John Shovlin argues in “The Cultural Politics of Luxury in Eighteenth-Century France” that reconsideration of the relationship between the economic developments of eighteenth-century France and the French revolution must be undertaken. Cultural history and economic dynamics must be re-weighed into the factors contributing to the French Revolution. His argument hinges on the cultural problems created by “luxury” and “representation,” which helped to undermine the Old Regime. Attitudes toward both luxury and representation changed rapidly due to increasing economic activity, especially among the non-nobility.
Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, luxury in France was used to distinguish between the nobility and everyone else. Not only were extravagances reserved only for the upper classes, they also helped to instate the power of the nobility and the aura that surrounded them. “The sign did not merely alert the spectator to the presence of invisible qualities, it also played a role in constituting those qualities. The sign participated in the signified.” This importance of display as a source of power is a practice referred to as “representation.” As would only logically follow, the king’s court was the primary device of representation, and the dress appropriate for particular stations would trickle down from that apex. Shovlin refers to Boudier de Villemaire as suggesting that represention was used early in society to quell of the unruliness of those people. Not all, even among the nobility, appreciated the practice of representation, but even its strongest opponents could not argue with its effectiveness.
The breaching of representation by lower classes presenting themselves above their station was among the gravest of social sins. The participation of the lowborn in pomp and magnificence was believed to lead to the “confounding of ranks.” The consumer revolution of the late eighteenth century then led to what Shovlin termed “semiotic chaos.” Servants were donning the discarded apparel of their lords. Duchesses were deferring unnecessarily to maidens adorned in clothing higher than their station. A French nobleman, Du Coudray complained in 1773 that “’merit’ and ‘blood’ are no longer esteemed in Paris, that only money distinguishes.”
Shovlin implies that all parties would have been acutely aware of the subversive nature of such practices, and it was such that made it so villainous. It is at this point that I reach contention with the author. Due to the consumer revolution that had reached much of the urban populace, the non-nobility would be just as inclined to spend their excess as would their social betters. Clothing is often the most accessible way to improve oneself. Colin Jones suggests that “it became far more common in the eighteenth century for people of very modest means to own consumer goods that in previous generations.”
Shovlin also uses Jones to show that lower classes were spending a greater percentage of their total assets in the eighteenth century than at any time prior to that, signifying the first attempts of the non-nobility to participate in consumer culture. Because one dresses better does not mean he is attempting to break class boundaries, although this may be a result.
The nobility responded to the situation first by escalating the extravagances to a new level. At this point, moralists began to criticize the nobility for their obscene practices. Also the moralists pointed out that there had been a confusion of signs and realities. Shovlin’s description of the disparity between sign and reality is that it was “radically disjunct.” Moralists “construed spectacular consumption as a deliberate conflation” and viewed it “as corrupt, flimsy, and unreal.” After 1750 the group argued that representation was illegitimate for the court. The moralists seemed to hope less to affect the nobility as to prevent non-nobles from usurping their prescribed stations. The line the moralists were attempting to draw was between what they described as the “idle rich and the ‘useful classes,’” which class other social critics saw as industrious and virtuous.
Another significant point with which Shovlin deals is that, as mentioned before, representation confuses signs with reality. Sensationalists of the time were the staunchest opponents of the use of representation. They believed that people “tend to confuse words with things.” Nobles used appearance to dazzle the lower classes, thus further establishing their power. Shovlin sees this as a false source of power, but the source only becomes false when the non-nobility have the same purchasing power as the nobility. Like any other source of power, it’s only potency lies in the belief of the people.
The above changes in opinion toward luxury and representation were occurring prior to 1789, after which time changes began to hasten. Shovlin suggests that the attempts to recast the social order emerged from the changing discourse on luxury and representation, which may have stemmed from the consumer revolution. Of course, with the Revolution came the end of the court as the central source of representation.
Post-Revolution politicians often dressed, in both clothing and hairstyles, much more plainly to show their rejection of representation. Because luxury had implications broader than just apparel, they often adopted a less eloquent style of speaking to illustrate their non-superiority. Shovlin states, “Luxury/representation becomes a tool of despotism, a weapon of the prince in spreading his arbitrary authority.” However, he fails to note that falsely debasing oneself to gain the support of the people could be an even more vile form of charlatanry. Not only were the perpetrators asserting their power more subtly, but also they are being devious in so doing.
Shovlin’s essay serves to illuminate less appreciated points of the cultural revolution, which took place alongside the political. There are also clearly economic factors which could have served as catalysts, but “The Cultural Politics of Luxury” could have done a more effective job of tying these together. The article can also be somewhat confusing as the author has a tendency to use unfamiliar words for some time before defining them. He also assumes the reader is fluent in French, as he uses a number of long quotes that go largely without explanation.
Although Shovlin’s essay includes the lower classes within its scope, they seem to be largely neglected. Much of the work regards the actions and responses of the nobility, but Shovlin is silent on the counter-reactions of the majority. The non-nobility play only a passive role in his monograph.
 John Shovlin, “The Cultural Politics of Luxury in Eighteenth Century France,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 23 (Fall 2000), 577-606, 582-3.
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