The eighteenth century France and luxury fashion

The eighteenth century was a century of contrasts in wealth and status. The prominence of France as the centre of style, civilization, education, intellect, arts and culture continued to rise during this century. By the end of Louis XIV's reign in 1715, the supremacy of France in fashion and lifestyle was unarguable. The rise of France led to the fading of Italy's influence in fashion especially as Italian fashion became less unified and more regional.

Louis XIV established himself as the arbiter of fashion and also propelled the Palace of Versailles, where he lived, as a centre that dictated fashion and lifestyle all over Europe and beyond. The Versailles courts were known for their splendour, opulence and luxury tastes shown through the dress styles and fabrics made of very expensive material. Everyone who wanted to be recognized followed and adopted the style that emanated from Versailles. Versailles Palace fashion led to haute mode high-society fashion, which dictated the tastes of society. Dressing emerged as one of the most sensitive aspects of society and fashion became a unifying factor and a source of respect.

Although national styles already existed in this century, the authority of French fashion in defining global tastes was so high that the dress style adopted all over Europe, including the royal courts, was the French style. From Germany to Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia and even Russia, there was a French undertone in fashion, lifestyle and appearance. The influence of the French lifestyle on Germany was so high that under the rule of King Frederick I, a total French taste was mandated in everything from furniture to dressing. Anyone who wanted to be seen as cultivated, well-educated and well-groomed adopted the French taste and style. There was a universal acceptance that only France possessed the secrets of sophistication and charm. Even England, which had a long history of political and colonial rivalry with France and which had a preference for simple clothing, acknowledged the elegance and sophistication of French fashion.

By 1760, French standards of taste, fashion and life known as the art de vivre had been universally adopted, characterized by wit, elegance, style, civilized manners and relationships and cultivated tastes in politics, society and intellect. The French language also became the European lingua franca of the educated elite, replacing Latin. The French courts, which were main centres of discussions, were established and became hubs where intelligent people, opinion-seekers and the fashionable were found.

Paris became the centre of fashion and Rue Saint Honoré continued to reign as the Mecca for the supply of textiles to the fashion industry including French silk made in Lyon, which were the most highly priced textiles in the world. Parisian fashion stores were highly reputed for their tantalizing fashion goods notably at Palais Royal. A Russian visitor in awe of the luxury goods found in Paris commented that 'all the riches of the world are displayed to the astonished eye ... all the inventions of luxury to the embellished eye' (Ribeiro, 2002, Dress in Eighteenth Century Europe, 52). This status of Paris in luxury fashion was, however, boosted by the high demand for luxury goods especially by Europe's aristocrats and royal family members.

Fashion in this century continued to grow with the invention of prominent fashion magazines from the 1770s in France, England and Germany. The magazines provided a basis for the emergence of English tailors who first began their craft through adopting the French featured style. They later developed a highly stylish and original English men's fashion sector. A case in point is the men's coat, which was the focal point of men's fashion of the period. Particular attention was paid to the choice of fabric, trimmings, braiding and embroidery lace. Men's hats were also invented together with hat cocking during this period. The retailing of clothing in London also grew significantly in this century, especially at Covent Garden, the Royal Exchange and Oxford Street.

The eighteenth century also brought about fashion role models or what might be known today as fashion icons or 'fashionistas'. These women, who were mostly French, wielded high power and influence in European society and were emulated by most Parisians. Since the rest of the world copied Parisian women, everyone in the world indirectly copied these fashion role models. Notable among them was Madame Pompadour who promoted elegance and classic style and Marie-Antoinette who was the fashion icon of the day. They changed clothes and accessories frequently and caused several women to almost go bankrupt in the process of imitating their style. The influence of Marie-Antoinette was so high that when she became pregnant, women wore skirts stuffed with pillows to mimic the look of pregnancy.

One of the first prominent fashion merchants and designers, Rose Bertin, also emerged in this century. Born in 1747, she rose to prominence as the couturier and supplier of the best fashion to the aristocrats and royal family members of France and beyond. She is perhaps the first luxury fashion designer to own shops beyond her country's shores, with the opening of her London store in the 1780s. At the height of her fame, even royal family members felt honoured to be on her client list including the Grand Duchess of Russia who travelled to Paris to purchase her dresses. Although her fame in Paris diminished during the years of the revolution, her London store sustained her business until its eventual closure.

While the high influence of France in dictating fashion and lifestyle continued well into the next century, the political disturbances the country faced during and after the French revolution years (1788-90) had an impact on both French fashion and the world. However, France was yet again to restore its fashion leadership position in the following centuries, and further reinforce the position of Paris as the undisputable fashion capital of the world.

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100 Fashion Tips

100 Fashion Tips

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