What It Feels Like for a Girl: Gendering the History of the Senses

SASHA RASMUSSEN

When asked to describe my work, I tend to say that my research sits at the intersection of gender and sensory histories. Gender as a lens of historical analysis has by now been widely adopted, but the concept of ‘sensory history’ may need further explanation. To my mind, sensory history has an immediate and visceral kind of logic to it. It offers us a way to think ourselves back into the body, to grapple with questions of lived experience and embodied identity. In this post, I want to offer a brief introduction to taking a sensory approach to history, and show that a gendered lens still has plenty to offer an historian of the senses.

Over the last few decades, a growing body of historical scholarship has taken an explicit interest in the senses – as I began my own work in this area, I found the work of Alain Corbin, Mark M. Smith, Aimée Boutin and Laura Gowing particularly influential.[1] Perhaps the most important thing to recognise is that sensory history is not about replicating past experiences, but elaborating the frames of cultural reference within which those sensory encounters became meaningful. Mark Smith usefully distinguishes between ‘producing sense’ and ‘consuming sense’, encouraging historians to critically examine how seemingly straight-forward sensory descriptions were inflected by contemporary value systems.[2]

Figure 1. Maurice Lourdey, Scène de théâtre: spectatrices (c.1900-1913)

To paraphrase an argument that Alain Corbin makes in his book, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside,[3] even if we were able to reproduce the sound of an original nineteenth-century church bell – the same dimensions and material, struck with the same force – and we stood exactly where people of the past once stood, our understanding of that sound would still differ wildly from theirs. Villagers of the nineteenth century had never heard anything as loud as a rock concert or a jumbo jet, and these comparisons colour the way we understand the sound of bells. Conversely, religion, politics, and rural community each occupy so different a place in today’s society that, without intimate knowledge of these frameworks, a large part of the original meaning is lost.

When we shift our focus from the sensations themselves to how those sensations were interpreted and made meaningful, the importance of considering gender becomes clear. The kinds of sensory encounters available to us and how we understand them are at once intensely personal and part of collective identities. For example, what we wear, what we eat, and where we go are, of course daily individual choices, but they are also closely linked to factors such as gender, race, class, age, disability, and geography.

In the context of my current work, I’m interested in how gender affected the sensory landscape that women inhabited in the early twentieth century, and the ways expectations of femininity shaped their understanding of their sensory encounters. This was the era of the ‘New Woman’, as women found greater professional and personal freedom amidst wider cultural and technological change.[4] As boundaries between the domestic and public spheres became ever more porous, men and women increasingly moved in shared spaces.[5] Yet even though their sensory receptors (ears, eyes, nose, skin…) worked in the same ways, I argue that a woman’s sensory experience still differed significantly from a man’s: some experiences – such as wearing a corset – were specific to women, and even similar experiences were likely to be understood differently.

To put these ideas into practice, let’s imagine what an evening outing to the theatre might have been like for a young bourgeois woman in Paris in 1908. This period saw such a rapid expansion of new entertainment genres and mass visual culture that looking was cast as a quintessentially ‘modern’ activity, both by contemporaries and subsequent scholars.[6] While there has been significant work examining how women were positioned as passive objects of the male gaze, we know far less about women as observers and spectators in their own right.

In preparation for a night out at the theatre, a woman might have poured over the pages of a photographic magazine – such as Femina, La Vie Heureuse or Comœdia Illustré – reading theatrical reviews and admiring portraits of her favourite actresses. She would have carefully selected her outfit, guided by the eveningwear shown in the fashion plates of those same publications. Once she stepped into the public eye, she knew her sartorial choices would be scrutinised by other fashionable women, and her attractiveness judged by men. Seeing and being seen, for a woman, were inextricably linked.

Figure 2. Two actresses model large hats for Comœdia Illustré’s regular fashion column (1910)

The question of whether or not to wear a hat to the theatre was controversial. According to the fashion columnist for Femina, 1908 was set to be the year of big hats – decorated with ribbons, feathers, lace, or artificial flowers. Keeping one of these creations stable on the head restricted the wearer’s movement, and sidelong or upwards glances from under the brim would be more frequent. But wearing a hat was also a kind of shield, allowing a woman to conceal her face or the direction she was looking more easily. Paradoxically, a large hat could simultaneously attract and deflect attention, drawing admiring (or hostile) looks while also protecting the wearer from the weight of unwanted stares.

Female audience members were frequently satirised for the size of their hats, and gentlemen complained that when seated behind a fashionable lady one could barely see the stage. Some theatres allegedly barred any woman wearing decorative headgear from being admitted, a strategy that was met with outrage by the fashion magazines.[7] Yet putting on an extremely large hat and positioning oneself to block a gentleman’s view is such an audacious gesture that it deserves closer attention. Beyond being a fashion statement, a large hat was also a strategy to control the gaze of others by deliberately seizing the spotlight, obscuring the spectacle and substituting oneself as the object of that gaze.

Figure 3. Advertisement for theatre binoculars (1910)

Other accessories a woman might take to the theatre included theatre binoculars and a fan. Women’s magazines were full of advertisements for theatre binoculars, which emphasised their quality – strong magnification, sharpness and clarity of image, luminosity – and their portability, so lightweight that even ladies could carry them in a pocket or evening bag. Fans, on the other hand, were becoming scarcer. One commentator suggested that, as theatres transitioned from gas to electric lighting, auditoriums became less hot, and the practical function of fanning oneself became obsolete.[8]

This exercise is valuable on two fronts. Firstly, it helps to reconstruct the physicality of a popular pastime – a stuffy auditorium, a precariously-balanced hat – that reveals theatre-going as an embodied practice. Secondly, it also tells us something about how women engaged with visuality and visual culture in the period more generally. Women’s looking crossed boundaries between a variety of interreferential media, including illustrated magazines, photography, live performances, celebrity culture, and people-watching. The female gaze was often focused on other women and their bodies: friends, relations, acquaintances, actresses, or photographed celebrities, and fashion models.[9] Women valued accuracy and verisimilitude in their visual encounters, whether choosing a brand of binoculars or squinting to make out the embroidered detail in a dress pattern.

But perhaps most striking is the confidence with which women embraced spectatorship in the early twentieth century. Given the weight of nineteenth-century rhetoric about the need to protect women from certain sights, to shield of avert their gaze, and to limit women’s access to certain locations or genres of spectacle, when I first began to delve into this topic, I expected to find women peeking tentatively out from behind heavy curtains. Instead, I found women embraced forms of confident – even ostentatious – looking, taking pleasure in the many forms of visual culture and new optical tools available to them. By combining gendered and sensory approaches to this historical moment, we can better grasp the lived experience of the past.

Figure 4. Two women balance on chairs at the races at Auteuil, Paris (1910).

Sasha Rasmussen is a final-year DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford and a Scouloudi Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research. Her doctoral thesis considers the role of gender in shaping women’s sensory experiences in two cultural capitals – Paris and St Petersburg – between 1900 and 1913. You can find her on Twitter as @SashaRasmusse11.


[1] Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination. Leamington Spa: Berg, 1986; Mark M. Smith, Sensory History. Oxford: Berg, 2007; Aimée Boutin, City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris. Studies in Sensory History. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2015; Laura Gowing, Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 2003.

[2] Mark M. Smith, ‘Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History’. Journal of Social History vol. 40, no. 4 (2007), pp. 841-858.

[3] Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside. Martin Thom (trans.). London: Papermac, 1999.

[4] Mary Louise Roberts, Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in Fin-de-Siècle France. Chicago; London: Chicago University Press, 2002.

[5] Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London. New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 2000; Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadul Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. London: Virago, 1992.

[6] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project. Howard Eiland and Rolf Tiedemann (trans.), Cambridge, Mass.; London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002; Vanessa Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. Berkeley, London: University of California Press, 1998.

[7] Marie-Anne l’Heureux, ‘La Mode de « Femina », Du Théâtre à la Ville’, Femina, no. 166, 15 December 1907, p. 567.

[8] Emile Hinzelin, ‘L’Eventail se meurt-il ? L’Eventail est-il mort ?’, La Vie Heureuse, 15 Mai 1908.

[9] Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

[10] Jan Matlock, ‘Censoring the Realist Gaze’, in Spectres of Realism: Gender, Body, Genre, Margaret Cohen and Christopher Prendergast (eds). University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 28-65.


Banner Image: Unmarried women dance together at a celebration for the feast of Saint Catherine, 25 November 1912. Attribution: Agence Rol (photography de presse), ‘Sainte Catherine, femmes dansant dans une maison’. Bibliotheque nationale de France. Suggested by the author and understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 1. Cartoon by Maurice Lourdey, Scène de théâtre: spectatrices, dated between 1900 and 1913. Attribution: Bibliothèque nationale de France, understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 2. Two actresses model large hats for Comœdia Illustré’s regular fashion column, ‘Current Fashions at the Theatre’. Attribution: Comœdia Illustré no. 10, 19 February 1910, p. 297. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Suggested by the author and understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 3. Advertisement for ‘Lemaire’ theatre bincoluars, “combining power, clarity, and elegance”. Attribution: Comœdia Illustré no. 13, 1 April 1910, p. 388 verso. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Suggested by the author and understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 4. Description: Two women balance on chairs to gain a better view at the races at Auteuil, Paris, 1910. Attribution: Agence Rol (photograhie de presse), ‘Auteuil, toilettes, 13-3-1910, deux élégantes debout sur des chaises’. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Suggested by the author and understood to be in the public domain.

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