In view of the French political upheaval of last weekend, let's journey back to May 1968 Paris.....
The student protests of May 1968 brought focus to Paris’ streets on national and global levels, and this was echoed in French fashion imagery. A ready-to-wear editorial in the 2 September 1968 issue of Elle by Claude Brouet and Marie-Thérèse des Cars set the tone for the straightforward representation of women and the city that would characterise those in magazines in the latter part of the decade and into the next. Here, Peter Knapp photographed women in the streets of Paris, walking or standing against city walls, sometimes looking beyond the camera or directly into its lens. In one image, a model traversed the picture plane in long, confident strides with one arm stretched upwards, as though to shield her face from the bright sunlight. This pose was repeated throughout the editorial; in some instances, the model’s smile was absent, turning the functional gesture into one of protest. In view of the student protests and strikes that engulfed the country three months earlier, contemporary readers might have interpreted the editorial in terms of solidarity.
Indeed, in this imagery, Knapp may have directly referenced the first day of the protest, in which many commentators later remarked on the still, sunny aspect of Paris’ streets before violence erupted. In the 17 June 1968 issue of Elle, for instance, journalist Denise Dubois-Jallais contrasted what began as “a lovely Friday in May” with the image of “[…] enraged young people, cobblestones in hand, running towards a police car and, all of a sudden, the noise of shattered glass […].” And although those protests did not focus on women’s rights, they served as a symbolic call to arms, according to commentaries such as that by Michèle Perrein, in the 21 October 1968 issue of Elle. In an article on her personal experience of sexual inequality, Perrein wrote that: “the student revolt […] did me well, so much that I felt, deep down, it corresponded to my own.” Likewise, Knapp’s images represented the calm period that loomed before more vocalised feminist struggles in 1970, the year that saw the establishment of the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes, as well as Elle’s Etat Généraux de la Femme debates.
Political concern was also held in tension within the text that accompanied Knapp’s images. It conceived of ready-made fashion in terms of action and choice. The author ranked the season’s clothing trends as secondary to the reader herself, who would deploy the clothing to feel comfortable and liberated in it: “But the essential, in all that, will be you. Your way of choosing clothing for its comfort and freedom […].” The text thus highlighted both continuity and rupture. Magazines had promoted ready-made clothing’s freeing attributes—achievable through the wearer’s skill and personality—since they began to feature ready-to-wear in the mid-1950s. However, given magazines’ constant representation of novelty, these attributes were repositioned in view of the May protests to signify the reader’s recognition of her control and capability.
The clothing produced in the mid to late-1960s also worked alongside Elle’s new discussion of wearer experience. From the mid 1960s, magazines characterised jersey and other knitted garments as second skins. And consumer testimonies were consistent, such as that of Monique Naudeix, who recounted how her prized knitted jackets by Sonia Rykiel from the late 1960s “hugged the body.” Peter Knapp’s photographs in the 8 September 1969 issue of Elle highlighted the ways in which fabric clung to and draped against models’ moving bodies. Several small images flanked central ones to depict subsequent steps in the act of walking. In one image, a model wore a knitted ensemble by Sonia Rykiel, a garment that allowed for her swiftness, evidenced by its blurred edges that also blurred the boundaries between body and fabric. These photographs showcased clothing for easy, confident feminine movement.
Also central to the image was the Paris street, which imbued it with urban capital. And after the events of May 1968, simple streets and pavements assumed an iconic status. As opposed to post-war imagery, in which models hesitatingly tested Paris’ new spaces, busy with street traffic, that symbolised modernity, in 1969 and 1970, magazines showcased women walking assertively on Paris’ pavements. And in her June 1968 article, Denise Dubois-Jallais unknowingly set the stage for these visualisations in her description of the aftermath of the May barricades: “the people, curious, arrived with the sun. No cars. The streets [were] like pavements. No cars except for burned carcasses (what a symbol!).”
Denise Dubois-Jallais, “Sous le balcon d’Albertine, cinq mois, une révolution éclate,” Elle, nos. 1171, 1172, 1173, 17 June 1968.
Michèle Perrein, “Le droit de renaitre,” Elle, no. 1192, 21 October 1968, 35.
Elle, no. 1185, 2 September 1968.
Author, Interview with Monique Naudeix, Paris, 1 December 2014.