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The History of French Fashion

The History of French Fashion

Fashion is vital as it doesn’t only drive the trends experienced in a certain corner of the world but contributes to its economy too! French fashion is a prominent part of French culture. Fashion design was a field that the French had started experimenting with as early as the 13th century. 

By the 15th century, the fashion of France witnessed a revolution. There was a major boom experienced in the production and export of designs through mannequins and fashion dolls, and the world quickly adapted to the popular style. 

With the introduction of Haute Couture, France set a benchmark for the world. As time passed, more designers began to make their mark, and we experienced the famous Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Louboutin, Dior, and many more designs that forever changed the definition of fashion.

The 17th Century Classics

Woman in a baroque dress.
Image Courtesy: Pexels

The reign of Louis XIV impacted not just the politics of France. It had a massive impact on the way people chose to dress. The Sun King was known for his unique style and introduced much of the style we categorize under the Baroque age. 

The world looks to the French for fashion, which is no surprise since the most popular prints were introduced during the reign of Louis XIV. No, we aren’t talking about cloth prints. The royals were used to a certain style and were in charge of what the common people were allowed to wear.  

The fashion press was responsible for prints showcasing hand-drawn designs usually distributed between royalty and other parts of the world. The notion of trends was introduced, though the French called it the “fashion season.” 

French fashion was depicted through figures that were covered in fine clothing which was detailed and intricate. Accessories were paired with the clothes, which led to various looks that the French royalty could use all year round.  

The era was also characterized by its royal portraits, which consisted of formal paintings that would paint the royals in elaborately designed clothing and extravagant accessories. People stayed up to date with the latest trends in fashion through these portraits, as the King was seen wearing clothes that were in line with French fashion at the time. 

This French fashion included bold wigs that men of royalty wore. Some thought the King wore these wigs to hide his balding, but others believed that he wore them for the style. No matter the reason, it shows the enormous effect a person of influence can have on the fashion of an entire country. 

The 18th Century Shift 

It was not until the 18th century that the styles witnessed by the French courts changed. The shift in attitudes to royalty had a great impact on French fashion. People no longer believed in everything that the royalty chose to do. 

As extravagance led to bankruptcy, common people found it harder to feed themselves and their children. They blamed the crown. The earlier part of the 18th century witnessed the glamorous lifestyle of Queen Antoinette. 

As the common people rebelled against the monarchy, they began to wear more lavish clothing, leading to a fashion boom. French fashion involved luxury watches, belts, clothing, and hats worn by Parisian women, while the Sans-Culottes rebelled through their dressing. 

The peasants at the forefront of the French Revolution took pride in their informal style, such as the simple and comfortable trousers they were used to wearing. People were finally attracted to the minimalistic style. 

Thus, the royal style was blown away, along with the glitz and powder of older styles, which made way for modern fashion. 

19th Century: The Road to Transition

Wigs in French Fashion, actress holding a teacup.
Actress holding a teacup
Image Courtesy: Pexels

The period between the rise of the French Revolution and the restoration of the monarchy was troublesome for the French Empire. This was because the confusion had manifested itself in the bold and sensual styles flaunted by the Incroyables. 

This group of elites took it upon themselves to change French fashion through their sheer, low-cut gowns and bold fashion statements such as sandals that flaunted toe rings, amongst other foot accessories. This style disappeared as Napoleon Bonaparte came to power

Contrary to popular belief, Napoleon Bonaparte did not influence French fashion. However, he did contribute to it indirectly. With the rise of the French Revolution, the textile industry had taken a big hit. Silk production rates had declined as people preferred the much more comfortable muslin material. 

Bonaparte reintroduced silk to the fashion of France as he added tulle and fine lace to make it more appealing. The trends mirrored the politics of the time. Due to the relations with the Middle East at the time, much of the jewelry, beading, and sewing reflected Middle Eastern style. 

This was so effective that the much-loved hats were replaced with turbans as accessories. Other trends such as shawls inspired by the traditional Indian shawls also took over French fashion. 

The Fashion Houses of the Early 20th Century 

Woman near a brown horse.
Parisian Gowns in French Fashion
Image Courtesy: Pexels

In the later half of the 19th century, attitudes to fashion had already started to change. With the end of the first World War, people had much more time to focus on styling and clothing. This led to the introduction of Haute Couture which was popular from 1860 to 1960. 

This was categorized by couturier houses and presses, showcasing varied clothing styles throughout the century. Worth’s couturier house was a popular part of French fashion, giving rise to other fashion houses. 

The same period hosted the famous Chanel, a popular brand today. Mademoiselle Coco Chanel’s clothes weren’t the only thing that set the trend at the time. She flaunted a much different style, what with her boyish appearance. Women could finally look up to a different trend. 

Women had forever been restricted within the boundaries of tight-fitted clothing that wasn’t functional. They were deprived of pockets and mobility. Chanel understood this and played on the athleticism embraced at the time with water sports and horse riding. 

Chanel designed the popular bell bottom pants paired with simplistic shirts, crewneck sweaters, and functioning shoes. It was a revolution indeed!

As France entered the Second World War, it lost much of the excitement with which it approached fashion. Styling gave way to much more realistic demands, and most fashion houses were shut down. It was a dark time indeed, as many models became unemployed. 

Fashion houses had space for limited models and materials that they could use to create practical clothing. Men were spotted in much shorter suits made to preserve efforts and resources for wartime expenditure. 

Women still made bold statements with accessories such as the hat. This became a symbol of freedom from the war, which had encased people in a depressive scenario. 

This transitioned into the post-World War II era. As people slipped out of the darker times, they looked forward to French fashion reviving itself and regaining the popularity it had lost with the rise of Hitler. 

Dior lifted people’s spirits by introducing skirts with tiny waists and dresses that catered to a curvy figure. People started spending on dresses in a post-war frenzy. 

Modern Fashion

Women posing for a picture.
French Fashion in Recent Times
Image Courtesy: Pexels

So, how has French fashion changed in modern times? Is it any different from what it was some centuries ago? Have any clothing items seeped through the sands of time, continuing to influence what we wear today? 

France is known for its fashion, and as Coco Chanel puts it, it is merely polite to dress well in case you have a potential date with destiny! However, the styles that were so near and dear to designers like Chanel and Dior had started to go out of fashion by the 60s. 

This was primarily due to the youth sub-culture, which shunned “high fashion” and resorted to the much more casual dressing style adopted by the youth of London.

Yves Saint Laurent broke through with his prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) collection, and the risk paid off. He took the first steps into mass-produced clothing; the rest is history. Yves Saint Laurent forever changed the face of French fashion, pulling the country out of the effects of the Second World War and greatly contributing to its rising economy. 

Designers took these efforts one step further and kept adding to the fashion of France, the effects of which trickled down into fashion trends worldwide. They stepped away from the regressive clothing styles reserved for women and offered them a much wider range of clothing to choose from. 

As the youth embraced the hippie era, much of fashion gave way to unique styles that ordinary people created. Others chose to embrace high fashion and wore clothes that adopted some aspects of the styles that had existed within French fashion long ago. 

We see many influences of these styles around the world today. A girl’s first prom is incomplete without the ball gown style dressing that she chooses to wear. A woman feels incomplete without her wedding gown on her wedding day. 

The comfortable and functioning suits that women choose to wear to work every day have their roots in tiny revolutions created by designers that fought for the freedom of choice. Changing trends throughout history have proved to us that attitudes to fashion are subject to change according to the ideologies of the time.  

Impact of French Fashion 

  1. Fashion was an important part of the French economy. People struggled to make ends meet during and after World War eras. The thirst for fashion created the demand that boosted the textile industry. 
  2. Fashion encouraged the development of various trends that kept changing through the centuries. This allowed people to eventually change their mindsets regarding a woman’s acceptable form of dressing. 
  3. French fashion influenced modern fashion as many of the styles of dressing we see today are inspired by many French designers. These include long coats, ball gowns, dresses, mini skirts, athletic outfits, and more. 
  4. Fashion is an expression of freedom. As attitudes to monarchy changed over time, common people expressed their views on absolutism through their dressing styles. What you wore was an expression of freedom. This was also reflected in the creativity expressed by designers throughout the different centuries.
  5. Without French fashion, we wouldn’t have many of the comfortable dressing styles provided for men involved in physical labor or athletic activities. The tight and rigid dressing of the earlier centuries only gave way to the more versatile designs of modern times. 

Summing It Up 

Fashion is a choice, but it is also a statement. The way people dressed in earlier times reflected their status against that of the common folk. It also spoke volumes about the acceptable dressing style for women and men.

Fashion, like all other things, has become a symbol. It was used to express differences in class, sex, and race. It was used to create a divide and to put down certain members of society. It is still used for the same means, in much more subtle ways. 

The way a woman dresses can lead to labeling. Women must follow acceptable dressing guidelines. Men are also placed on a pedestal and forced to look “macho,” which disallows them the freedom even to flaunt a lighter color if they desire, let alone wear makeup. 

There is a way one must dress; curvy women need to hide certain parts of their body through their dressing, while skinny women need to accentuate other parts. We can only hope that people’s attitudes to dressing change in the coming years. 

Dress for comfort, as no guideline can determine how you look!