Victoria de Grazia, ed., The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, 433 pp.

Ann Reed (


The Sex of Things is a collection of thirteen essays discussing the social history of consumption (loosely defined) and gender in France, England, Germany, Italy, and the United States from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century. Taking a primarily historical approach to the topic of gender and consumption, the contributors come from various academic disciplines: history, economics, area studies, English, art history, and gender studies. The contributors contextualize their analyses of gender and consumption historically in visual representations and popular social and political lines of thought.

In the introduction, de Grazia lays the groundwork for why we should be concerned with how gender impacts the study of consumption. Simplistic notions of naturally or inevitably identifying the female sex with shopping sprees are challenged in favor of a deeper inquiry into the assumptions revolving around AMr. Breadwinner@ and AMrs. Consumer@(3). Instead of merely debating whether consumption is liberating or oppressive, these essays are concerned with the study of consumption in terms of the construction of gender roles, class relations, the family, and the state.

Essays in the first section relate to the transition of consumption patterns from aristocratic to bourgeois society. De Grazia locates the growth of bourgeois consumption practices in the Afeminized world of the home@, where female heads of household not only were expected to be nurturing and sociable, but were also consumers of food, clothing, and furniture. Through their purchases, these women accumulated (for themselves and their children) what Pierre Bourdieu called Acultural capital, @ by establishing family position, class distinction, and connection to their nation to signify social standing (19).

Jennifer Jones presents the modes by which men and women in eighteenth and nineteenth century Paris found themselves as both consumers and retailers. The conventional model of consumption for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries involved sexual innuendo and flirtation between a male aristocratic consumer and a young, female merchant. The second half of the eighteenth century witnessed an enormous growth in both the goods consumed as well as the volume of shoppers as large permanent structures were erected, prices were displayed, and credit was extended. Shops became more attractive to female shoppers and the relationship between client and merchant changed, signaling the heightened popularity of the marchandes de modes, high-status female retailers in the fashion industry. Contemporary explanations linking consumption to women=s psychology encouraged new relationships in which client and merchant were both women. According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, boys are attracted to things which involve movement and sound, whereas girls are drawn to everything visual, such as mirrors, cloth, jewels, and dolls (36). Jones concludes that popular conceptions of femininity which assisted in creating space for women as both consumers and retailers also led to the dissolution of the marchandes de modes, relegating women=s space to either consumer or seamstress.

In the most man-centered essay of the collection, David Kuchta recalls how politics was linked to fashion and the masculine agenda was linked to class in England between 1688 and 1832. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries marked the period of Athe great masculine renunciation@ of clothing, which was influenced by political reformers such as William Cobbett who advised middle- and upper-class Englishmen to A...dress as cheap as may be without shabbiness@(54). Kuchta states that for the past three hundred years elite masculinity has been linked to industry and economy, a connection that has been embedded in the way we conceive of masculinity itself. Consumption theories originating from Veblen, which state that consumption is conspicuous, that we emulate others when we buy things in order to keep up with (or ahead of) the Joneses, are twisted around by Kuchta, who states that this masculine renunciation of clothing was the result of Ainconspicuous consumption@ in which individuals sought to distinguish themselves socially without being bound to class dictates on fashion. Perhaps the masculine renunciation was an attempt of the aristocracy to thwart trends in conspicuous consumption and emulation by the middle class. Members of the aristocracy carved out an elitist yet modest recipe for consumption in which political membership was defined through personal choice. Kuchta de-emphasizes class-based modes of establishing political power in favor of individual identity. Personal identity was presented as a matter of choice; one could choose to avoid the Apolitical vices@ of luxurious consumption, corruption, and effeminacy, which were purported to impoverish eighteenth century England. But class boundaries remained well-defined as middle-class reformers sought to appropriate and undermine the aristocratic claim for political agency by exposing them as Avain and viscous...luxurious landlords@ in opposition to middle-class advocates of liberty and virtue (67). In arguing that the concept of conspicuous consumption alone fails to account for the entire social framework of the masculine renunciation, Kuchta privileges personal identity over class as a means of signifying political legitimacy. His analysis leaves the reader wanting a deeper inquiry into the reasons why aristocrats seeking political power sought prescribed patterns of dress. The reader is left wondering if simplicity and masculinity in dressing was merely for public display, whether such patterns of consumption also translated to the home.

In the second section of The Sex of Things, the family is viewed as an analytical tool through which obligations of consumption and provision are made. The modern consumer household, relying on market exchange for most of its supplies, is in opposition to the producer household, which is dependent on available resources and household labor (151, my emphasis). The British rural cottage of 1800 illustrates the latter household in which men and women work together, receiving assistance from children, and is basically self-sufficient punctuated by occasional barter or gift exchange with kin networks. The American suburban home of 1960 typifies the former household in which the father (AMr. Breadwinner@) ventures out to make money and provide for the family, while the mother (AMrs. Consumer@) stays close to home to fulfill her duties as housewife and consumer (152). De Grazia states that, AAlthough the modern sexual division of labor dates back to the mid-nineteenth-century factory system, with roots even earlier, the notion of a scientifically efficient division between the wage-earning half of the family and the consuming half is purely and invention of the early twentieth@ (158-9, my emphasis). Fordism, the establishment of the five dollar, eight hour work day as a means of standardizing production to reach wider markets, serves as the foundation for this Ascientific@ division of labor in which the ideal family conformed to standard prescriptions of duty.

Anna Igra=s essay on anti-desertion reform in Progressivist Era New York City in reference to the immigrant Jewish community juxtaposes husbands= charges of wive=s voracious consumption with wive=s accusations of husbands= withholding money for necessities. Tension about gendered responsibilities is explained in terms of the cultural transition coming from eastern European Jewish communities, where women are expected to provide for their families, to the United States, where laws and charities reinforce the notion that men should be the breadwinners. AResponsible consumption@ constructed breadwinning as a masculine and moral package, whereby men use their weekly paychecks to show their competence in manhood by providing for their families (189). During such a period of transition in how labor is divided, the reader is left wondering how most women and immigrants in general felt about such packaging of men as the breadwinners. Igra explains Jewish involvement in such reform partially in terms of middle-class American Jewish efforts of acculturating the working-class immigrants and partially in response to fears that desertion and welfare dependency would fuel a backlash towards Jewish immigrants. Earle Eubank, a scholar of desertion, felt that immigrant men equated Americanization with Aa taste for brighter lights, fancier clothing, more stirring amusements and less confined life@ (197). Immigrants as well as social reformers considered acculturation to occur through the process of consumption, according to historian Andrew Heinze. The notion that freedom involved access to American abundance was apparently widely held among Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Igra draws from the work of a host of historians, social workers, and social reformers in her article and relies on corroborating evidence to validate her presentation but provides little empirical data or application of social theory. Though she relates laws (e.g. Mothers= pension legislation) to the anti-desertion movement, a clear analysis of how legal changes influenced consumption patterns is absent.

In her analysis of American working-class family structure between 1919 and 1941, Susan Porter Benson draws from both empirical data of wage-earning women and their families as well as case studies compiled by psychologists, sociologists, social workers, and settlement-house workers of working-class families encountering unemployment. Under the rubric of male breadwinner, the ideal husband had steady employment which provided for the entire family. What is often lost in the rhetoric of male breadwinning is that structural obstacles exist in the labor market which prevented well-intended men from fulfilling their socially-prescribed Aduties@. During the 1920s and 1930s, families had to adjust to shorter hours and a lack of security in the labor market. Men dealt with this adversity in a number of ways: some chose to eschew the role of breadwinner by abandoning their families, while others witnessed a Aturning of the tables@ in which they requested spare change from their wives or daughters (218). This latter option was connected with dependency, insecurity, and public humiliation in which the male breadwinner no longer exercised control over consumption for creature comforts such as the occasional drink, newspaper, or tobacco. Just as men had been expected to provide money to the household, women were expected to be Agood managers@ and were assumed to have Anatural@ abilities in this domain of wisely using family funds (222). Married working-class women also found themselves in the workforce due to the low income of their husbands, the unsteadiness of their work, and the necessity to support relatives outside of the immediate family. Few women noted specific purchase goals in reference to their participation in the labor market, but those who did mentioned a home, educating the children, medical expenses, and furniture as priorities in consumption. Though Benson successfully challenges the notion of Mr. Breadwinner and Mrs. Consumer as representative gender roles by calling attention to structural barriers in the labor market which necessitated a reconstruction of roles, her essay mentions little in reference to how such gender reconstruction impacted changing consumption patterns.

In the third section of the book, the question of whether or not women have been empowered by mass consumption is raised. Historical arguments revolve around the notion that expanding consumption creates space (e.g. department stores) acceptable for women outside of the domestic sphere. Arguments emerging from the connection between modern political and mass communications systems state that alternative domains outside of the centralized and patriarchal systems of governance common in AWestern@ societies have surfaced. Contributors to this final section expose the ambiguous relationship between consumption and political influence, avoiding any definitive conclusion that equates women=s consumption patterns with either liberation or confinement.

Kathy Peiss discusses the relationship between women=s identity and the cultural and ideological construction of cosmetic practices in early twentieth century United States. Psychological explanations of consumer behavior are challenged in favor of Athe cultural meanings of powder and paint@in which social status, commonality, and difference are expressed. In the 1880s, infrastructure developments of beauty salons, pharmaceutical houses, perfumers, drugstores, wholesale suppliers, department stores, and the mail-order business led to the growth of beauty culture in the U.S., with the expansion of products available to urban immigrants, African-Americans, and rural women by the early 1900s. Commercial beauty culture claimed that all women could achieve beauty if only they used the right products and followed the right regimens. AIn promising transformation, the cosmetics industry blurred the distinction between the made-up face as revealing a woman=s inner self and the made-up face constituting that self@ (323). The cooperation of advertising agencies, women=s magazines, and beauty Aexperts@ validated a form of women=s identity which was signified through the use of makeup. Peiss, avoiding any simplistic moral judgement of cosmetics being good or bad for women, justifiably concludes that the applications of makeup involve contested and varied meanings for women. Some women may consider the cosmetics industry to be oppressive and manipulative in perpetuating the belief that one must wear makeup to be beautiful, while others may view the option to wear makeup as a positive means of expression, which has served to challenge nineteenth century hierarchies among women, to present new economic opportunities, and to represent new claims for cultural legitimacy.

Representations of women in West German melodramatic films of the 1950s are analyzed in Erica Carter=s essay. She introduces the melodrama as Athe >feminine= cinematic form par excellence@ by citing several feminist film critics but avoids recapping their arguments. Since the melodrama has concerned itself with affirming the bourgeois family in which the woman is relegated to the role of hausfrau and guru of domestic consumption, Carter argues that the postwar melodrama has something to say about contemporary discussions of female consumption. In 1950s West Germany, both policy makers and market researchers considered housewives to be the primary decision makers in domestic consumption and targets for national recovery efforts. Such postwar history is presented vís a vís film-textual analysis presenting a crucial form of female transition from luxury consumer to bourgeois housewife. In the film Love Without Illusion, for example, a love triangle emerges when the sister (Ziemann) of a working wife (Hathayer) comes to stay with her and her disabled husband (Jürgens). The audience is led to believe that a woman, despite the best of intentions, cannot divide her attentions between her work and her home; the only space for her is in the domestic sphere. Meanwhile, the adulteress sister (Ziemann) in the film works as fashion model, an unacceptable domain for the bourgeois women. Though Carter=s essay is interesting in its attempt at weaving film-textual analysis with historical accounts, the specific connection to female consumption alluded to in her introduction is poorly developed. She admits that her essay is only a beginning and calls for further attempts to uncover the relationship between women and melodrama by consideration of statistical data on the female audience, as well as discursive contributions from popular media.

The Sex of Things concludes with selected bibliography by Ellen Furlough, highlighting gender and consumption in historical perspective. The bibliography includes histories of consumption and consumer culture as well as theoretical contributions and contains a number of categories rooted in feminist research on consumption. These categories include: sites of consumption, marketing and design , spectatorship and reception, production of representations, domesticity, sexuality, appearance, and politics and ideologies of consumption. Each section ranges historically from the Middle Ages to the present. Unfortunately, the bibliography is dominated by Western perspectives; only a few of the sources are non-Western in orientation.