French Fashion 101

What’s the difference between French, Italian, British, and American fashion, besides where it’s made? A LOT. Each country has its own design philosophy based on the country’s traditions. As the fashion industry begins showing collections this week with materials and silhouettes that boggle the mind, let’s take a few minutes to look back at where the entire industry began: French Fashion.

Louis XIVFrench fashion – like much of French culture – can trace its roots to one man: King Louis XIV. The “Sun King” had a good eye, a strong will, an insatiable appetite for luxury – and very deep pockets. Early in his reign, he began a massive program for the glorification of France and his name, which set very high standards for everything that was produced. Food, wine, art, architecture – he only wanted the best.

The first fashion magazine, Gallant Mercury, was published in 1672 to chronicle fashion among the French nobility. King Louis enjoyed the publication, but disliked the irregular publishing schedule. He told the publisher, Jean Donno de Vise, to publish monthly in order to “enlighten the minds at court.” De Vise complied, and the magazine became popular throughout France and Europe. By the late 1600’s, France was the unofficial arbiter of taste and power in the western world.

Louis XIV was born during the Baroque period, which is an artistic style that favors grandeur with exaggerated details. Fashion, architecture, home décor, and paintings all had a theatrical quality, with strong contrasts of light and dark colors mixed with unusual fabrics.

Centered around religious themes, Baroque became popular in Rome around 1600 and spread throughout Europe, But Louis XIV put his own spin on it. High French Baroque is majestic, rich, heavy, and regal, and the Louis XIV style has three defining elements: symmetry, the use of gilt, and motifs based on ancient Rome.

Santa Maria della Vittoria Versailles
Santa Maria della Vittoria Basilica
Rome, Italy
Completed 1620
The Palace of Versailles
Versailles, France
The Hall of Mirrors Completed 1684
Margherita de 'Medici Queen Marie Therese
Margherita de’ Medici of Italy
1628

Queen Maria Therese, consort of Louis XIV
c. 1665

Solid foundation, captivating details.

The basis of French fashion to this day.

Baroque gave way to Rococo in the 1700’s during “The Age of Enlightenment” when science began to gain ground. Colors became lighter, religious themes became less popular, but elaborate styles still reigned supreme.

Few were more elaborate than Marie Antoinette.

The Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria was just 14 when she married the Dauphin of France in 1770. She was young and pretty and anxious to please, so she changed her name to Marie Antoinette and began dressing in the French manner. Since every outfit she wore was scrutinized and written about – much like the Duchess of Cambridge’s are today – she turned to a talented hat and dressmaker used by many of the women at court: Rose Bertin.

Marie Antoinette in Rose Bertin gown, 1783

Marie Antoinette in Rose Bertin gown
Painted by Elisabeth  Vigee-Lebrun, 1783

Rose and the Dauphine became friends right away, and Marie Antoinette grew to trust her implicitly. Which is how Rose Bertin became the first internationally famous French fashion designer. She took la robe la Française – the panniers that were popular at the time – and made them as wide as three men. Then she had the royal hairdresser create elaborate wigs three feet tall. The overall effect was so intimidating, grown men would back away. The women at court loved the reaction, and quickly started to duplicate the look. Fashion magazines began to show illustrations of these wondrous gowns (fashion plates), and Rose Bertin began to travel the continent once a year to get orders from wealthy clients. France was the undisputed leader of fashion.

Rose Bertin Court Gown

Rose Bertin Formal Court Gown, 1780’s

Photos used courtesy of Tweedland Blog

But not without her detractors.

The ostentation shown at court and by the French nobles began to breed serious discontent. The king was deeply in debt because of the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) and from helping the Americans win the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), so he kept raising taxes to make up the shortfall. That, combined with a decade of low agricultural prices and several long, cold winters – and coupled with the monarch’s seemingly carefree, over-the-top lifestyle – eventually led to the French Revolution.

The war left France bankrupt and in chaos. When Napoleon appointed himself emperor in 1804, he started looking for ways to stimulate the economy. He turned to fashion. With input from couturier Louis-Hippolyte Leroy, Napoleon promoted a neoclassic style devoid of the ostentation of the ancien régime, and he decreed that no one could come to court dressed in the same thing twice. Just as with previous French courts, those who moved in Napoleon’s circle spent fortunes on their clothes. By 1810, the Empire Style became popular throughout Europe and America.

Empire Style Clothing

Empire Style Clothing, 1808
MetMuseum.org

Older women who had only worn clothes of the ancien régime were scandalized by empire style clothes – they couldn’t imagine why any woman would leave the house in her underwear.

Empire Style Interiors

Empire Style Interiors

In 1858, an Englishman named Charles Frederick Worth opened a dressmaking shop in Paris where he focused on making clothes with simple lines and exquisite details. He approached a member of court, the Princess Metternich, and convinced her to wear one of his dresses to an upcoming ball. She did. It caught the eye of the Empress Eugenie, who asked Worth to make some gowns for her. Like Marie Antoinette and Rose Bertin – and later, Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy – it marked the beginning of a powerful alliance that would change fashion history.

The Empress Eugenie

The Empress Eugenie in a Worth gown, 1860’s

Worth was a true original. He was the first to open a fashion house, the first to use live models, the first to show fashion collections, the first to use a label on his clothes, and the first to promote and widely distribute his clothes. He literally changed the way the fashion industry worked by creating designs clients could chose from rather than by creating original designs on demand. He dictated western fashion for the second half of the 19th century.

Worth, 1860's

Worth, 1860’s

Worth, 1875

Worth, 1875

Worth, 1880's

Worth, 1880’s

Worth, 1890

Worth, 1890

Worth, 1902

Worth, 1902

All Worth Pictures courtesy of MetMuseum.org

He also dictated who could call themselves couturiers.

When counterfeit Worth gowns suddenly started showing up, Worth collaborated with other fashion designers in 1868 to create The Chambre Syndical De La Haute Couture, a regulating commission to protect and promote couture apparel. It still exists, and it still dictates who can call themselves an Haute Couture designer. It’s a legally protected status in France, and it’s reviewed annually. While there were as many as 106 haute couture houses in 1946, there are currently only 12 who meet their rigid standards today.

This high standard is what makes French fashion so unique.

To them, it’s an art form. The fabrics, shapes and silhouettes have changed dramatically since Louis XIV’s reign, but the commitment to artistry and quality never have. They still start with a solid foundation, and add captivating details.

You see it again and again.

The Callot Soeurs, 1910

The Callot Soeurs 1910

Jeanne Lanvin, 1911

Jeanne Lanvin, 1911

Madeline Vionnet, 1930s

Madeline Vionnet, 1930’s

Chanel, 1938

Coco Chanel, 1938

Christian Dior, 1947

Christian Dior, 1947

Givenchy, 1952

Hubert de Givenchy, 1952

Pierre Balmain, 1954

Pierre Balmain, 1954

Cristobal Balenciaga, 1957

Cristobal Balenciaga, 1957

Pierre Cardin, 1964

Pierre Cardin, 1964

Paco Rabanne, 1960's

Paco Rabanne, 1960’s

Yves Saint Laurent, 1966

Yves Saint Laurent, 1966

 Christian Lacroix, 2009

Christian Lacroix, 2009

Is everything they show wearable?

Not always.

Sometimes they present over-the-top designs just to get some press. Other times, they just like to flaunt their creative muscle to show what they can do. Many still make one-of-a-kind apparel for their very best clients, and fashion shows allow them to show what they can do.

So what’s the long and short of French fashion?

We’ve covered a lot here, but it basically boils down to this: French fashion is an art form. They start with a solid foundation and add captivating details in ways other designers just don’t. Then, they finish the clothes with such care that they’re as beautiful on the inside as out.

Want to know why French women have that certain je ne sais quoi? It’s because they’re raised to take pride in their appearance and do their clothes justice. It’s been a French tradition for centuries.

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Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Signature Style Blueprint, a video course that teaches women how to create a signature style using their best colors, best features, and best styles. You can learn more here.

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26 Comments

  • deborah dean

    Reply Reply January 26, 2013

    Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed the history AND the great photos!!! =)

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 27, 2013

      Hi Deborah,

      Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks so much for your note.

  • Nancy North-Gates

    Reply Reply January 26, 2013

    Lovely photos and pictures. I am a theatrical costume designer and have studied historic fashion for decades and find it fun to know. When I get a project and we decide on a time period then off I go 🙂 I grew up in the 50s and wore the full skirts and was in HS in the 60s and wore the mini skirts – not real short, school had dress codes LOL. My only complaint is I have the figure type opposite twiggy. I have worn costumes based on the 18th century gowns and love them.

    I so enjoy your articles and have several of your e-books and love them so much. But you would cry if you could see how the women in my town dress these days. It should be illegal to wear those PJ pants in public sigh. Two women who work for my husband are not being promoted because there is the impression they cannot do his job when he retires – primarily because of how they dress. (I may have written to you about this before.)

    I am retired and I dress nice just to be at home because I see myself in the mirror when I was my hands. My two daughters dress well all the time – my daughter in film school dresses so well that she is usually thought to be one of the professors.

    I do not understand why so many American women these days dress like slobs.

    Sincerely,
    Nancy North-Gates

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 27, 2013

      Hi Nancy,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for your note.

      If you talk to many fashion historians, you’ll discover that most agree that we stopped being elegant in the 1970’s. Designer Cristobal Balenciaga closed his shop in 1968 saying, “There’s no one worth dressing any more.” Ouch! But they were right. Trousers gave way to jeans which gave way to leggings which gave way to people feeling perfectly comfortable rolling out of bed and leaving the house in their pajamas. The “Casual Friday” movement started 20 years ago, which means there’s a whole generation of people who have NO CLUE what proper business attire is all about.

      It’s an old school versus new school battle. Those women in your husband’s office don’t understand what their attire communicates. Your husband and his contemporaries can’t believe they don’t “get” the whole clothing “thing.”

      My purpose is to help EVERYONE understand. Since I can’t be everywhere all the time, I need my readers to help spread the word. You can lead by example (which is sounds like you’re doing with your daughters), but you can also lead by gently nudging the clueless in the right direction. Some will tell you flat out that you’re wrong, that clothes “don’t matter.” But others WILL listen, heed your advice – and change their lives by changing their wardrobes. THOSE are the women who deserve your attention, because they’re willing to take direction.

      I encourage you to talk – or have someone else talk – to those women in your husband’s office. Tell them flat out what the problem is, and give them a chance to correct it. If they DON’T, don’t promote them. If they DO, consider promoting them. Being adaptable is the key to survival…

      Take care!

  • Elaine Wiart

    Reply Reply January 26, 2013

    Very interesting article. I wasn’t aware of the whole history. Thank you for sharing!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 27, 2013

      You’re welcome!

  • Tasi

    Reply Reply January 26, 2013

    Diana,

    What a marvelous article. I love fashion history as well and you certainly captured the essence of French fashion history. I do hope you will continue with the differences in fashion between America and Europe and within Europe.

    Tasi

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 27, 2013

      Hi Tasi,

      That’s the plan! When you understand the differences between the different countries, it makes it much easier to figure out which suits you best.

  • Doris Hammerachlag

    Reply Reply January 26, 2013

    Absolutely fascinating article–and gorgeous illustrations. Thank you so much!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 27, 2013

      Hi Doris,

      You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Angela

    Reply Reply January 27, 2013

    It would be unimaginable for a French woman to leave her house with hair pulled back in a ponytail and pajama pants plus T-shirt. Someone would see her! She wouldn’t sleep in an old T-shirt with holes in it. No granny panties or tired bra, either.

    French people are expected to do things elegantly with controlled gestures. In France children drink from the same stemmed crystal as the adults, in America our kids use non-spill sippy cups made of unbreakable plastic. Americans expect children to make mistakes; French people teach kids to do things carefully and correctly the first time. It’s a life-long lesson.

    Many apartments in France were built before the clothes closet was invented. They have little room to keep a large wardrobe. Clothes are expensive, anyway. In America we can amass huge collections of clothing; but lack even one outfit to wear which is flattering and appropriate?

    The French all pay attention to changing fashions; it’s not unmanly to take an interest in the appearance of beautiful women. Fine quality is appreciated. and fashion is a national industry.

    American women are often expected to neglect their own appearance as a sign they are putting their families first. The unmanicured nail and undyed hair of a virtuous American women speaks of self-denial. France escaped the prudishness of the Victorians. It’s more fun to be French!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 27, 2013

      Hi Angela,

      French women are taught as teens to watch their weight, care for their skin, and only spend money on clothes they love and wear. As a result, they look younger longer, are not overweight (nor do they have issues with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc.), and don’t have a lot of debt. Is is more fun to be French? Je ne sais pas! But I DO know that it seems to be healthier and more financially sound. Perhaps it’s time to take a look… 🙂

  • Pat

    Reply Reply January 27, 2013

    Great!

  • PeggyKass

    Reply Reply January 27, 2013

    I like this concise and illuminating history of French fashion. And I’d love to read something similar on Italian designers.

    Years ago, I enjoyed the “sense” of fashion in Paris as though it was in the air. Then I went to Milan where even the most ordinary woman was impeccably dressed. Nothing fancy, but with an understated elegance and fluidity that made me think this was the real fashion center of the world.

    And in the U.S. I often feel sad that our culture thinks there is something good about being sloppy and over exposed in our clothing habits, (which leaves nothing to the imagination and seems a sign of low self esteem), as well as stupid as seen in75% of tv programming.

    I usually feel better about my body when I am in other countries, including Canada.

    Now that would be an article worth reading. :-))

    Thanks for your informative posts.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 27, 2013

      Hi Peggy,

      Glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for writing.

      There’s NOTHING interesting about being LAST in anything, especially manners or dress. Mediterranean countries – Spain, France, Italy, Greece – take great pride in their appearance, as they have for centuries. If you go to Central or South America, you’ll see the same thing: how you look COUNTS. Want to feel AMAZING? Dress well and go to a Mediterranean country. The men will treat you like gold.

      That “sense” you were feeling has to do with the karma you put out. People treat you how you treat yourself. Sometimes, all it takes is going elsewhere to see how others perceive you…

      Thanks for sharing!

  • Carole

    Reply Reply January 28, 2013

    Fantastic snapshot of fashion history. Just my cup of tea. I loved it. Thank you so much. I feel like I know how to shop better after reading this. My eye will be on a solid foundation, excellent quality and “captivating detail.” If it doesn’t already have the captivating detail then accessories will be critical and FUN as I can creat my own “wearable art!”

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 29, 2013

      Hi Carole,

      You’re very welcome! Glad you enjoyed it.

      Yep – sometimes a little information can make ALL the difference… 🙂

  • H C

    Reply Reply January 28, 2013

    Wonderful article! I am 33 years old and I too am shocked at how some women (and men!) dress in public! I have bought several of your ebooks and they have been indispensable in teaching me how to dress and build a wardrobe instead of a closet full of clothes. My mother taught me to be presentable and take care of myself and how I looked, but not like your teaching in your ebooks and articles! Thank you so much!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 29, 2013

      Hi H.C.,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Glad I could help. Yes, it’s crazy how some people dress these days. I’m so glad you’re choosing NOT to follow the path of least resistance. It will pay off in spades in years to come. Take care!

  • Cassandra

    Reply Reply January 30, 2013

    Hi Diana, I really enjoyed this article! Now I understand why the everyone think so highly of French products and why France equates equality in many people’s mind.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 31, 2013

      Hi Cassandra,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Thanks so much for your kind note. Yep – sometimes having the back story makes all the difference in understanding the plot… 🙂

  • Cathy Antunes

    Reply Reply February 3, 2013

    Enjoying your article, and I second what Peggy Kass wrote. I certainly enjoyed the fashion atmosphere in Paris when I visited. But Italy really impressed me. I would love to learn more about Italian fashion. After all, Chanel handbags are made in Italy. 😉

  • Lori

    Reply Reply February 8, 2013

    Excellent article! I thoroughly enjoyed it!!! I recently took a Fashion History class in Art School and loved it so much, and your article?! It’s archived! The historical accuracy was so thoroughly researched. I can tell you really enjoyed writing this piece and I enjoyed reading it.

    I would love for you to write a piece on European street fashion/style and how these women just exude a style that is always sexy, never too revealing, and never sloppy. For some reason, we just miss the mark here. Either we are classy, boring, or sloppy…or too revealing.

    Your articles ALWAYS make me want to dress my best and put my best foot forward! Thank you!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply February 28, 2013

      Hi Lori,

      I’m SO glad you enjoyed the article! Thank you so much for your kind words.

      Yes, I did enjoy researching and writing it. It’s always interesting to know what came before, so we know WHY we do the things we do.

      As for your article suggestion on European street style – hmm! Interesting idea. Perhaps I will…

      Take care, and thanks again for writing!

      Diana

  • Anonymous

    Reply Reply September 9, 2013

    ENJOYED READING YOUR ARTICLE, GREAT PHOTO’S AND HISTORY! thankyou x

    • Diana

      Reply Reply September 9, 2013

      You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it!

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