Why the French have style, sales and tails

Palace of Versailles image from Liberty international.org

The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles image from Liberty international.org

Palace of Versaille image from beauty-places.com

Palace of Versailles image from beauty-places.com

Louis XIV image from wondersandmarvels.com

Louis XIV image from wondersandmarvels.com

I was thinking more about style this week and about how, as a nation, the French are perceived to embody it and I wanted to see why that is, other than the obvious fact that a lot of the main fashion houses are based in Paris along with all the Haute Couture houses which in itself validates the claim that they are a stylish nation.

While researching style and the French I came across a book published in 2005 called The Essence of Style written by Joan DeJean, a professor of French at the University of Pennsylvania, and according to her it seems that the need for new luxury merchandise that changes every season, fashion trends, beautiful fabrics, handcrafted goods, stunning mirrors and frames and even cosmetics can be laid very firmly at Louis XIV ‘s door. By all accounts he was a vain materialistic man, who surrounded himself with sycophants and who loved flattery and adulation. He turned the Palace of Versailles into a stunning if excessive show piece, encouraged and supported artists and artisans, had beautiful fabrics woven and just generally sought out beauty.  I actually think if you look further it can be probably be said that his excesses and obsessions with his image led the French monarchy onto the slippery slope that would see them all loose their heads during the Revolution but that would be years down the line.

Amazon says of the book, Joan DeJean explains how a handsome and charismatic young king with a great sense of style and an even greater sense of history decided to make both himself and his country legendary. When the reign of Louis XIV began, his nation had no particular association with elegance, yet by its end, the French had become accepted all over the world as the arbiters in matters of taste and style and had established a dominance in the luxury trade that continues to this day. DeJean takes us back to the birth of haute cuisine, the first appearance of celebrity hairdressers, chic cafes, nightlife, and fashion in elegant dress that extended well beyond the limited confines of court circles. And Paris was the magical center — the destination of travelers all across Europe.

Copyright © 2005 by Joan DeJean

The institutions, the values, and the commodities that came into existence under Louis XIV’s patronage marked a radically new departure for the realm of luxury. For the first time, new standards for elegant living transcended all the barriers, both geographic and social, that had previously limited their influence. A French shopgirl would certainly not have been able to afford an entire outfit in the latest fashion. Even if she got only one new accessory, however, she wanted to get it just right — the right cut, the right color, to be worn the right way — and she wanted it to be beautiful. Indeed, one late-seventeenth-century commentator prepared foreigners planning a trip to Paris for a new experience: “Every ordinary woman there will be more magnificently dressed than the finest ladies in their home nations.”

People in cities all over Europe became slaves to French food, fashion, and design, and to food, fashion, and design that imitated as closely as possible what was being created in Paris. As the German lawyer and philosopher Christian Thomasius announced in 1687: “Today we want everything to be French. French clothes, French dishes, French furniture.” And even before the United States was a nation — as soon as the new cities in North America had populations large enough to constitute a market — we became a society of consumers: in matters of taste and style, many of the original American conspicuous consumers began to dream of dancing to the French drummer, too.

Mirrors also changed interior decoration and, in a beautiful example of synergy, gave a boost to the work of France’s fine jewelers, who could now see their diamond pendants and chandelier-like earrings reflected, ad infinitum, in showpiece galleries like the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Louis, who went to great effort and expense to steal Venice’s mirror technology, went a bit overboard. In 1676 he unveiled the first grotto entirely lined with mirrors.

Parisian merchants were so successful at convincing people to buy for the sake of buying because they had made shopping glamorous, fun, and even sexy. Shopping had become the kind of experience that nations of mere shopkeepers could never understand; it had become shopping theater in which consumers were spending money because they felt that their lives were somehow being transformed by the event.

William Grimes reviewed the book in 2005 when it came out and writes, in “The Essence of Style,” her effervescent account of the birth of French chic, Joan DeJean returns, again and again, to the idea that virtually everything associated with the high life today can be traced back to one man, whose tastes and desires transformed France into an international luxury brand.

On shoes, she is brilliant. Of course, in Louis, she has one of the great shoe fetishists of all time as a subject. It was during his reign, Ms. DeJean writes, that “almost all types of shoes and boots worn ever since were invented.” That includes the mule, the shoe par excellence of the era, with the curvy heel still known as the Louis heel.

For me the French seem to make sure they are always well dressed when they leave the house. They don’t seem to have tatty clothes,old  track pants, t shirts with holes in them, they don’t save nice clothes or shoes and handbags for special occasions but treat everyday as a special one. Whether  they are popping down to the greengrocer, going to the dentist or fetching kids from school, they are well dressed and put together. Maybe it’s part of a national psyche or an unspoken secret code that you can’t go out looking like you are homeless that they always look chic and confident. Maybe dressing well makes you confident and I don’t necessarily think that means wearing the height of fashion, just wearing nice clothes well.

Donna Karan Spring 2013

Donna Karan Pre Fall 2013

I loved this sheer/solid skirt from the Pre Fall Donna Karan collection so I made a version of it using Vogue pattern V8602 and fabric from Tessuti in Chatswood.

Sateen and organza skirt

Sateen and organza skirt

These are a few things I bought from some of the many sales that are on at the moment. I love the shape of the Veronica Maine tulip skirt so much that I bought two on line and have already worn them a lot.

Veronica Maine skirt

Veronica Maine skirt

Stitches Coral linen shirt on sale at Davis Jones

Stitches Coral linen shirt on sale at Davis Jones

Sportscarft coral jacket on sale at Meyer

Sportscarft coral jacket on sale at Meyer

Chocolate satin shirt on sale at David Lawrence

Chocolate satin shirt on sale at David Lawrence

One or two fashion sites have featured this you tube video this week. The Japanese designer Shota Ishiwatari has produced this tail that picks up your heart beat and wags in response!! I’m not sure how I feel about this!

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4 Responses to Why the French have style, sales and tails

  1. Janet Carlisle says:

    Lovely blog Shirley, I enjoy the elegant fashion and I especially love the sateen and organza skirt you made for yourself!

  2. Anne says:

    You’re a woman after my own heart, Shirley! I found your blog while looking up white dresses in the spring 2013 collections, and was delighted by your copy of the Donna Karan skirt. Beautiful! I am 61 and appreciate the Prada quote in your blog description. If you have the inclination I’d love to have you drop by and visit my own blog.

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