The Sound of Textile in the Nineteenth-Century French Novel
Dr. Shoshana Rose Marzel / 27 August 2017
Out of all the senses associated with clothing, e.g., touch, sight, thermic, smell, and so forth, the present article analyzes one sense, namely hearing, in the nineteenth-century French novel. According to French lexicologist Georges Matoré, French writers in the nineteenth century, more than any other, made extensive use of words and expressions associated with the senses, including hearing. And indeed, there are a multitude of words in French to describe noises and sounds produced by clothes. A new word was coined specifically for this purpose, froufrou, which is onomatopoeic since it describes the rustling sound made by a voluminous skirt. Later, the noun also became a verb, froufrouter.
The present article examines how the representation of sounds produced by clothing in literature can be understood or interpreted. What does it add to the plot, to the relationships between the characters, and to their class distinction? The article therefore seeks to analyze the narrative functions of denoting sounds produced by clothing in the nineteenth-century French novel. To this end I shall employ the theoretical model developed by Christopher Lucken and Juan Rigoli who consider the presence of sound in literature as an aestheticization of sound. In their view, sound in literature is subordinated to the aestheticization of the literary work, and consequently sounds are presenced harmoniously rather than chaotically, as they are usually experienced in real life. Following Lucken and Rigoli, and by means of a number of representative cases, I shall show that the sound of clothes in literature is indeed presented harmoniously in order to serve narrative functions.
The sound of clothing to create atmosphere
Sounds of textile are often enlisted into the novel to create a particular atmosphere. For example, in Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot) by Honoré de Balzac (1835), the author builds tension by means of mysterious clothing sounds. The following is a short excerpt from the novel, translated into English by Ellen Marriage:
“He [Eugène de Rastignac] was just in the doorway of his room when a strange sound from the staircase below reached his ears; it might have been made by two men coming up in list slippers. Eugene listened; two men there certainly were, he could hear their breathing.” By means of the rustle of the slippers and the breathing of two unknown men, Balzac builds the tension that will increasingly heighten until Rastignac discovers Father Goriot’s true identity. By employing these acoustic denotations Balzac heightens the atmosphere of mystery in order to create suspense in the reader. Additionally, according to Balzac researcher Jean-François Richer, all the sounds and noises in the Balzacian novel contribute to the realism in his oeuvre. In other novels, too, sounds of clothing are introduced to create an atmosphere, albeit of different kinds, for example in La Curée (The Kill) by Émile Zola (1871). The novel describes the advancement of a simple man, Aristide Saccard, from poverty to wealth. He becomes a shrewd businessman during Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris. To this end, Haussmann initiated the tearing down of entire quarters in Paris, compensation for the original inhabitants, and construction of new buildings by private developers to replace them. The novel’s protagonist seizes the opportunity, becomes a property speculator himself, and amasses a fortune. To show off his wealth he invites the who’s who of Paris to a magnificent dinner party. The following is one of many descriptions of the event:
“Then, when all the guests had found their names written on the back of the menu-card, there was a noise of chairs, a great rustling of silken dresses. The bare shoulders, studded with diamonds, and separated by black coats, which served to emphasize their pallor, added their creamy whiteness to the gleam of the table.” In this excerpt, the rustling of the dresses is an additional component of the description of the dinner guests’ opulence. Additionally, Zola explicitly names the textile that produces this sound: silk, which is indeed an expensive fabric. Thus, the combination of the rustling of dresses and specifying the fabric plays a role in portraying the dinner guests’ opulence. All these also constitute a further expression of the festive atmosphere at the grand dinner party.
Gustave Flaubert also employed sounds, and he also used the term froufrou in a scene in his novel L'Education sentimentale (Sentimental Education) (1869). In the novel, the protagonist Frédéric Moreau attends a costume party in dubious company:
“A brass chandelier with forty wax tapers lit up the dining-room, the walls of which were covered entirely with fine old earthenware that was hung up there […] With a rustle of garments, the women, having arranged their skirts, their sleeves, and their stoles, took their seats beside one another.” The following is the excerpt in the original French:
“Un lustre de cuivre à quarante bougies éclairait la salle, dont les murailles disparaissaient sous de vieilles faïences accrochées [...] Avec un froufrou d’étoffes, les femmes, tassant leurs jupes, leurs manches et leurs écharpes, s’assirent les unes près des autres.” Here too, the sound is produced by the extensive fabric of the women’s skirts, sleeves, and stoles. The description of the rustling garments is designed to denote wealth. In this case, however, most of the women are not actually from the upper class – and this is the interesting point here – but quite the opposite; however, they would like to look and sound as if they were. The rustling of the garments joins other components of the description of a society that adopts the codes of higher society in order to emulate it.
CLAUDE MONET, MADAME LOUIS JOACHIM GAUDIBERT, 1868
The sound of clothing as an expression of intimacy
In addition to the use made of sounds of garments to create atmosphere, sounds of garments and objects also serve to express a variety of emotions in more intimate settings, usually between a couple. In this context it is important to bear in mind that these sounds are the product of the encounter between the fabric of the garment and body movements. Thus for example, in Madame Bovary, also by Gustave Flaubert, which is set in a small Normandy town and relates the story of Emma Bovary, her unhappy marriage (in her eyes) to Charles Bovary, and the affairs she has with two lovers: Rodolphe and Léon. In one scene she is strolling with Léon, who is wooing her:
“It was the dinner-hour at the farms, and the young woman and her companion heard nothing as they walked but the fall of their steps on the earth of the path, the words they spoke, and the sound of Emma’s dress rustling round her.” There are several sounds in this scene: the conversation between Léon and Emma, their footfalls, and the rustling of Emma’s dress. Additionally, it is specifically mentioned that these are the only sounds they hear, even though there were other sounds around them beforehand. Therefore, it may be deduced that by denoting these sounds the characters frame themselves in a private bubble, and thus create their own sonorous intimacy. Toward the end of the novel, after a love affair has developed between Léon and Emma, their relationship disintegrates, and Léon tries to break off his liaison with Emma. However, as Flaubert states:
“Besides, he rebelled against his absorption, daily more marked, by her personality. He begrudged Emma this constant victory. He even strove not to love her; then, when he heard the creaking of her boots, he turned coward, like drunkards at the sight of strong drinks.” It is evident that in Flaubert’s view the creaking of a boot possesses a particularly strong erotic effect that does not allow Léon to initiate the separation from Emma. Flaubert expresses the same view in his short story Hérodias (Herodias) from “Trois Contes” (“Three Tales”) (1877). This short story is set here, in the Land of Israel, at around 0 CE. It is the story of Hérodias, a Jewish princess of the Herodian dynasty who first married her uncle, Herod, the son of King Herod, with whom she had a daughter who was named Salome. Later, she left her husband for his half-brother Herod Antipas, and married him too. However, in accordance with Jewish law, a woman cannot divorce her husband without his consent. Hérodias ignored the matter, left her husband, and married Herod Antipas. Moreover, she “caused” her (new) husband to violate the prohibition against incest since he married his brother’s wife while his brother was still alive.
John the Baptist accuses Hérodias of seducing Herod Antipas, thus causing him to sin. The following are the words Flaubert put into John the Baptist’s mouth to illustrate this matter:
“Ah! It is you, Jezebel! You who stole his heart by the squeak in your shoe.” Here too, as in the relationship between Emma and Léon, Flaubert ascribes erotic power to the sound of a squeaking shoe that cannot be resisted. The sound of the woman’s shoes serves as an additional instrument of seduction alongside the abundant tools in her arsenal of seduction. It may even be said that the creaking of boots or squeaking of shoes serve as a metonymy of women and their erotic power. In summary of this aspect, it transpires that the sound of clothing and or objects serves as a private language between two people, or a private reading between them. Additionally, even though the sound is usually heard in public as well, it is only the enamored individual who interprets it as a sign or is excited by it. For example, even though the creaking of Emma’s boots can be heard by all, it is only Léon who becomes excited when he hears it, and thus too in the case of Herod Antipas when he hears the squeaking of Hérodias’s shoes
Masai Dress and Collar, 2009. Courtesy of studio 5050. Photo credit: Nick James
The sound of clothing as an expression of cultural codes
Words reflect a sociocultural reality. And indeed, in addition to all the above, the sounds of garments and objects in literature convey nineteenth-century cultural perceptions. First, most of the sounds described here are produced by women’s garments, and this is no coincidence. In the nineteenth century women’s attire was composed of multiple items of clothing: over their numerous undergarments women wore a dress, with a coat and/or stole over it, as well as gloves, a hat, jewelry, and shoes. Added to all these were artificial flowers, frills, ruffles, ribbons, embroideries, feathers, and more. Nineteenth-century women who wore these constructions indeed produced sounds, and thus the literary descriptions that give expression to a range of narrative functions, also describe a reality that is familiar to the people of the period.
Additionally, the sound of a dress is usually associated with elegance. In her article, Louis XIV, ‘Le marketing, c’est moi (Louis XIV, Marketing is Me, as in “L'Etat, c'est moi” – “I am the State”), fashion researcher Ellen Anders notes that although the word froufrou was officially included in the dictionary in 1738, it was already in use before then, and directly linked elegance with the sounds of a dress. This perception is reflected in some of the novels presented above. For example, the women who attended the grand dinner party in Aristide Saccard’s home ensured they were dressed elegantly, as expected of women attending a festive occasion, and this included the sounds made by their garments. Thus too in Flaubert’s L'Education sentimentale which describes women, some of them prostitutes, adopting sonorous attire since they have assimilated the cultural code that links elegance, chic, and the sounds of garments. French literature researcher Jean Louis Robert goes even further and claims that for the Goncourt brothers (les frères Goncourt) this sonorous elegance typifies the Parisian attitude which is perceived, in their eyes, as the embodiment of charm and chic. In summary
This article presents a number of representative cases of garment sounds from a very wide range of sounds of this kind in nineteenth-century French novels. They illustrate that the sound of garments and objects, which nowadays we no longer hear as much, constituted a concrete reality in the nineteenth century. This sonorous reality permeated the literature of the time, and is what enables us to understand today the range of meanings accorded to it in those days.
 Georges Matoré, “Le vocabulaire des sensations dans La Curée”, in L’Information Grammaticale, N. 31, 1986, pp. 21-22.
 Mathias Sieffert, “Penser le bruit, du Moyen Âge à Valère Novarina”, Du bruit à l'oeuvre. Vers une esthétique du désordre, sous la direction de Christopher Lucken et Juan Rigoli, Genève: MétisPress, coll. “Voltiges”, 2013, p. 252, http://www.fabula.org/acta/document9394.php
 Honoré de Balzac, Father Goriot, English translation by Ellen Marriage, p. 20.
 Jean François Richer, “Ambiances balzaciennes – La poétique des effets sonores dans La Comédie humaine d’Honoré de Balzac”, in Ambiances in action / Ambiances en acte(s) – International Congress on Ambiances, Montreal 2012, Montreal, Canada (2012), p. 58, http://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00745536/
 Émile Zola, La Curée, G. Charpentier et E. Fasquelle, 1895, p. 29.
 Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education, English translation by Adrianne Tooke, Wordsworth Editions, 2001, p. 156.
 Gustave Flaubert, L'Education sentimentale, Flammarion, 1978 (first published 1869), p. 151
 Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, English translation by Gerard Hopkins, Wordsworth Editions, 1998, p. 72
 Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, English translation by Gerard Hopkins, Wordsworth Editions, 1998, p. 216.
 Gustave Flaubert, “Hérodias”, in Three Tales, Penguin Classics, 2005, p. 109.
 Ellen Anders, “Louis XIV, ‘Le marketing, c’est moi’” in Global Fashion Brands: Style, Luxury & History, edited by Joseph H. Hancock II, Gjoko Muratovski, Veronica Manlow and Anne Peirson-Smith, University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. 279-
 Jean-Louis Robert, “La Parisienne, construction d’un mythe?”, Imaginaires urbains du Paris romantique jusqu’à nos jours, Editions Le Manuscrit, 2011, p. 307