointed out that there was a difference between women being without men because of the War and women being without men because they wanted to remain single. In addition, this kind of choice–to live without male protection–was more often played out in urban settings. It was here in the cities, whether Paris or London or New York, where the New Woman was to be found. France, for example, was a largely rural nation and would not become totally modernized until the late twentieth century. It was a nation that was “modern” only in parts and one should not confuse Paris with France. In reality the two were entirely different “nations,” so to speak. Therefore, during les années folles, one was more likely to meet the garçonne on the Boulevard Haussmann that in the streets of Besançon. 

In her book, Civilization Without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917-1927, Mary Louise Roberts wrote, “After the war, writers and social observers produced a new image of female identity: la femme moderne, they called the new creature, or sometimes la garçonne..Contemporaries saw the modern woman as ‘above all a creation of the war’ that had allowed her to work and live independently for the first time. As a popular image, she can be traced to the ‘new woman’ of prewar avant-garde circles..By contrast the femme moderne could be the bourgeois girl next door..even the clothes that la femme moderne wore reproduced her inability to be defined within the boundaries of traditional concepts of womanhood. Her lack of distinctly female form symbolized the unrestrained social and cultural space she seemed to inhabit. A ‘being’ without a waist, without hips, and without breasts, she symbolized a civilization without churches, without palaces, and without sexes.”

The new woman was talked about, written about, and, as shall be seen, designed for. One of the most famous books of the post war period was the shocking La Garçonne (The Bachelor Girl) by Victor Margueritte. Margueritte was the son of a famous French general and was a well known writer in 1922 when his book was published. Many of his prewar books were co-written with his brother Paul, and after the War, the brothers joined the ranks of those interested in emancipating women. La Garçonne, depicting the life of an independent woman in Paris, caused a great commotion among the ranks of the establishment which promptly relieved the author of his Legion of Honor in 1923. Today, the book seems quite tame, with its hero choosing,after sowing her wild oats, a heterosexual marriage and a conventional life. 

But during the 1920s, La Garçonne was everywhere to be seen in Paris. Characterized as being “without” identifiable female bodily bulges, these women wore the new dresses with the new silhouette. As Akiko Fukai wrote in Fashion Game Changers: Reinventing the 20th-Century Silhouette, “The demands of the new society meant that a fundamental review of women’s functional clothing naturally occurred. Coco Chanel set up a new style that introduced men’s clothing for women and Madeleine Vionnet set the direction of fashion in the 1920s with her innovations in garment construction. Women’s clothing took on concise, rectangular silhouettes, and superfluous, flounced frills disappeared. They were linear-cut compositions fundamentally different from the previous styles that had used curves and darts to shape garments to the body.” 

In the past women had worried about their figures and dieting was common, but corsets were on their side and lacing could be counted upon to hide weight gain. Now corsets were gone and the new clothes for the new woman were merciless, demanding a long lithe flat line, without bulges, even the natural ones. As Mary Jane Jacobs said of her new bra, when she looked into the mirror: “..I saw that I was flat and proper..” By the 1920s the extreme haute couture fashions of Coco Chanel forced all women to re-examine their bodies, not in terms of their natural shapes but in relation to her sleek and simple straight dresses. 

In her chapter on the modern woman, “The Politics of Fashion in 1920s France,” Mary Louise Roberts wrote, “From this perspective, the new fashions look like an elaborate marketing ploy, which fed the growth of a bourgeoning beauty industry, including makeup and skin-care manufacturers, facturers, beauty salon and hair salon owners, diet specialists, as well as the haute couturiers. In this sense, postwar fashion can be understood as a sort of modern consumerism that exploited women in the pursuit of profit, as feminist historians have claimed. Far from enjoying joying freedom, women who bought into this quest for beauty found themselves locked into a relentless and time-consuming set of physical and financial constraints.” The author concluded her argument with the observation that what was being sold to women were illusions:

“Thinking about the new fashions as producing the illusion of freedom, rather than freedom itself, can help us determine their political importance. By conceiving of fashion as a language of movement and change, even when it was not, designers like Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel created a visual fantasy of liberation. Merchandisers succeeded in selling the new styles by projecting an image of liberation from constraint; the women who wore them were attracted to this fantasy and wanted to express it as their own. In defining fashion in terms of personal emancipation, feminists such as Verone and Misme also helped to define its cultural interpretation. The fantasy of liberation then became a cultural reality in itself that was not without political importance.” 

However, this argument denies agency to women, who wanted these changes and were willing participants in the new and broadened fashion industries. Women pushed and sought ways and means to make themselves over, often braving social disapproval, and, as Roberts pointed out, endured inconveniences to enjoy the new clothing, new hair, and new make-up and so on. What is important to take in to consideration is the fact that women were in charge: they could remake their bodies, they could literally re-make their faces, they could select hairstyles that were becoming and suited their faces. Compared to the inconvenient and confining clothes of the previous eras, the short dresses and the comfortable undergarments allowed women to walk and run and climb easily into automobiles and drive away, going wherever they pleased.   

True, the New Woman had exchanged the tyranny of the corset for the unexpected tyranny of the new active life style and the need for a figure that was “boyish.” With her short hair and flat chest, the New Woman became the Garçonne, a boyish female whose bareness and exposure would have made her grandmother blush. But the New Woman had arrived. She was here. Even today, a hundred years later, we tend to not give fashion its cultural due. Fashion does not seem to have the requisite gravitas for our serious consideration, but social and political changes wrought an innovation in the lives of the young half the population of Europe and America, altering their bodies, their minds and their hearts, reflected in the semiotic statements made by their clothing. The fashions worn by the new women, and the new men, were not mere outfits or fashionable garments but profound statements that their lives had changed irrevocably, that they were from their own future. These new existences had been redesigned by the will of women themselves, and these women would not go back to the old ways. Once again, a line had been crossed and the New Woman stepped into the Modern, redesigned for the new century.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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