How fashion was born in 17th century Paris

How Paris Became ParisPeople had been wearing clothes for tens of thousands of years, but it was in 17th century Paris that the cloth on our backs was elevated to an art form—la mode. There, the culture of fashion was born, from the very notion of “going shopping” to the first fashion journalism.

“Paris in the seventeenth century defined shopping as we still know it,” writes Joan DeJean in How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City. “Every modern fashion scene is indebted to the manner in which the French fashion industry was invented and first marketed its goods.”

Prior to this time, merchants selling clothing would bring their wares into aristocrats’ homes, offering only as much as they could transport, DeJean explains. But 1577 saw the creation of the first indoor shopping area in Paris: the Galerie du Palais, in the Palais de Justice. Each merchant had a counter and a storage area—a kind of proto-shop—and by 1700, the gallery housed 180 merchants. Foreign visitors were surprised to note the progressive presence of women at the gallery: some as shop owners and others as customers visiting alone, unaccompanied.

True shops eventually sprung up around the city, selling everything from hair accessories to dresses to hats. Thanks to the thousands of street lanterns installed across Paris in 1667, these shops could stay open until 10 or 11 pm at night. Residents could “go shopping”—a new and fun social activity—at all hours of the day. By the mid-1700s, DeJean reports, as many as half of the shops around Paris were selling luxury goods and clothing.   

Other fashion innovations of the era included a move toward fixed prices, rather than haggling. This was the strict policy of La Frénai, the most famous luxury goods merchant in the 1700s. His brand, sold on the Rue Saint-Honoré and in the Galerie du Palais, was arguably the first chain store. 

Fashion was not just a matter of leisure but a boon for the French economy and French power. According to DeJean, Louis XIV deliberately wore French fabrics and gifted them to members of court, whose style ordinary Parisians would surely try to imitate. He taxed foreign fashion heavily, set high standards of quality control on French wares, and forced French manufacturers to copy popular foreign styles in order to assure the local industry’s dominance. 

He also sanctioned a new periodical, the Mercure galant, which would spill lots of its ink on fashion trends and (in 1678) the first fashion advertisements, pointing readers to some of the city’s new shops. 

17th century fashion
A fashion illustration from 1683, which notes where the garment can be purchased

And Louis XIV’s plan worked: the Mercure galant became popular across Europe, and tourists visited from far afield to buy luxury goods and enjoy the unique pleasure of shopping in Paris. They spent so much money on la mode that foreign critics eventually began to lament their countrymen’s obsession with French fashion.

Around this time, Paris was in the process of transforming from an “urban disaster” into a modern, socially diverse, and beautiful city, DeJean chronicles. With the creation of the Pont Neuf and the Place des Vosges, with the widening and lighting of its streets, “Paris became the prototype for a walking city, a place where people walked not merely to get around, but by choice and for pleasure,” she writes.

And where they walked, they could see and be seen. Aristocratic men wore fashionable, expensive cloaks around town, despite the presence of filous who specialized in stealing cloaks on the Pont Neuf. The Tuileries garden, opened in 1667, welcomed people from all walks of life. 

“The entire modern spectacle of high style, every red carpet walk, has its origins in the daily parade that began in the Tuileries in the 1670s,” writes DeJean.

DeJean’s How Paris Became Paris will delight you with its details of everyday life in the 17th century. The history she describes is inextricably rooted in places, from the newly developing Marais neighborhood to the manmade Ile Saint-Louis.

If you ask most people how Paris became Paris, they might reference the transformation under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who opened up, expanded, and beautified the city in the 19th century. But DeJean’s book is the story of an earlier transformation—one that, in many ways, set the stage for Haussmann’s.

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