Clothes Lines: Fashion, Garments and Fabrics in Paris and Beyond

R1B (Section 3) :  English Composition through French Literature in Translation
Fall 2014
T. Wilds


Honoré de Balzac,  The Chouans; Course Reader

Writing Analytically, 6th ed.


“Clothes are the expression of society,” Honoré de Balzac,  Treatise on Elegant Living.

In this course we will put Balzac’s maxim to the test, asking what exactly clothes tell us about the people who wear them and the places and times in which they are worn. In so doing we will join a long line of major French writers who looked at textiles as texts, interpreting fashions as cultural documents that, far from merely superficial, might disclose something essential about the times. In this spirit, we will read Balzac’s French Revolution novel The Chouans, with its intensive focus on how fashions conceal or reveal the identities of its mysterious protagonists, as well as Charles Baudelaire’s reflections on fashion and modernity in The Painter of Modern Life, and we will sharpen our own critical gaze by reading fashion criticism and looking at clothes from the nineteenth century and today. Further, we will pursue the material dimension of clothes through the increasingly far-flung networks of design, industrial production, transport and consumption that garments compress into wearable form. Engaging with the novelist Émile Zola’s Ladies’ Paradise, NPR Planet Money’s broadcasts on today’s global garment industry, and the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Textiles and Clothing, we will tease out these networks and reflect on the dramatic consequences of their periodic reconfiguration. Along the way we will encounter an astonishing cast of dressers–the French Revolution’s incroyables and merveilleuses, nineteenth-century dandies, Coco Chanel’s austere new women, the sapeurs of the Congo–and the farmers, garment workers, shopkeepers, valets and designers who dress them.

In addition to looking at textiles as texts and reading texts on textiles, we will spend a portion of the semester examining texts as textiles. Through encounters with Stéphane Mallarmé’s poems and the artist Simon Hantaï’s folded paintings, we will consider the similarities between the page and the swatch, as well as the literary implications of pleating, wrinkling and other twists of fabric.

French R1B fulfills the second half of the Reading and Composition Requirement of the College of Letters and Science. It serves as an introduction to research in humanities disciplines and furthers R1A’s emphasis on analytic writing by highlighting the introduction of secondary source material into well-argued essays. Assignments will include one short essay and one longer essay, an annotated bibliography and a variety of writing exercises and shorter creative projects. All readings and discussions will be in English.

Additional information:

French R1B satisfies the second half of the Reading and Composition Requirement. Classes are conducted in ENGLISH.


Section times and locations in the Schedule of Classes