John Finkelberg is a PhD Candidate in history and a 2020-21 Mary Fair Croushore Graduate Student Fellow at the Institute for the Humanities. His dissertation, “Becoming a Man in the Age of Fashion: Gender and Menswear in Nineteenth-Century France,” traces the production, sale, use, and representation of menswear in France from the July Revolution of 1830 to the collapse of the Second French Empire in 1870. Finkelberg has recently published, with art historian Susan Siegfried, “Fashion in the Life of George Sand” in Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture.
John Finkelberg was interviewed by Nathan Liebetreu, a marketing and media intern at the Institute for the Humanities.
N.L.: Hello John, thank you for doing this interview. To start us off, what have you been reading recently? And how is this relevant to your project if it's project related?
J.F.: Hi Nathan, I actually took this week off from reading for work and instead I read The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin. It is a fictionalization of the Austrian empress’s trip to England in the 1870s. I like to read things like this because when they are well researched it’s always fun to feel like you are experiencing the historical periods I research.
N.L.:That definitely seems like a great read. What else about the book caught your attention? Would it be fair to say you read a lot of historical fiction and, if so, what book would you recommend an undergraduate student to read?
J.F.: This book was particularly good because it is narrated by a woman and focused mostly on figures, like an empress, that are usually left out of history books because their influence was felt in ways that are not considered “important” history like wars and the decisions made by parliamentarians. The empress in question, for example, was one of the first people to advocate for regular exercise and a healthy diet in the 1860s way before medical practitioners recognized the importance of both. I do read a lot of historical fiction and if I had to recommend only one it would be Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. It's a modern adaption of Steinbeck’s East of Eden but instead of following a family in the western United States, it follows a Korean family who immigrated to Japan after World War II. I also liked this book because it introduces readers to a particular history that most Americans do not know, the Korean experience in Japan after decades of colonialism and war.
N.L.: I wonder if there is a common theme in your book selections. Do you gravitate to any book genre and if so what? And why?
J.F.: Yes, I do think that I am particularly drawn to historical fiction and fantasy/science fiction because I am always fascinated by the ways that authors are able to place their reader in a different time or universe and immerse them in an engaging story. With all the crazy things that happen in the world on a daily basis, I look at reading as an escape, one that is frequently very much needed.
N.L.: Can you touch a bit on the project you are working on and why it is a matter of interest to you?
J.F.: I work on the evolution of the menswear industry in nineteenth-century France and the question that always comes up in my research is how did men and women learn to want a host of new objects in a period of rapid economic, social, and political change. Part of the way that I intend to answer this question is by tracing the lived experiences, or in other words, the stories of everyday consumers, producers, and retailers. I am interested in understanding their motivations and what drove them to consume in new ways.
N.L.: As my departing and last question to end this interview, I wanted to ask a question we end our fellow interviews by. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would be the one book you would want to have with you and why?
J.F.: I would cheat a little bit and ask for a complete volume of Émile Zola’s The Rougon-Macquart cycle, which is an epic 20-volume story about a French family during the second half of the nineteenth century. But if I had to pick only one of the books to take with me, it would be The Ladies Paradise, a fictionalization of the first French department stores. It's a fun and engaging story, which is what I would want if I only had access to one book.