The Essence of Style

November 15, 2005By Heidi EllisonWhat's New Potpourri

Black Is So 17th Century

Plus ça change….

There may be nothing new under the sun, but the Sun King himself had plenty of nouveautés up his billowing sleeve. Almost everything we know about fashion today, according to Joan DeJean’s book The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour (Free Press), originated under the reign of Louis XIV, with the help of his crafty finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

According to DeJean, a professor specializing in 17th-century France at the University of Pennsylvania, the mincing, charismatic young Louis XIV deliberately set out to change France’s place in the world. “When his reign began,” she writes, “his nation in no way exercised dominion over the realm of fashion. By its end, his subjects had become accepted all over the Western world as the absolute arbiters in matters of style and taste, and his nation had found an economic mission: it ruled over the sectors of the luxury trade that have dominated that commerce ever since.”

The book is full of entertaining anecdotes about the fashion excesses of Louis’ day and comparisons with today’s trends. One of the earliest hairdressers, cunningly named Monsieur Champagne, is a good example. He insulted his aristocratic clients, bedded them and often stormed out of the room, leaving them half-coiffed. The must-have hairstyle of the day was the fontange, an elaborate do named after one of Louis’ mistresses.

DeJean notes that the idea of fashion seasons was originated during Louis’ reign by the popular newspaper Le Mercure Galant, which issued the type of fashion diktats we are all familiar with today, including the prophetic “everyone is wearing black” for the winter of 1679.

She goes on to describe how the newspaper

invented lifestyle marketing and how the lower classes adapted the fashion diktats to their budgets.

Many of the advertising, marketing and branding techniques we are familiar with today were invented on Louis’ watch, and he was apparently behind the birth of nightlife as well. Why is Paris called the “City of Light”? Because Louis insisted that the streets be lit at night, facilitating after-dark outings.

While DeJean’s book has more depth than one might expect from the subject matter, she fails to mention the dark side of Louis’ innovations: much of the wealth generated by the new luxury industry was used to fill the king’s war coffers. Today, it continues to fill the coffers of the still-unrivaled French luxury industry.

Reviewed by Karen Burshtein

Heidi Ellison

© 2005 Paris Update

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