Look past the cover of Parisiennes, A Celebration of French Women, a large format coffee table book fronted by a photo of a trio of three gorgeous women in little black dresses, models waiting backstage at a fashion show in 1956. Because if the book were judged on cover alone, one would expect yet another compilation of vintage high fashion photos, devastatingly glamorous, untouchable, a fantasy.
Your first clue that this book will be something different is the fact that the introduction is written by noted feminist thinker, writer, and academic, Xavière Gauthier, who traces the experience of 20th century women in work, at home, at war. She elaborates on French women’s struggle for the vote, for reproductive rights, for economic independance , as well as their crucial and largely unheralded roles in the two world wars.
The photos of Parisian women are largely from archives of well-known male photographers, Robert Doisneau, Brassai, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Willy Ronis, Cecil Beaton with the exception of work by Janine Niepce, Élise Hardy, and Sabine Weiss.
Yes, there is glamour. Yes, there is sophistication. But this book primarily documents the public lives of everyday women, the grumpy looking concierge in a doorway in a Doisneau photo from 1949, the balloon seller in the Jardin des Tuileries in 1936, and the epitome of 70s style in the blonde crossing the street in bellbottoms, a wide belt at her hips, laden with ethnic jewelry. There are legislators, mothers with children, and gun-carrying women of the French Resistance.
If there is, in fact, a chapter on Elegance, there too is a chapter on Rebellion with photos of striking workers and suffragettes. And at the outset of each chapter, there is a brief essay, some straightforward, one, at the top of the chapter on Rebellion, quietly heroic and wrenching. From the photo of a young mother nursing her child to women with their hair in curlers and a chic gal in a miniskirt on a motorbike, this book is to say that yes, the women of Paris have photographed well, but also, they have lived.