Zara Kesterton (Faculty of History, Cambridge)
Fashion in bloom: exploring the presence of artificial flowers in the credit records of an 18th-century French fashion merchant

In recent decades, historians have acknowledged the role that women played in shaping and disseminating scientific knowledge during the Enlightenment. Current scholarship also suggests that fashion was a means through which haptic, economic, and practical knowledge was shared among women. This paper focuses on one particular fashion accessory – the artificial flower – to explore its contribution to our understanding of women’s knowledge of botany in 18th-century France. An analysis of the receipts preserved in the credit records of France’s most famous fashion merchant, Marie-Jeanne [Rose] Bertin (1747–1813), demonstrates high levels of specificity in the flowers that women chose to adorn their outfits. Seventy-five different types of flowers are mentioned using their vernacular names, suggesting that knowledge about a wide variety of flowers was exchanged between fashion merchants and their clients during conversations about clothing. This paper therefore casts the fashion merchant’s shop as a site of botanical knowledge generation and exchange.