Enfilade

August 2012 Issue of ‘Past & Present’

Posted in journal articles by Editor on July 27, 2012

In the latest issue of Past and Present (August 2012), Michael Sonenscher responds to a recent article by William H. Sewell, “The Empire of Fashion and the Rise of Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century France,” Past and Present 206 (February 2010): 81-120. Sewell then weighs in with his own reply (access to full texts will require institutional subscriptions).

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Michael Sonenscher, “Debate: The Empire of Fashion and the Rise of Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century France,” Past and Present 216 (2012): 247-58.
[Full Text] [PDF]

‘Fashionable consumption’, Bill Sewell writes, ‘played a constitutive role in the development of French capitalism not only in the eighteenth century but also over the long term’. The claim goes with the grain of the many recent publications on eighteenth-century French trade and manufacturing industry that Sewell has expertly synthesized. But two further aspects of his article invite fuller comment. The first is an examination of the relationship between fashionable consumption and capitalist development that involves a modified version of Marx’s concept of surplus value. The second is a suggestion about the bearing of this fashion-oriented characterization of French capitalism on the subject of the origins and attributes of the French Revolution. Together they add up to an ambitious argument about the history of consumption as the way to overcome the neglect of social and economic considerations that, according to Sewell, has been one of the effects of the revisionist historiography of the French Revolution. . . .

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William H. Sewell, “Reply to Michael Sonenscher,” Past and Present 216 (2012): 259-67.
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I would like to thank Michael Sonenscher for his learned and respectful comments on my article. In his comments he has filled out an aspect of the topic of ‘fashion’s empire’ that I made no sustained effort to cover in my own essay: varying contemporary opinions about the economics of fashion and about fashion’s relationship to France’s monarchical and aristocratic constitution. However, I think that his reflections on these eighteenth-century (or, in the case of Jean-Baptiste Say, early nineteenth-century) arguments about fashion have little bearing on what I take to be the central points of my essay. These are: (1) that fashion played a central role in French (and European) capitalist development in the eighteenth century; (2) that the dynamism of the fashion sector was based to a significant extent on harnessing the desires and labour of consumers; and (3) that certain consequences of the rise of fashion in eighteenth-century France ‘were … conducive to notions of equality of the sort specified in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789’ and were therefore ‘a key source’ of the French Revolution’s ‘epochal political and cultural transformations’. . .