Fabricating Pleasure: Fashion, Entertainment, and Cultural Consumption in Germany, 1780-1830.
Karin Wurst takes fashion seriously. The dissemination of modern mentalities evident in new discourses on entertainment during the German Sattlezeit forms the central focus of her recent book. She seeks to explore the "multiple layers of discourse, meanings, practices, and codes that fabricate the discourses of pleasure" and relates them to the formation of upper-middle class identity (xxv). Based on her readings of such classic writers as Goethe and Schiller, as well as fashion magazines, travel accounts, novels, and plays, Wurst argues that a new emphasis on entertainment and an expansion of cultural activities emerged in the decades between 1780 and 1830. She expands her study on cultural life to material, domestic, and visual culture--fashion and the magazines and illustrations that supported it, dinner parties, landscape gardens, resorts, and theatrical performances--to argue that middle-class lifestyle extended beyond the Habermasian model that underscored the central role of literature and critical discourse. She concludes that varied forms of cultural entertainment, understood as the desire for novelty and stimulation, and the consumption associated with them fostered a "consensus-based modern hegemonic social order" (350-351).
The first chapters in Wurst's interdisciplinary study feature theoretical and historiographical discussions that place her work among literary scholars and cultural historians. She employs the term, "cultural consumption" to associate the symbolic and socioeconomic aspects of middle class lifestyle with the dynamic of entertainment. Concerned with material artifacts and the discourses that gave them significance, she argues against a binary model of culture and emphasizes such multifaceted cultural practices as fashion, traditionally overlooked or maligned by scholars. She also distinguishes between the emergence of the middle class and the ongoing process of differentiation within the middle class. She asserts that there were two "waves" in the "fluid construction of middle-class identity," one that distinguished the middle class from the nobility and another consisting of "interaclass differentiation in which the members of the different communities within the middle class define themselves in contrast to each other (23)." According to Wurst, leisure and entertainment were central to this process and women played an especially important role in the work of cultural consumption. Furthermore, she contends that the notion of entertainment shifted among the middle class from an Enlightenment oriented rational and useful site for self-improvement and self-education to an occasion for self-actualization. As other studies on the middle class, she highlights individualism as a key attribute to the emerging bourgeois culture. Pleasure is defined as a "quality of experience" derived from entertainment that individuals seek to repeat as frequently as possible (59). Thus, she positions middle-class leisure, pleasurable pursuits, and cultural consumption as central to the formation of unique individualistic lifestyles.
Print culture forms the backbone of this study, and the Journal des Luxus und Moden is drawn on repeatedly as both a text and an indicator of new values associated with cultural consumption. Unfortunately, Wurst does not fully introduce or analyze the journal and its content until the second third of the book. Her discussion of fashion, however, is very broad and includes dress, domestic environment, and the body. Ultimately, she concludes that fashion generated a nexus of print culture, luxury items, entertainment, and a discourse on economic development that structured and defined the middle class. The final two chapters feature various forms of sociability, including domestic entertaining, gardens, leisure travel and spas, the theatre, as well as panoramas and dioramas--all representative of new middle-class lifestyles.
Wurst raises many intriguing points in her study and draws together histories of culture and society, fashion and material culture, and visual and literary analyses. A project this ambitious is bound to have some weaknesses. Interdisciplinary works require crisp and clear prose, and in this case, effective editing would have improved the book. Too many threads run through chapter sub-sections that remain unbound. Although many of her examples and citations are very interesting, they seem to get lost amidst reoccurring historiographical and theoretical discussions. This is disappointing for the historian interested in the contemporary voices, debates, and discussions of which there were many regarding the function of fashion and material culture in middle-class lifestyles. In fact, critics of fashion and new forms of sociability also drew on print culture to counter what they considered aristocratic opulence corrupting traditional middle-class values and norms. Moreover, the German nobility shared many if not all the forms of sociability outlined in the book. Most of her non-literary examples came from Hamburg, a republican city-state characterized by a wealthy commercial and professional middle class. Their economic and cultural counterparts in Berlin, Dresden, or Munich included members of the aristocracy. Where does that leave the nobility vis a vis fashion and sociable lifestyles? Were they becoming increasingly middle-class, as some scholars have recently argued? The less well-off and more numerous members of the amorphous middle class seem absent in this study, although they clearly participated in the broad world of print culture and material consumption.
As Wurst rightly points out, this era was marked by decades of complex transitions and transformations in German Central Europe. Yet, the ongoing and destructive French and Napoleonic Wars are not integrated into this study in a serious manner. Warfare and occupation dramatically altered the status of print culture and its content as well as the economic fortunes of the middle classes (especially in formerly prosperous commercial port cities like Hamburg). Escape from boredom, search for novelties, and developing new forms of entertainment must be tempered with the reality of a continent mired in war, political, economic, and social transformation. Thus, a distinction between forms of consumption and socialization prior to 1806 and after 1815 would have been useful in this work. Clearly, the wars played some role in the many chivalric dramas highlighted in chapter nine. Wurst is clearly well-read in literature and history, and her book raises many promising topics as it ambitiously seeks to reveal overlooked nuances in post-Enlightenment German middle-class culture.
Katherine B. Aaslestad
West Virginia University
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|Author:||Aaslestad, Katherine B.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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