Octave Uzanne

Portrait of Octave Uzanne by Ramon Casas

Octave Uzanne (1852-1931) was a French writer and bibliophile, or book lover. Editor of several journals, such as Le livre (The Book), and founder of bibliophile societies that published illustrated books, he was also a prolific author who specialized in the art of making beautiful books. As of the early 2000s Uzanne is an obscure literary figure, remembered if at all as the author of a short story called "The End of Books" (1895), which foresaw how new technologies might result in such inventions as the audiobook. Yet he also produced a rich, albeit still neglected, body of work that helped to provoke discussion of fashion and femininity in fin-de-siècle France.

Obsessed With Women's Fashions

Uzanne was obsessed with women's fashions, which he described with ardent, even fetishistic attention to detail. Fashion, he insisted, was woman's only "literature," and he himself the only true "historian" of women's fashions. It is characteristic of Uzanne's work to regard fashion and femininity as inextricably linked. He revived the term féminie to describe everything that fell within the domain of woman-beauty, love, and fashion-and his reputation as a fashion authority was closely associated with his supposed expertise in female psychology. The famous dandy Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, who wrote the preface to Uzanne's second book, Le bric-à-brac de l'amour (1879), told him, "Monsieur, you have le sentiment de la femme. You have what no one has anymore in our frigid era: You have an amorous imagination."

L'Éventail

Uzanne's first and perhaps most famous book in the fashion genre was L'Éventail (The Fan); (1882), a charming illustrated history of the fan. He admitted that his book was "not by any means a work of mighty wisdom and erudition," but merely the first of a projected series of "little books for the boudoir." Totally ignoring the use of the fan by East Asian men, Uzanne preferred to see it as the quintessential feminine accessory, "the scepter of a beautiful woman." His next book, L'ombrelle, le gant, le manchon (The Sunshade, the Glove, and the Muff); (1883), was also illustrated in rococo style by Paul Avril. Uzanne's tone continued to be playfully erotic. "The muff!" he exclaimed. "Its name alone has something adorable, downy, and voluptuous about it." Regrettably, he never wrote his promised book on shoes and stockings, although he later published Les ornements de la femme (Woman's Ornaments), which reproduced in one volume the combined texts of The Fan and The Sunshade, the Glove, and the Muff, both of which were also translated into English and published in London.

Son Altesse la Femme

Son Altesse la Femme
Son Altesse la Femme

Son Altesse la femme (Her Highness, Woman); (1885) was an even more luxuriously produced book, with full-color illustrations by contemporary artists. Its subject, Uzanne wrote, was "the psychological history of the Frenchwoman from the Middle Ages to the present day." Her psychology, Uzanne implied, was quite sexual and therefore dangerous to mere men. Félicien Rops, best-known for his erotica, illustrated Uzanne's chapter on the medieval woman with a picture of a nude sorceress. One of Uzanne's favorite periods, the eighteenth century, was interpreted as a time of erotic dalliance, when upper-class Frenchwomen changed lovers as easily as they changed dresses.

La Française du Siècle

La Française du siècle (The Frenchwoman of the Century; 1886) focused on the years since the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Uzanne drew on a host of memoirs of the period to create a dramatic picture of changing modes and manners. For example, his chapter on the latter part of the French Revolution, known as the Directoire or Directory, included descriptions of such events as the bal des victimes. These bals were parties attended only by people who had at least one relative who had been guillotined during the Reign of Terror. Women cut their hair short, as though they too were about to be guillotined; some even wore a ribbon of red satin around their necks.

Later Books

Uzanne later republished what was essentially the same book under at least two different titles: La Femme et la mode. Métamorphoses de la parisienne de 1792 à 1892 (Woman and Fashion: Metamorphoses of the Parisienne, 1792-1892); (1892) and Les Modes de Paris. Variations du goût et de l'esthétique de la femme, 1797-1897 (literally Fashions in Paris, but translated into English as Fashion in Paris. The Various Phases of Feminine Taste and Aesthetics, 1797-1897]; (1897)). As these various titles indicate, women and fashion were virtually interchangeable concepts for Uzanne, at least with respect to French-women, or Parisiennes, whom he chauvinistically regarded as the most feminine of all women. Significantly, he also emphasized the importance of the specific venues within which fashion-oriented behavior occurred, such as the promenades in the Bois de Boulogne and the annual painting exhibitions at the musée du Louvre.

In the meantime, Uzanne wrote La Femme à Paris, translated into English as The Modern Parisienne; (1894), one of his most significant books. In this work, he moved beyond the restricted world of fashion to explore the lives of women at all levels of French society. Many working women in Paris were employed in some branch of the fashion industry, and Uzanne did considerable research into the lives of dressmakers and sales-women as well as female artists, actresses, bourgeois housewives, and, of course, sex workers-from common prostitutes to expensive courtesans. In 1910 he republished La Femme à Paris in a cheap edition under the title Parisiennes de ce temps.

Masterpieces of Bookmaking

Many of Uzanne's books were masterpieces of the art of bookmaking, lavishly produced in numbered editions for collectors. He was solicitous of every detail from the typography to the paper and the design of the cover. His book Féminies (1896), for example, was a deluxe publication featuring numerous striking color illustrations by Félicien Rops. As previously mentioned, Uzanne revived the word féminie to refer to everything in the domain of women (beauty, love, fashion), claiming that it was now necessary to use the plural since there existed so many "gynecological republics." The cover illustration of Féminies, influenced by symbolist art, depicted a woman piercing a rose with a dagger.

Exploring Feminine Beauty

By the early twentieth century, Uzanne was reduced to publishing small and inexpensive editions of his books. L' Art et les artifices de la beauté (The Art and Artifices of Beauty; 1902), for example, contained only black-and- white illustrations. In a series of chapters on such subjects as cosmetics, hairstyles, corsets, jewelry, and underwear, however, Uzanne continued to explore the ways in which fashion and artifice constructed feminine beauty.

See also Dandyism; Historical Studies of Fashion; Theories of Fashion; Paris Fashion.

Bibliography

The books by Uzanne mentioned in this essay are all out of print and generally available only in large research libraries. No book-length study of Uzanne has been published as of early 2004. For Uzanne's era, however, the reader may consult the following works:

Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. 2nd ed. Oxford, New York, and Tokyo: Berg/Oxford International Publishers, Ltd., 1998.

Weber, Eugen. France, Fin de Siècle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

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Octave Uzanne