Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent, Hermes, Louis Vuitton…the list is extensive and ever-expanding. French designers have long created the most renowned and coveted fashion brands in the world. Stylistically innovative and technically exceptional, the outstanding reputation of the French clothing industry can be traced as far back as the 17th century, and it is a reputation that has only continued to strengthen since. In the 19th century, fashion made a transition into specialisation for modern term haute couture, originated in the 1860s, bringing good taste to fashion argot. Haute Couture is the creation of exclusive custom-fitted clothing. Haute couture is high-end fashion that is constructed by hand from start to finish, made from high-quality, expensive, often unusual fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable sewers—often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques. Couture translates literally from French as “dressmaking”, sewing, or needlework and is also used as a common abbreviation of haute couture and refers to the same thing in spirit. Haute translates literally to “high”. An haute couture garment is always made for an individual client, tailored specifically for the wearer’s measurements and body stance.

The association of France with fashion and style is widely credited as beginning during the reign of Louis XIV when the luxury goods industries in France came increasingly under royal control and the French royal court became, arguably, the arbiter of taste and style in Europe. The rise in prominence of French fashion was linked to the creation of the fashion press in the early 1670s (due in large part to Jean Donneau de Visé), which transformed the fashion industry by marketing designs to a broad public outside the French court and by popularizing notions such as the fashion “season” and changing styles. The king also used fashion to create a certain effect or theme. During the marriage of his great-grandson Louis, Duke of Burgundy to Princess Marie Adélaïde, the French entourage dressed in bright colors and fashions to contrast with the more soberly dressed Spanish. This was in order to seem younger and more virile than the Spanish courtiers.

In 18th century, after King Louis XIV, comes his grandson, King Louis XVI and his wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette. The extravagant styles of the French Royal court racked up enormous debts to keep up its pace, at the peasants’ expense. Such fashion sprees notably ruined Marie Antoinette’s reputation, and were one of the many factors paving the way for the French Revolution. Long after her death, Marie Antoinette remains a major historical figure linked with conservative and the Catholic Church positions; and a major cultural icon associated with high glamour, wealth and a certain style of life based on luxury and celebrity appealing today to the social and cultural elites; frequently referenced in popular culture, being the subject of several books, films and other forms of media. Most academics and scholars, have deemed her the quintessential representative of class conflict, western aristocracy and absolutism government in addition to being frivolous, superficial; and have attributed the start of the French Revolution.

After the fall of the Jacobins and their Sans-culottes supporters, the supporters of the Thermidorian Reaction were known as the Incroyables and Merveilleuses. They scandalized Paris with their extravagant clothes. The Merveilleuses wore dresses and tunics modeled after the ancient Greeks and Romans, cut of light or even transparent linen and gauze. Sometimes so revealing they were termed “woven air”, many gowns displayed cleavage and were too tight to allow pockets. To carry even a handkerchief, the ladies had to use small bags known as reticules.

France renewed its dominance of the high fashion (haute couture) industry in the years 1860–1960 through the establishing of the great couturier houses, the fashion press (Vogue was founded in 1892 in USA, and 1920 in France) and fashion shows. The first modern Parisian couturier house is generally considered the work of the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth, who dominated the industry from 1858–1895. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the industry expanded through such Parisian fashion houses as the house of Jacques Doucet (founded in 1871), Rouff (founded 1884), Jeanne Paquin (founded in 1891), the Callot Soeurs (founded 1895 and operated by four sisters), Paul Poiret (founded in 1903), Louise Chéruit (founded 1906), Madeleine Vionnet (founded in 1912), House of Patou by Jean Patou (founded in 1919), Elsa Schiaparelli (founded in 1927) or Balenciaga (founded by the Spaniard Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1937).

Many fashion houses closed during the occupation of Paris in World War II, including the Maison Vionnet and the Maison Chanel. In contrast to the stylish, liberated Parisienne, the Vichy regime promoted the model of the wife and mother, the robust, athletic young woman, a figure who was much more in line with the new political criteria. Post-war fashion returned to prominence through Christian Dior’s famous “New Look” in 1947: the collection contained dresses with tiny waists, majestic busts, and full skirts swelling out beneath small bodices, in a manner very similar to the style of the Belle Époque. The extravagant use of fabric and the feminine elegance of the designs appealed greatly to a post-war clientele. Other important houses of the period included Pierre Balmain and Hubert de Givenchy (opened in 1952). The fashion magazine Elle was founded in 1945. In 1952, Coco Chanel herself returned to Paris.

February 12, 1947 – Dior’s New Look is Born

Fashion is so important to the French that, as The New York Times in 1995 quoted in an article on users of online dating services on Minitel, “Where else but in France would people describe themselves to potential partners in terms of their clothes?” Since the 1960s, France’s fashion industry has come under increasing competition from London, New York, Milan and Tokyo. Nevertheless, many foreign designers still seek to make their careers in France: Karl Lagerfeld (German) at Chanel, John Galliano (British) and later, Raf Simons (Belgian) at Dior, Paulo Melim Andersson (Swedish) at Chloe, Stefano Pilati (Italian) at Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Jacobs (American) at Louis Vuitton, and Kenzo Takada (Japanese) and Alexander McQueen (English) at Givenchy (until 2001)

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