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History of Fashion in Paris

History of Fashion in Paris

The city that bore the infantile fashion industry to become the machine it is today – Paris. Let’s discuss the history of Parisian fashion.

The Rise of Paris as the Fashion Capital of the World

Louis XIV 

Portrait of Louis XIV of France painted by Claude Lefebvre in 1670.
Portrait of Louis XIV of France painted by Claude Lefebvre in 1670

The Sun King, France’s longest reigning monarch, Louis Dieudonnéa, laid the foundation for the rise of French fashion. Dieudonnéa means “Gift of God.” Leading the trend of mercantilism among European countries, Louis XIV focused heavily on amassing wealth through trade for political exploitation. 

He invested heavily in industry and manufacturing, especially luxury fabrics. At the same time, prohibiting the import of any fabrics in the country.

King since the tender age of four, Louis XIV, had very fine taste. When he decided to convert his father’s hunting chateau to the palace of Versailles, he demanded the best materials available. In his twenties, he realized that French fabrics and luxury goods were inferior, and he must import goods to meet his standards. Filling the coffers of other countries in an era where money directly translated to power was unacceptable. The best must be French!

The King’s policies soon bore fruit, and France began to export everything from luxury clothing and jewelry to fine wine and furniture, creating many jobs for his people. During this time, the world’s first fashion magazine, Le Mercure Galant, a Parisian publication, began reviewing the fashions of the French court and popularising Parisian fashion abroad. 

This amusement periodical quickly reached foreign courts, and French fashion orders poured in. The King also mandated the streets of Paris be lit up at night to promote night shopping.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert

Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Colbert painted by Philippe de Champagne 1655.
Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Colbert painted by Philippe de Champagne 1655
Philippe de Champaigne, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Paris Fashion was so lucrative and popular that the King’s minister for finance and economic affairs, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, said, “fashion is to France what gold mines are to the Spaniards.” This statement’s authenticity is shaky but does describe the situation then aptly. Thus by 1680, 30% of labor in Paris worked on fashion goods. 

Colbert also mandated that new fabrics be released twice a year for different seasons. Fashion illustrations for summer and winter were marked by fans and light fabrics in the summer and fur and heavy fabrics in the winter. This strategy wished to increase sales at predictable times and was brilliantly successful. It is the source of modern planned obsolescence of fashion. 

Today there are sixteen fast fashion micro seasons in a year in which brands like Zara and Shein release collections. The introduction of seasonal trends created huge profits, and by the late 1600s, France was the world’s sovereign on matters of style and taste, with Paris as its scepter.  

Paris Fashion in the Baroque Era

Portrait of Suzanna Doublet-Huygens by Caspar Netscher Baroque 1651 - 1700 depicting Baroque era fashion.
Portrait of Suzanna Doublet-Huygens by Caspar Netscher Baroque 1651 – 1700 depicting Baroque era fashion
Image courtesy:

Louis XIV died in 1715. The period of his reign was the Baroque period of art in Europe. The Baroque era was known for its grandiose opulence and excess. The King set stringent rules for fashion in court. Each man of status and his wife had to wear specific clothing items for each occasion. If you weren’t wearing the right clothes, you weren’t allowed at court and lost power. 

Noblemen went bankrupt, keeping up with the fashion rules. The King would lend you money for your wardrobe, keeping you in his firm grasp. So King Louis XIV said, “You can’t sit with us,” centuries before the movie “Mean Girls” was filmed.  

Women were less decorative than men as the King wouldn’t allow anyone to be better dressed than himself. The silhouette of the baroque period was defined by the basque. A corset-like construction that was displayed instead of lying under the clothes with a long point at the front and laced from the back. It featured a scooped neckline, sloping bare shoulders, and oversized billowing sleeves. 

Puffy sleeves became the quintessential display of wealth and status, showing up in America even in the late 1870s, known as the gilded age. Basqued dresses weren’t adorned very heavily besides wearing a string of pearls like a sash of a broach unless you were at court. Women wore hats similar to the ones men wore at the time, which were large and adorned with ostrich feathers

Nobles of both genders wore mules, high-heeled shoes without laces – very similar to the ones we have today. Men were particularly grandiloquent during the baroque era. Their costume consisted of:

  • Heavily trimmed hats
  • Periwigs
  • Jabot or lace scarves at the front of their shirt
  • Brocade vests
  • Billowing shirts with lace cuffs
  • Ribbon loop trimmed belts
  • Petticoat breeches, so full and pleated they looked like skirts
  • Lace cannons
  • High-heeled shoes

Marie Antoinette

Portrait of Marie-Antoinette of Austria 1775.
Portrait of Marie-Antoinette of Austria 1775
Martin D’agoty (bella poarch of Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Marie Antoinette became the queen of France before turning twenty years old. Isolated in a foreign land with very little privacy and a lackluster marriage, the sweet Austrian beauty dove into the fashion world as a refuge. Her dressmaker Rose Bertin became the first celebrity fashion designer. 

Marie became a style icon with gravity-defying hair and beautiful elaborate dresses with large full skirts. She became the definitive portrayal of French fashion. Every morning a French woman who could afford it followed the queen’s fashion example and wore:

  • Stockings
  • Chemise
  • Stays corset
  • Pocket belts 
  • Hoop skirt
  • Petticoats
  • Gown petticoats
  • Stomacher
  • Gown

Marie brought the concentration and embellishment back to women’s clothing as men simplified their fashion from the exuberant baroque period.

Regency Fashion 

The Regency period begins in the early 1800s. It marks the most unique and celebrated period of European fashion history. Many Movies and television shows are based on this period, including Pride and Prejudice and Bridgeton. It is fascinating since fashion during this era completely differed from anything before or after it. 

While men’s fashion largely stayed the same, women’s fashion went from large hoop skirts and corsets to empire waistlines and flowing skirts. 

Emma Hamilton

Emma Hamilton as a young girl (aged seventeen) c. 1782, by George Romney.
Emma Hamilton as a young girl (aged seventeen) c. 1782, by George Romney
George Romney, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Roman art, including statues and paintings, inspired fashion in this era. One of the biggest inspirations was the Herculaneum Bacante depicting the dancing devotees of Bacchus. Emma Hamilton was a neoclassical icon who posed in different attitudes to be painted by artists who visited her husband’s home in Naples. Her image was on countless paintings, captivating viewers with her wild hair and eccentric clothing. 

She most famously used to pose as the Herculaneum Bacante draped in ancient-inspired apparel. She began dressing in roman-inspired clothing tailored for her all the time, thus becoming the face of the neoclassical art movement and a fashion icon. Women in Europe ditched the huge skirts and wigs and wore natural hair with soft flowing fabrics draped over their bodies. Her fame drove nobles to visit her to see her in person. She was what a social media influencer would be today. Not just any influencer but the one with the most followers worldwide. The Kylie Jenner of the 1800s. 

However, after the French revolution, women did not take to the empire waist dress fashion simply since it was featured in the art around them. Many women were imprisoned during the revolution and after it. Women like Theresa Tallen and Queen Marie Antoinette herself were only allowed to wear their chemises while incarcerated. It was often what they wore as they were sent to the guillotine. 

French women adopted the neo-classical dresses that started circulating all over Europe as a tribute to these women. It was a symbol of surviving in those times. Women also started to lace their clothes with red ribbons and wear red beaded necklaces to represent the blood lost to the guillotine. 

Napoleon l revived the French textile industry after the chaos of the rebellion. His chief concern was promoting Lyon Silk and lace. Both materials made beautiful regency or neo-classical era dresses. Despite all the political upheaval in the 19th century, the French fashion and luxury sector continued to dominate the world. 

Hermes began selling luxury equestrian equipment and scarves while Louis Vuitton opened his box-making shop. These names did not know the legacies they started back then. 

Charles Frederick Worth

Engraved portrait of Charles Frederick Worth 1855.
Engraved portrait of Charles Frederick Worth 1855
Unknown author Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fashion used to be highly individual. Tailors and dressmakers created custom clothing to suit their patrons’ distinguished styles. Charles Frederick Worth changed that and started the Modern fashion industry when he opened his atelier in 1858. We made fashion about the designer’s vision, not the wearers. 

He was the first to make curated collections of dresses each season instead of clothes commissioned by customers. He pioneered Paris fashion show culture and used full-size, live models instead of Pandora dolls. Pandora dolls were French fashion dolls used to depict designs. Writing his name on the label was a huge game changer in the fashion industry. People kept knocking off his designs, so he thought of this solution. 

Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisien

He also started a trade association that set specific standards for what can be known as an Haute Couture or “High Sewing” brand. That association was dubbed Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisian and still exists today under the Federation De La Haute Couture Et De La Mode. 

The French pride themselves on setting the highest standards for fashion, gastronomy, fine wine, and all things luxury. To be considered an Haute Couture establishment today, you must fulfill these requirements:

  • Must make made-to-order dresses for private clients
  • Clothing must be made with more than one fitting using an atelier
  • Must employ a minimum of fifteen full-time staff members
  • Must also employ at least twenty full-time technical workers in one workshop
  • Must present a collection of at least over fifty original designs to the public for summer and winter in July and January 

Charles brand, the House of Worth, dressed many wealthy and influential women of the time like Empress Eugenie and Queen Alexandra. This was also the period of the great masculine renunciation in which men staved off the colors for women and opted for almost completely black clothing instead. Around this time, quality tailoring and cut were valued over embellishment in men’s clothing. 

Parisian Fashion In The Twentieth Century

In the Early Twentieth century, brands like Chanel, Lanvin, and Vionnet became prevalent. Since Paris remained the fashion world’s capital for the last three hundred years, an image of the Parisian was formed. A Parisian woman was better at everything and always looked great. She was who the rest of the world’s women wanted to be. Not only were Parisian noble women icons, but even the librarians, waitresses, secretaries, and homemakers were inspiring. 

The Big Four

During the German occupation of France in the 1940s, French fashion took a massive hit since no designs could leave the country. At the time, New York designers felt the gap and took advantage of it. London and Milan followed suit to be the 50s. The once-alone King of the fashion world became one of the big four fashion cities in the world. 

The rise of other fashion cities was inevitable, and they had to wait for Paris to be out of the picture before it happened. 

Paris Fashion Today

Smiling woman in sun hat looking at camera with Eiffel tower at background in Paris.

Parisian fashion today is elegant and chic. When you come across someone in the street, their outfit will look thought through. Parisians wear the best clothes in the world. Every year there is Paris fashion week in which models, designers, and celebrities flock to Paris to show the world the latest creations of the fashion industry. 

Brands like Dior, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, Claudie Pierlot, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Hermes still dominate the world of luxury and fashion. Soon-to-fade trends don’t easily sway Parisian men and women. 

They can read the fashion world and confidently buy things they know they can wear for at least a decade or forever. Basically, they know which trends will stick. When you think of an off-duty model, you picture Parisian streetwear.

Wrapping Up

Paris was the top player in the fashion world four hundred years ago and today. The fashion industry as we know it was birthed in the city of light. It is the place where shopping was first enjoyed as a leisure activity. The political unrest in its history only improved its fashion and luxury industries. 

Despite sharing the throne with other fashion cities after the war, its quality and style are still distinguishable from the rest. If France wears the crown of the fashion kingdom, then Paris is the crowning jewel.