There is no argument that France has had an important role in forming the fashion industry. Madrid was originally recognized as the fashion capital of the world but that changed as France became the center of Europe by mid 17th century. To be exact, it all started in 1643 with Louis XIV who weaponized fashion and really seemed to understand its importance.
He mandated the seasonal changes in fashion and textile. At the time, the French court encouraged and popularized the baroque style. Heavily ornamented dresses with wide silhouettes known as the grand became popular at Versailles throughout the 18th century. The rest of Europe picked up on these trends like they always had. Parisian trendsetters could be dated back to Henrietta Maria, the Queen consort to King Charles I of England, who grew up in the French court and always brought a fresh sense of style with her. Her influence was seen across Europe during the 17th century.
Ironically, when Marie Antoinette arrived in France, she wasn’t allowed to have anything from her Austrian roots. They stripped her naked upon arrival and dressed her to please the French court.That didn’t last long though. She wasn’t fond of the strict rules and traditions and refused to wear the grand corps, which was the posture-enhancing corset that only certain royals were allowed to wear. And since she wasn’t very popular at the court, she decided to use fashion as a way to establish her dominance and status. Her amplified hairstyles were another one of her scandalous moves that was shortly copied by everyone else at the court. She considerably harmed the French silk industry with her chemise á la reine. The cotton chemise dress that closely resembled women’s underwear at the time. Cotton was cheap and accessible to everyone and that dress became so popular that it revolutionized the silk and cotton industry. She was a true fashion icon who wore whatever she wanted to the end.
France’s fashion influence started with dresses at the Versailles and royal portraits from the court. Basically the aristocrats set the trends and influenced the rest of Europe. But even though the aristocracy got abolished, Paris remained the fashion capital of the world. Charles Frederick Worth, a British fashion designer, was the first to establish a couture house in Paris. He was also acknowledged as the first fashion designer. Everyone else before him were simply dressmakers. He brought his own creativity into it and lead the way for other couturiers like Paul Poiret. The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode was founded in 1868 and to this day, it is limited to very few members. An average couture dress takes about 150 hours. It can easily go up to 1000 if it involves more embellishments and craftsmanship. And there are currently less than 3000 seamstresses qualified to work on haute couture. Even without the aristocrats, fashion was still for the elites.
But more designers started to emerge. Jacques Doucat opened his fashion house in Paris in 1897. Followed by Madeline Vionnet who trained in England but came back to Paris to open her fashion house. Even Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli chose Paris for the Schiaparelli house. Another designer on this timeline would be Coco Chanel. She started her hat shop in 1913 and revolutionized the dress silhouettes by mid 1920s. The French fashion industry started to explode in the late 19th and 20th century until the Second World War began.
And it was only two years since the war had ended when Christian Dior introduced his 1947 New Look collection. Scandalous? Of course. Or else it wouldn’t have mattered. Other designers like Balmain and Givenchy also started their labels post-war and it is safe to say that all eyes were back on France and the Parisian legacy in fashion was restored.
While everyone was impressed by what France had to offer, the Parisian youth did not really care for it. they preferred the more casual London look until YSL came in clutch with his prêt-à-porter line in 1966. He pioneered the androgynous look for women with his tuxedo suits. Ready-to-wear changed everything. Le Smoking indeed.
Fashion is not just about the clothes. They are a big part of the conversation but in order to get that conversation started, the clothes need to be seen. Paris was excellent in making them but they did not put the same effort into their shows. Poiret used to have intimate fashion balls where the guests would wear and see his new dresses. Some had small viewing parties but were kept subtle and intimate to avoid copycats from stealing the designs. Even though fashion shows had become more popular after the second world war, they only started to get extravagant after the battle of Versailles in 1973.
Five of America’s finest designers, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows against Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan (for Dior). As impressive as those Parisian fashion houses were, the Americans won the battle. It was their fresh take on fashion with the casual ready to wear looks that promoted freedom and comfort for women. All while putting on a show with models of different ethnicities and Liza Minnelli. Apparently the show was so captivating that drove the audience to throw their programs up in the air.
It didn’t take the Parisians long to catch up. Mugler put on a fantastic anniversary show in 1984 and Gaultier introduced his iconic cone bra. Designers continued to choose Paris over their hometowns for a better chance at a fashion career. Karl Lagerfeld was the German designer who saved Chanel and Galliano was the British designer put in charge of Dior. Even aspiring American designers like Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford got their big breaks in Paris before returning to the States for their labels. Getting to show in Paris was a big deal too. Designers with brands headquartered in other countries still preferred to show in Paris for a more prestigious recognition.
Ready-to-wear didn’t just revolutionize the competition for designers. It also made fashion more accessible. The more relaxed and casual fashion allowed individuals to express themselves which lead us to the popularity of street fashion in the 20th century. This was mainly driven by the youth and like always, influenced by the trend setters. Paris showed that it doesn’t just come with the hot designers. It also had some of the best street looks. The effortless yet chic hair and outfit that is never too casual or too formal. And the perfect attitude that ties it all together. Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin, Françoise Hardy, Jeanne Damas, and many more French fashion icons were responsible in popularizing the Parisienne Chic look. And for the longest time, it was an important topic of discussion in fashion.
The fashion industry owes so much to France. It started with the aristocrats and lived on through its couturier and designers. For the longest time, fashion shows were exclusive to buyers, editors, and hand picked celebrities. But social media has expanded the audience to everyone with a smartphone. And guests now include influencers with high followings regardless of their education or interest in fashion. We even spot them on major fashion outlets and red carpets like Vogue and the met gala. Popular fashion content include red carpet looks getting criticized on TikTok and the get ready with me videos also do pretty well.
There are millions of search results when you look up the Parisian style but it seems to get less relevant with time. The bold avant garde choices get more likes than well-cut pants and dark neutral colored overcoats. So does breaking fashion rules and not following basic styles.
One of Netflix’s new hit shows, Emily in Paris, revolves around a young American woman who moves to Paris for work and rebels against all their customs and traditions. She does not do as expected and definitely does not dress to impress the Parisians and still manages to become a social media influencer overnight. It does sound like a fantasy but the new viral fashion trends on TikTok are not that far from what Emily wears in Paris. Neither is the attitude towards traditional do’s and don’ts. The new trends are all about wearing gold with silver, mixing patterns, and styling tips like tucking-in your top into your bralette. None of which can be found in the Parisian Style handbook. Marie Antoinette would be proud.
This generation doesn’t like to be told what to do. They tear down big names in fashion, even if they revolutionized the dress silhouettes in 1920s, by exposing their prior Nazi affiliations and are very quick to spot and stop classism. They are not impressed by the brand’s history as much as they are by its current views on issues like size and gender inclusivity. Or how it’s helping or hurting the environment. Meanwhile brands are only doing whatever it takes to stay relevant and liked instead of focusing on what used to be their art. In a world where Fendi collaborates with Skims, how many people even know about the Parisian style to begin with?