ASHR Interview: Student Paper Award Winner Marissa Croft on the Rhetoric of Fashion

For this latest ASHR interview, I spoke with Marissa Croft, a PhD Candidate at Northwestern University, and winner of ASHR’s 2019 Student Paper Award. Croft’s paper, “An Object Worthy of the Attention of a Sensible Republican”: Establishing the Characteristics of a Revolutionary Republican Political Style through the Costume Reform Project of the Société Populaire et Républicaine des Arts (1793-1795),” examined the rhetorical implications of dress and costume in French revolutionary discourse.

Jordan Loveridge: Can you tell me about how you became interested in the history of rhetoric? What initially drew you to the field, and how would you describe your main research areas?

Marissa Croft: When I first entered my PhD program at Northwestern, I was primarily interested in the rhetoric of history and historical narratives in filmHowever, as I learned more about the history of rhetoric I became fascinated by how rhetoricians throughout history have had to negotiate rhetoric’s relationship with the liberal arts.  I noticed that the arguments and definitional work being done in defense of rhetoric seemed to parallel scholarship on other so-called “decorative” arts, such as fashion and jewelry. In the case of rhetoric and fashion specifically, I wanted to know more about why both practices have been praised for their artistry and excluded on the basis of their utility throughout history. In my own research, I’m interested in historical objects that straddle the line between art and craft, and I use rhetorical theory to show how discourse about even the most seemingly ornamental subjects can offer important insights into the past. Right now, I study clothing reform discourse during the French Revolution and 19th century floral dictionaries in the United States.

JL: In your view, why is the history of rhetoric an important area of study for rhetorical theory, communication, rhetoric and composition, etc. more broadly? Why does the history of rhetoric matter today?

MC: Studying the history of rhetoric better prepares us to critically engage with people, words, and ideas from the past. In turn, this study of the past often lends us new perspectives on our own subject position in the present moment. As rhetoricians, we know that the language we use to talk about various social and political issues has consequences, and the same is true for the way that we talk about the past in the present. Just look at current debates over mask-wearing and other COVID-19 safety measures. I’m sure we’ve all noticed countless articles springing up on our news feeds with titles like “Lessons from the Past,” that make their case by citing civilian debates and popular health rhetoric during the Black Plague or the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. The stakes are high when it comes to accurately interpreting historical texts and making claims about their efficacy. Even contemporary epidemiologists have pointed out how similar the language from public health recommendations in 1918 is to the language used today! That’s why I enjoy studying the history of rhetoric: for nearly every field out there, there is some sort of productive connection to be drawn between rhetoric in the past and the research problem at hand. 

JL: Could you tell us about your award-winning project? What led you to focus on this topic and ask these questions? 

MC: My paper, “An Object Worthy of the Attention of a Sensible Republican”: Establishing the Characteristics of a Revolutionary Republican Political Style through the Costume Reform Project of the Société Populaire et Républicaine des Arts (1793-1795)” came out of a seminar led by Angela G. Ray on Contemporary Rhetorical Analysis.  I had already done some research about the toga as a rhetorical tool for a course with Robert Hariman on Classical Rhetoric, and I knew there had to be some way to connect that to my interest in 18th century clothing and background in French. I started out by looking into the influence of classical aesthetics on the French Revolution and ended up coming across an archive of debates and publications from a group of revolutionary artists who called themselves the Société Populaire et Républicaine des Arts [Popular and Republican Society of Arts](or the SPRA for short). 

In general, I’m interested in how the way that we talk about clothing shapes our thoughts about our bodies, health, government, and social roles. As it turned out, this group of artists was engaging deeply with the question of clothing as a means to power, as illustrated by the minutes of their meetings and their published pamphlet titled “Considérations sur les avantages de changer le costume français [Considerations on the advantages of changing the French costume].” In these texts, the artists of the SPRA make several arguments about the necessity of a new national uniform for all citizens. The SPRA found the fashions of the late 18th century to be a shameful reminder of the monarchy, as well as a tool for creating divisions based on class. They also argued that the most popular types of clothing at the time were actively preventing people from performing their proper roles as citizens of the Republic and they asserted that with a new national uniform, “men would become healthier, stronger, more agile, better suited to defend their liberty; women would give the state well-formed babies.”[1] In particular, the SPRA favored the dress of ancient Rome as a model for this new civic uniform, not only because of its power as a symbol of republicanism, but because of its dignity and simplicity. I ultimately argue that when taken together, the SPRA’s aesthetic and political concerns about clothing form a coherent political style, characteristic of the rhetoric of the French Revolutionary period.  

JL: Does your essay/dissertation relate to a larger project? Does it relate to or build from your previous work?

MC: My study of the SPRA is going to be part of my dissertation “State of Dress: Rhetoric and Clothing Reform in Revolutionary France, 1789–1804” which asks the following question: What can a rhetorical examination of discourse about clothing during the French Revolution reveal about larger changes in how people were experiencing and understanding state power?

Last summer I had the opportunity to conduct archival research in France, where I examined Revolutionary-era documents about clothing reform that came from a wide variety of sources including doctors, fashion vendors, politicians, mothers, teachers, and law enforcement. To give you a sense of the sorts of discourse: there was debate on whether women could wear the iconic bonnet rouge (inspired by the Phrygian caps of antiquity) and commentary on hairstyles inspired by popular depictions of Roman emperors Titus and Caracalla. There were also laws passed requiring people to wear military-style tricolor cockades, and widespread discussion of the health consequences of men’s breeches and women’s stays. (See illustration.)  As someone who sews historical costumes in addition to studying them, I’ve really enjoyed diving deeper into the history of clothing in order to better understand the arguments that were being made about each garment.

JL: Who is one of your favorite figures from the history of rhetoric, and why?

MC: Quintilian is one of my favorites, not only because I find his advice to speakers to be generally sound, but because he takes clothing so seriously as a tool of persuasion. Believe it or not, most of what we know about the shape, draping, and social practices around togas comes not from marble statues, but from Quintillian’s Institutio Oratoria (see A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.)  In my research I’ve found that writings with a pedagogical focus tend not only offer fantastic insight into the history of rhetoric, but also into the history of clothing. We don’t often explicitly discuss how we wear our clothing, unless we are teaching someone a specific skill related to it! Some of my favorite examples of pedagogical texts that include detailed rhetorical theory in close proximity to instructions on wearing clothing are Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1528)the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert (1751-1772), and The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness(1860) by Florence Hartley.  

About the InterviewerJordan Loveridge is Assistant Professor of Communication and English at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He earned his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Arizona State University, focusing specifically on medieval rhetoric. His work appears in venues such as Rhetoric Society QuarterlyRhetoricaPhilosophy and RhetoricCommunity Literacy Journal, and Journal for the History of Rhetoric.

[1] “Considérations sur les avantages de changer le costume français par la Société Populaire et Républicaine des Arts.”French Revolution Research Collection. Edited by Colin Lucas. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1989.  “Les hommes deviendroient plus sains, plus forts, plus agiles, plus propres à défendre leur liberté ; les femmes donneroient à l’état des enfans mieux constitues.”