The French fash­ion in­dus­try has been an im­por­tant cul­tural ex­port since the 17th cen­tury and con­tin­ues to im­press to­day, says

France - - Contents - Peter Ste­wart

Fol­low the in­flu­ence of French fash­ion from Louis XIV to Yves Saint Lau­rent.

Louis Vuit­ton, Chanel, Dior… the list could go on for­ever. These are just a hand­ful of the de­sign­ers who have helped to es­tab­lish France’s rep­u­ta­tion as a world leader in all things sar­to­rial. Stylis­ti­cally and tech­ni­cally in­no­va­tive, the French fash­ion in­dus­try dates as far back as the 17th cen­tury and, de­spite oc­ca­sional blips, its rep­u­ta­tion en­dures.

It is fair to say that the French owe their chic style to Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, who reigned from 1643-1715. Louis had de­cid­edly lav­ish taste, a clear ex­am­ple be­ing the op­u­lent Palace of Ver­sailles. The monarch was renowned for his ex­quis­ite at­tire, and in­tro­duced the tex­tile trade to France. He placed it un­der the con­trol of the royal court, and soon it be­came the in­ter­na­tional author­ity on style. For cen­turies, France would be the place to go to find the high­est-qual­ity ma­te­ri­als.

In the 19th cen­tury, France reaf­firmed its love of fash­ion with the de­vel­op­ment of haute cou­ture – fit­ting cloth­ing to a par­tic­u­lar client – and the open­ing of the great cou­turier houses. English­man Charles Fred­er­ick Worth was the first to open a store, on Rue de la Paix in Paris, fol­lowed by Jac­ques Doucet, Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vion­net, among oth­ers.

The most fa­mous of the fash­ion houses es­tab­lished in Paris in the early 20th cen­tury was that of Coco Chanel. The Sau­mur-born de­signer shunned un­com­fort­able gar­ments such as the corset – which forced a woman’s up­per body to match a par­tic­u­lar shape. Chanel in­stead in­tro­duced looser, free-flow­ing de­signs, which proved im­mensely pop­u­lar dur­ing the 1920s.

France’s fash­ion in­dus­try suf­fered con­sid­er­ably dur­ing World War II, when Chanel and other de­sign­ers closed their stores dur­ing the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion. One coun­try hop­ing to profit from this gap in the mar­ket was the USA, which aimed to strengthen its own in­dus­try by shift­ing me­dia at­ten­tion to Amer­i­can de­sign­ers such as Claire Mc­cardell.

Af­ter years of ra­tioning and sub­se­quent tex­tile short­ages, high fash­ion ex­pe­ri­enced a re­vival thanks largely to the work of Chris­tian Dior, who be­came an iconic fig­ure in post-war women’s fash­ion with his ‘new look’.

Char­ac­terised by a nipped-in waist and A-line skirt that reached the mid-calf ( pic­tured above), Dior’s pi­o­neer­ing style trans­formed the fe­male sil­hou­ette, but ini­tially drew a lot of crit­i­cism due to the amount of fab­ric needed to pro­duce his gar­ments. Dior had the last word, declar­ing that “Europe has had enough of bombs, now it wants to see some fire­works.” These words helped to fuel post-war op­ti­mism, and re­sulted in Dior be­ing in­un­dated with or­ders.

The French fash­ion world faced per­haps its big­gest threat in the 1960s with the rise of youth cul­ture in ‘swing­ing Lon­don’. Bri­tish de­signer Mary Quant led the way, eschew­ing the for­mal Parisian gar­ments for more au­da­cious de­signs. These in­cluded ex­tremely short miniskirts which were adored by younger gen­er­a­tions as a sym­bol of fe­male eman­ci­pa­tion and sex­ual lib­er­a­tion.

How­ever, in the late 1960s it was the work of a young Yves Saint Lau­rent which would help Paris to re­claim its fash­ion crown. Im­por­tantly, Saint Lau­rent in­tro­duced a num­ber of men’s jack­ets into the fe­male wardrobe – namely ‘ le smok­ing’ – and was the first cou­turier to pro­duce a ready-to-wear col­lec­tion. To­day al­most all of the orig­i­nal cou­ture houses pro­duce readyto-wear lines that en­joy much greater press cov­er­age than cou­ture col­lec­tions and are, ul­ti­mately, much more prof­itable, ar­guably con­tribut­ing to high fash­ion’s longevity.

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