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Proust’s Odette and the Supernatural Art of Women’s Fashion

Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural […]. Thus she has to lay all the arts under contribution for the means of lifting herself above Nature, the better to conquer hearts and rivet attention. It matters but little that the artifice and trickery are known to all, so long as their success is assured and their effect always irresistible.’1

Portrait of Jeanne Duval by Charles Baudelaire

In The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Charles Baudelaire provocatively argues that art, beauty, and even virtue are contrary to our nature. These things require conscious effort and are thus inherently artificial. Following this logic, Baudelaire elevates women’s fashion and make up as two expressions of humanity’s noblest pursuit: beauty. The feminists among you will have noted that the women described by Baudelaire are performing for the attention of men, whom they have a ‘duty’ to charm. However, the passage is notable for investing women with a degree of agency and, more importantly, for suggesting that the cultivation of one’s sense of style is an aesthetic endeavour. This suggests a parallel between women’s dresses and make up and great works of art. I venture that while the parallel is only suggested in Baudelaire, it becomes fully developed in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu through the fictional character of Odette de Crécy. But who is Odette?

Ornella Muti and Jeremy Irons in Swann in Love (1984)

Odette begins her life as a provincial prostitute, until she is able (through a convenient first marriage to an impoverished aristocrat) to move to Paris and make a living as an elite courtesan. It is at this point that Odette becomes first the mistress of the child-narrator’s uncle and later on of the family friend Charles Swann. Swann is a middle-class man who happens to also be close friends with the Guermantes family, the most sought-after aristocratic set in Paris. After becoming pregnant with Swann’s child, Odette is able to convince him to marry her. This is much to the horror of Swann’s bourgeois and aristocratic friends. Following Swann’s death, Odette remarries an aristocratic man (Forcheville). When we last see her in the final pages of Le Temps retrouvé she has become fully enmeshed with the Guermantes set, the very same people who had originally forbidden Swann from bringing her to their parties due to her low-class origins and perceived immorality.

The story of Odette is the single most dramatic social ascension of Proust’s entire novel. But what makes Odette even more fascinating, I would argue, is the way in which she challenges the deeply gendered association of men with artistic talent and women with nature, which was still prevalent at the time that Proust was writing. The passages that I will be focusing on come from the chapter ‘Autour de Madame Swann’, in which Odette is described under her new identity as Madame Swann, the wife of Charles Swann and mother of the narrator-protagonist’s childhood friend and teenage crush Gilberte. But more than her marriage, it is Odette’s new outfits that enact her transformation.

On sentait qu’elle ne s’habillait pas seulement pour la commodité ou la parure de son corps; elle était entourée de sa toilette comme de l’appareil délicat et spiritualisé d’une civilisation. (i, 609)

[One felt that she did not dress simply for the comfort or the adornment of her body; she was surrounded by her outfit as by the delicate and spiritualised machinery of a civilisation.]2

Elle réservait ainsi, elle faisait occuper à sa toilette cet intervalle d’élégance dont les hommes à qui Mme Swann parlait le plus en camarade, respectaient l’espace et la nécessité, non sans une certaine déférence de profanes, un aveu de leur propre ignorance, et sur lequel ils reconnaissaient à leur amie, comme à un malade sur les soins spéciaux qu’il doit prendre, ou comme à une mère sur l’éducation de ses enfants, compétence et juridiction. (i, 625–26)

[She thus kept open, she made her outfit occupy that interval of elegance, of which the men with whom she was on the most familiar terms respected both the space and necessity, not without showing a certain deference, as of profane visitors to a shrine, an admission of their own ignorance, an interval over which they recognised that their friend had (as we recognise that a sick man has over the special precautions that he has to take, or a mother over her children's education) a competent jurisdiction.]

Evening dress by House of Worth

Proust’s far-ranging metaphors (religion, medicine, and education) suggest an ironic narratorial stance towards Odette’s bedazzled and slightly gauche admirers. But the smile they elicit should not divert our attention from the radical nature of Proust’s operation as the very same paragraph unfolds:

D’autant plus que déjà persuadé qu’en vertu de la liturgie et des rites dans lesquels Mme Swann était profondément versée, sa toilette était unie à la saison et à l’heure par un lien nécessaire, unique, les fleurs de son flexible chapeau de paille, les petits rubans de sa robe me semblaient naître du mois de mai plus naturellement encore que les fleurs des jardins et des bois; et pour connaître le trouble nouveau de la saison, je ne levais pas les yeux plus haut que son ombrelle, ouverte et tendue comme un autre ciel plus proche, clément, mobile et bleu. Car ces rites, s’ils étaient souverains, mettaient leur gloire, et par conséquent Mme Swann mettait la sienne, à obéir avec condescendance au matin, au printemps, au soleil, lesquels ne me semblaient pas assez flattés qu’une femme si élégante voulût bien ne pas les ignorer et eût choisi à cause d’eux une robe d’une étoffe plus claire, plus légère. (i, 626)

[All the more because, being assured in my own mind that, in accordance with the liturgy, with the ritual in which Mme Swann was so profoundly versed, her clothes were connected with the time of year and of day by a bond both inevitable and unique, I felt that the flowers upon the stiff straw brim of her hat, the baby-ribbons upon her dress had been even more naturally born of the month of May than the flowers in gardens and in woods; and to learn what latest change there was in weather or season I had not to raise my eyes higher than to her parasol, open and outstretched like another, a nearer sky, round, clement, mobile, blue. For these rites, if they were of sovereign importance, subjugated their glory (and, consequently, Mme Swann her own) in condescending obedience to the day, the spring, the sun, none of which struck me as being sufficiently flattered that so elegant a woman had been gracious enough not to ignore their existence, and had chosen on their account a dress of a lighter, thinner fabric.]

This description of Odette’s dresses takes Baudelaire’s suggestion that women should seek to elevate themselves above nature to an entirely new level: it reverses the order of the world. She does not dress according to the weather: the weather changes according to her dress. In other words, Odette’s artifice is so successful that it appears to be more natural than nature itself, thus defying the traditional hierarchy of the natural over the artificial — the very same hierarchy that had been attacked by Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life. Odette in this sense is the actualization of the Baudelairean aesthetic project.

American ensemble

Proust, however, pushes the case for women’s fashion and make up as aesthetic pursuits even further than Baudelaire did. By reinventing her appearance, Odette ceases to be a passive object shaped by external factors and the gaze of the men in her life, and becomes instead a creative subject.

C’était Odette elle-même que […] tous ceux qui avaient fréquenté Mme de Crécy auraient eu peine […] à reconnaître. Elle semblait avoir tant d’années de moins qu’autrefois! Sans doute, cela tenait en partie à ce qu’elle avait engraissé […] et d’autre part à ce que les coiffures nouvelles, aux cheveux lissés, donnaient plus d’extension à son visage qu’une poudre rose animait, et où ses yeux et son profil, jadis trop saillants, semblaient maintenant résorbés. Mais une autre raison de ce changement consistait en ceci que, arrivée au milieu de la vie, Odette s’était enfin découvert, ou inventé, une physionomie personnelle, un ‘caractère’ immuable, un ‘genre de beauté’, et sur ses traits décousus — qui pendant si longtemps, livrés aux caprices hasardeux et impuissants de la chair, prenant à la moindre fatigue pour un instant des années, une sorte de vieillesse passagère, lui avaient composé tant bien que mal, selon son humeur et selon sa mine, un visage épars, journalier, informe et charmant — avait appliqué ce type fixe, comme une jeunesse immortelle. (i, 606)

[It was Odette herself that […] all those who had known Mme de Crécy would have struggled […] to recognise. She looked so much younger! No doubt this was partly because she had gained weight […] and also because the new styles, which straightened the hair, gave more breadth to her face, which was now animated by pink blusher, and into which her eyes and profile, formerly too prominent, seemed to have been reabsorbed. But another reason for this change lay in the fact that, having reached the turning-point of life, Odette had at last discovered, or invented, a physiognomy of her own, an unalterable “character”, a “style of beauty”, and on her incoherent features — which for so many years had been exposed to the hazardous whims of the powerless flesh, ageing her momentarily each time she was tired, working as best they could to compose for her a dishevelled, inconstant, formless, and attractive face — these features had now been set by this fixed type, like an immortal youthfulness.]

As the paragraph unfolds, the changes in Odette’s physical appearance become increasingly controlled by her: we first learn that she has put on weight (which may or may not be a conscious decision); then that her hairstyle and her make-up are different (though controlled by Odette, the change in hairstyle is mainly caused by fashion and is therefore externally motivated); and finally, we reach ‘another reason’, and here Odette’s agency becomes explicit. No longer passively letting the contingencies of the flesh decide her appearance for her (‘lui avaient composé’, a verb with artistic connotations that seem to cast ‘the flesh’ as a rival creator), she has become active: discovering and inventing her own unique look.

American afternoon dress

Odette’s husband Charles Swann, first became physically attracted to Odette, who was not his type, because she reminded him of Sandro Botticelli’s fresco of Jethro’s daughter, Zephora. As an art critic, Swann finds this irresistible: ‘le baiser et la possession qui semblaient naturels et médiocres s’ils lui étaient accordés par une chair abîmée, venant couronner l’adoration d’une pièce de musée, lui parurent devoir être surnaturels et délicieux’ (i, 221) [the kiss and intercourse which seemed natural and mediocre if they were granted by worn-out flesh, now crowning the adoration of a museum piece, seemed to him supernatural and delicious]. In Swann’s mind, Botticelli is the creator and Odette is not even an artwork, but a proxy for an artwork. So how does he react when his wife’s appearance suddenly changes?

Swann avait dans sa chambre, au lieu des belles photographies qu’on faisait maintenant de sa femme, et où la même expression énigmatique et victorieuse laissait reconnaître […] sa silhouette et son visage triomphants, un petit daguerréotype ancien tout simple, antérieur à ce type, et duquel la jeunesse et la beauté d’Odette, non encore trouvées par elle, semblaient absentes. Mais sans doute Swann […] goûtait-il dans la jeune femme grêle aux yeux pensifs, aux traits las, à l’attitude suspendue entre la marche et l’immobilité, une grâce plus botticellienne. Il aimait encore en effet à voir en sa femme un Botticelli. (i, 606–07)

[Swann had in his room, instead of the handsome photographs that were now taken of his wife, in all of which the same cryptic, victorious expression enabled one to recognise, in whatever dress and hat, her triumphant face and figure, a little old daguerreotype of her, quite plain, taken long before the appearance of this new type, so that the youth and beauty of Odette, which she had not yet discovered when it was taken, appeared to be missing from it. But it is probable that Swann […] enjoyed in the slender young woman with pensive eyes and tired features, caught in a pose between rest and motion, a more Botticellian charm. For he still liked to recognise in his wife one of Botticelli’s figures.]

Swann wants to see a Botticelli in Odette, even if it means closing his eyes to the woman before him. To be clear: both Swann’s vision of Odette as a Botticelli painting and Odette’s new self-determined appearance are artificial creations. What is at stake here is not a fight between the natural and the artificial, but a fight for independence: against Swann’s artificial vision of Odette as a ‘museum piece’, Odette expresses her own creative vision by reinventing her appearance. The process through which she creates her new style is artificial in so far as it is meticulously planned, but it is at the same authentic, since it speaks to her personal taste and history.

Indeed, the great paradox of Odette’s new appearance is that while she now seems younger, she has also found a way to include references to her past in her new outfits.

Mme Swann cependant avait voulu, avait su garder un vestige de certaines d’entre elles [les modes détrônées], au milieu de celles qui les avaient remplacées… [U]ne rampe ajourée et large de dentelle noire qui faisait penser aux volants d’autrefois. [… L]e ‘dépassant’ en dents de scie de sa chemisette avait l’air du revers entrevu de quelque gilet absent, pareil à l’un de ceux qu’elle avait portés quelques années plus tôt […]; et sa cravate — de cet ‘écossais’ auquel elle était restée fidèle, mais en adoucissant tellement les tons (le rouge devenu rose et le bleu, lilas) que l’on aurait presque cru à un de ces nouveaux taffetas gorge de pigeon qui étaient la dernière nouveauté — était nouée de telle façon sous son menton, sans qu’on pût voir où elle était attachée, qu’on pensait invinciblement à ces ‘brides’ de chapeaux qui ne se portaient plus. (i, 608-9)

[But Mme. Swann had chosen, had contrived to preserve some vestiges of certain of these [dethroned fashions], in the very thick of the more recent fashions that had supplanted them. […] A broad band of black lace recalled the flounces of an earlier day. […] The dog-toothed border of her blouse suggested a glimpse of the lapel of some non-existent waistcoat such as she had been accustomed to wear, some years earlier […]; and her cravat — of that same “Scottish tartan” to which she had remained faithful, but whose tones she had so far softened, red becoming pink and blue lilac, that one might almost have taken it for one of those pigeon’s-breast taffetas which were the latest novelty — was knotted in such a way under her chin, without one’s being able to make out where it was fastened, that one could not help being reminded of those bonnet-strings which were now no longer worn.]

As indicated by the multiple temporal markers (‘autrefois’, ‘quelques années plus tôt’, ‘restée fidèle’, ‘ne se portaient plus’), Odette has captured not one, but several different moments of her past. On top of this, she has also captured the present moment, as made manifest by her inclusion of ‘recent fashions’. All these contingent moments are brought together in the crucible of her outfit, so that latest arrival and nostalgic allusion can no longer be told apart. Odette’s styles operate in the same way as Proustian involuntary memory: by having one foot in the past and one foot in the present, they transcend time.

Afternoon dress by Grace King

In Le Temps retrouvé, the narrator-protagonist’s future novel is humbly compared to a dress rather than to a cathedral (IV, 610). While the simile of the cathedral seems too elevated for his own work, the narrator however has no qualms however about applying it to Odette’s dresses.

[J]e découvrais dans la chemisette mille détails d’exécution qui avaient eu grande chance de rester inaperçus, comme ces parties d’orchestre auxquelles le compositeur a donné tous ses soins, bien qu’elles ne doivent jamais arriver aux oreilles du public; ou dans les manches de la jaquette […] je regardais longuement […] quelque détail exquis, une bande d’une teinte délicieuse, une satinette mauve habituellement cachée aux yeux de tous, mais aussi délicatement travaillées que les parties extérieures, comme ces sculptures gothiques d’une cathédrale dissimulées au revers d’une balustrade à quatre-vingt pieds de hauteur; aussi parfaite que les bas-reliefs du grand porche mais que personne n’avait jamais vues avant qu’au hasard d’un voyage, un artiste n’eût obtenu de monter se promener en plein ciel, pour dominer toute la ville, entre les deux tours. (i, 626–27)

[I would discover in the blouse underneath a thousand details of execution which had had every chance of remaining there unperceived, like those parts of an orchestral score to which the composer has devoted infinite labour albeit they may never reach the ears of the public: or in the sleeves of the jacket […] I would drink in slowly […] some exquisite detail, a deliciously tinted strip, a lining of mauve satinette which, ordinarily concealed from every eye, was yet just as delicately fashioned as the outer parts, like those gothic carvings on a cathedral, hidden on the inside of a balustrade eighty feet from the ground, as perfect as are the bas-reliefs over the main porch, and yet never seen by any living man until, happening to pass that way upon his travels, an artist obtains leave to climb up there among them, to stroll in the open air, sweeping the whole town with a comprehensive gaze, between the soaring towers.]

This passage, with its allusions to musical composition and air travel, connects Odette’s dresses not only to the narrator’s projected novel, but also to the section of La Prisonnière describing the power of art via the examples of the fictional painter Elstir and the fictional composer Vinteuil: ‘avec un Elstir, avec un Vinteuil; avec leurs pareils, nous volons vraiment d’étoiles en étoiles’ (iii, 756–63 (p. 762)) [with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with their equals, we truly soar from star to star].

Berthe Morisot au Bouquet de Violettes by Manet

Odette may be a very small ‘star’, and one perhaps less attractive to explore than Elstir or Vinteuil. But she is nonetheless the centre of a universe of her own [‘le petit monde dont elle était le soleil’ (I, 605)]. Her creative medium is unorthodox, yet she uses it to great effect, bringing together in a unique and stunning ensemble the minute parts of her individual existence. What is more, by stepping into the public space of the park, Odette becomes an ambulatory work of art that can be viewed by all passers-by. This makes the result of her aesthetic endeavours more democratically available than Vinteuil’s music, which is only performed within the private context of salons, and Elstir’s paintings, which hang on private walls. Odette’s dresses, unlike the works of the canonical artists of À la recherche, will not live on after her death (III, 693; I, 420). Through them Proust rejects, as Baudelaire did before him, ‘art’s confinement to established, and would-be permanent, media and modes of display’.3 By granting aesthetic vision to an uneducated former prostitute, Proust’s novel radically democratizes creative expression. Lying at the heart of one of literature’s most canonical texts, Odette’s creative success is a subversive force that destabilizes our received notions of artistic hierarchies.


Dr Julia Hartley
University of Warwick

For a longer version of this article, please see ‘Is Odette an Artist? Approaching Female Creativity in Proust’s À la recherche’, published in French Studies, Volume 70, Issue 3, Pages 348–361, July 2016. 



1 Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays,trans. by Jonathan Mayne (Phaidon Press, 1963), p. 33.
2 Translations adapted from Scott Moncrieff.
3 Rachel Bowlby, ‘“Half Art”: Baudelaire’s Le Peintre de la vie moderne’, Paragraph 34:1 (2011), 1-11 (2).

Posted on:Tuesday 15th June, 2021