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.
French 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 Basilica
|The Palace of Versailles
The Hall of Mirrors Completed 1684
|Margherita de’ Medici of Italy
Queen Maria Therese, consort of Louis XIV
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
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 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, 1808
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
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 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.
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
Jeanne Lanvin, 1911
Madeline Vionnet, 1930’s
Coco Chanel, 1938
Christian Dior, 1947
Hubert de Givenchy, 1952
Pierre Balmain, 1954
Cristobal Balenciaga, 1957
Pierre Cardin, 1964
Paco Rabanne, 1960’s
Yves Saint Laurent, 1966
Christian Lacroix, 2009
Is everything they show wearable?
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.
Diana 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.