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The Nineteenth-Century City

At the root of glamour, however, is a set of social and cultural changes that took place in the late nineteenth century, in particular in the great modern cities. Broadly speaking, this period may be said to have seen the decline of rigid social hierarchies and the eclipse of aristocratic control of culture, politics and society. Instead, a civilization based on money took shape, in which luxury, visibility and elegance were not reserved for a closed elite, but were open to whoever could pay or be paid for. Increasingly, a cosmopolitan category of nouveaux riches bought into the old high society or, where access was obstructed, emulated its forms and rituals.

Industrialists and financiers struggle

As part of this process, monetary values of ostentation and display enjoyed prominence as industrialists and financiers struggled to establish their status through conspicuous consumption. At the same time, a range of secondary changes served to render more open and visible the public dimension of the life of the elite, which took on the characteristics of a tableau or narrative for lower social classes. For example, the theatre and high society enjoyed closer relations, and both for the first time in the modern period established links with the street, which was redefined as a place of shopping and display. In Paris, Benjamin’s ‘capital of the nineteenth century’, the boulevards, 29 the arcades and the theatres of Montmartre became centers of frivolity and luxury that were not hidden behind the closed doors of the palaces of the aristocracy.

Café society’

In such a context, dazzling facades produced by families and individuals seeking to win recognition mingled and mixed with commercial displays, the bustle of the boulevards and the gaiety of the world of entertainment. Enticing images became part and parcel of the modern city. What were the sources of this new visual language of display? In part they were conventional ones. Royal courts, like that of the French Second Empire prior to its downfall, or the events of the London Season, provided a focus of attention. But as an established elite lost its monopoly of splendour, the sources were widened to include the demi-monde or what eventually was termed ‘café society’

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