The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour!

The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour!

by Joan DeJean

What makes fashionistas willing to pay a small fortune for a particular designer accessory? Why does a special occasion only become really special when a champagne cork pops? Why are diamonds the status symbol gemstone, instantly signifying wealth, power, and even emotional commitment?

Writing with great élan, one of the foremost authorities on

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What makes fashionistas willing to pay a small fortune for a particular designer accessory? Why does a special occasion only become really special when a champagne cork pops? Why are diamonds the status symbol gemstone, instantly signifying wealth, power, and even emotional commitment?

Writing with great élan, one of the foremost authorities on seventeenth-century French culture provides the answer to these and other fascinating questions in her account of how, at one glittering moment in history, the French under Louis XIV set the standards of sophistication, style, and glamour that still rule our lives today. Joan DeJean takes us back to the birth of haute cuisine, the first appearance of celebrity hairdressers, chic cafés, nightlife, and fashion in elegant dress that extended well beyond the limited confines of court circles. And Paris was the magical center -- the destination of travelers all across Europe.

Full of wit, dash, and verve, The Essence of Style will delight fans of history and everybody who wonders about the elusive definition of good taste.

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Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
In The Essence of Style, her effervescent account of the birth of French chic, Joan DeJean returns, again and again, to the idea that virtually everything associated with the high life today can be traced back to one man, whose tastes and desires transformed France into an international luxury brand.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Not only do French women not get fat, they've led the world in style for the past 300 years. French historian DeJean's premise is simple yet wonderfully effective: largely because of one obsessive spendthrift, Louis XIV, France, in the late 17th century, became the arbiter of chic, a position from which it has never since faltered. Louis's outrageous vanity, sumptuous court and devotion to his own well-being led to growth in the manufacturing of fine clothing and shoes, and the invention of shops in which to buy them, and to celebrity cuisine, cafes and Champagne (a particularly amusing-and explosive-chapter). Louis was enthralled by glitter, which fostered a huge increase in the diamond trade; the theft of the Venetians' mirror-making secrets and subsequent rise of France as world leader in that field; and the first night streetlights (hence the "City of Lights"). Louis also abhorred mud (so streets were paved with cobblestones) and disliked getting wet (thus umbrellas were invented). This engaging history "lite"-to be published on Bastille Day-is a fun read despite its many Sex in the City references. Photos, illus. Agent, Alice Martell. (July 14) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-DeJean gives readers an entertaining and engrossing account of how and when France cornered the market on luxury. Beginning with a description of what life was like before Louis XIV ascended the throne in 1643, she then details the radical changes that occurred as he and his ministers redirected French manufactures toward the creation of new luxury items. Each of the various subjects she discusses has its own chapter that can stand alone; taken together they show how desire for style created new products and markets. Louis's sumptuous, constantly redesigned wardrobe was copied by his court. The interest in the elegant new styles led to the development of the fashion press. The magazines with their engravings (the original fashion plates) enthralled the common people, who wanted their own bit of glamour. The manufacture of luxury accessories allowed almost everyone to feel like a fashionista. Since women needed somewhere to show off their stylish clothes, the dark, smoky coffeehouses were replaced by elegant, glittering cafes with fine coffee and exquisite pastries. Teens who gather in modern cafes, flip through fashion magazines, and purchase designer bags will enjoy this book. They will also discover that Madison Avenue has nothing on 17th-century Paris.-Kathy Tewell, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Effervescent . . . sparkling . . . packed with savory tidbits." — The New York Times

"An enormously readable and civilized book that reveals, in fascinating detail, some of the reasons for the French superiority complex." — Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence

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Free Press
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6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Essence of Style

How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour
By Joan DeJean

Free Press

Copyright © 2005 Joan DeJean
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-6413-4


Living Luxe

Why is it that people all over the world share the conviction that a special occasion becomes really special only when a champagne cork pops? And why is that occasion so much more special when the sparkling wine being poured is French? Why are diamonds the status symbol gemstone, instantly signifying wealth, power, and even emotional commitment? What makes fashionistas so sure that a particular designer accessory - a luxe handbag, for instance - will be the ultimate proof of their fashion sense that they are willing to search high and low for it and, if necessary, wait for months for the privilege of paying a small fortune to acquire it? Why is having a haircut from the one-and-only stylist, and that stylist alone, so essential to the psychic well-being of so many that it seems they would do almost anything to make sure that less magic scissors never come near their hair?

All these dilemmas, and many other mysteries of the fashionable life as well, first became what we now call issues at the same period - what may well be the most crucial period ever in the history of elegance, élan, and luxury goods. At that moment, Louis XIV, a handsome and charismatic young king with a great sense of style and an even greater sense of history, decided to make both himself and his country legendary. When his reign began, his nation in no way exercised dominion over the realm of fashion. By its end, his subjects had become accepted all over the Western world as the absolute arbiters in matters of style and taste, and his nation had found an economic mission: it ruled over the sectors of the luxury trade that have dominated that commerce ever since.

This book chronicles the origins of fashion and gastronomy and the process that brought luxury goods and luxurious experiences into the lives of people all over the Western world. It tells how the young King succeeded in giving his nation's culture a unique definition. It also describes how he accomplished something far more impressive: he set new standards for food, fashion, and interior decoration, standards that still provide the framework for our definitions of style.

Experiences that range from dining out in a fashionable spot to shopping in a chic boutique for a must-have fashion accessory or a diamond ring; luxury products such as champagne, as well as some of the dishes we most love to savor while we sip it (crème brûlée, for instance) - all of them came into being at the same moment. The extraordinary wave of creativity that swept over France under Louis XIV's patronage unleashed desires that now seem fundamental. Without the Sun King's program for redefining France as the land of luxury and glamour, there would never have been a Stork Club, a Bergdorf Goodman, a Chez Panisse, or a Cristophe of Beverly Hills (and President Clinton would never have dreamed of holding Air Force One on the runway of LAX for an hour while Cristophe worked his styling magic on his hair).

The story of Louis XIV and of France at the defining moment of its history, the half century between 1660 and Louis XIV's death in 1715, is a saga that forces us to ask ourselves just how it is that countries and cities acquire a personality or a sense of definition. In most cases, no one person can be said to be responsible for these national images. The characteristics on which they are based - Dutch cleanliness, German precision - are the product of the shared sociopsychological makeup of a people.

But in the case of France, a national personality was the product of the type of elaborate and deliberate image making of which Hollywood or Madison Avenue would be proud. In the sixteenth century, the French were not thought of as the most elegant or the most sophisticated European nation. By the early eighteenth century, however, people all over Europe declared that "the French are stylish" or "the French know good food," just as they said, "the Dutch are clean." France had acquired a sort of monopoly on culture, style, and luxury living, a position that it has occupied ever since. At the same time, Paris had won out over all its obvious contemporary rivals - Venice, London, Amsterdam - and had become universally recognized as the place to find elegance, glamour, even romance. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, travelers were saying what novelists and filmmakers are still repeating: travel to Paris was guaranteed to add a touch of magic to every life.

Most remarkable of all is the fact that, from this moment on, that touch of magic became widely desired: elegance, luxury, and sophistication became factors to be reckoned with, to an extent never before conceivable. Within restricted, elite circles, sophisticated food and elegant dress had always been aspired to. Some of the trends described here had precedent, for example, in ancient Rome. At different moments, certain nations had been widely thought to be more knowledgeable about the luxurious life than others: during the Renaissance, for example, Italy set the standards for fine dining and dress.

All these earlier incarnations of the good life are, however, different in three essential ways from what was put into place in seventeenth-century France. First, their impact was always extremely limited: very few people outside of Italy ever dressed or ate in the Italian manner; even within Italy, the new luxury rarely touched the lives of those outside court circles. Second, even though we would surely agree that what was then considered a fabulous feast or a sumptuous outfit was indeed extraordinary, none of those fashions are still being copied. Finally, never before had a city ruled over the empire of style and sophistication for more than a brief period. In the 1660s, Paris began a reign over luxury living that still endures, three and a half centuries later. This happened because the French understood the importance of marketing: thus, when fashion became French, the fashion industry began, along with concepts such as the fashion season that continue to be essential to that industry's functioning.

The institutions, the values, and the commodities that came into existence under Louis XIV's patronage marked a radically new departure for the realm of luxury. For the first time, new standards for elegant living transcended all the barriers, both geographic and social, that had previously limited their influence. A French shopgirl would certainly not have been able to afford an entire outfit in the latest fashion. Even if she got only one new accessory, however, she wanted to get it just right - the right cut, the right color, to be worn the right way - and she wanted it to be beautiful. Indeed, one late-seventeenth-century commentator prepared foreigners planning a trip to Paris for a new experience: "Every ordinary woman there will be more magnificently dressed than the finest ladies in their home nations."

People in cities all over Europe became slaves to French food, fashion, and design, and to food, fashion, and design that imitated as closely as possible what was being created in Paris. As the German lawyer and philosopher Christian Thomasius announced in 1687: "Today we want everything to be French. French clothes, French dishes, French furniture." And even before the United States was a nation - as soon as the new cities in North America had populations large enough to constitute a market - we became a society of consumers: in matters of taste and style, many of the original American conspicuous consumers began to dream of dancing to the French drummer, too.

The refashioning of France did not take place because the French had somehow become inherently more elegant or had suddenly been genetically endowed with the most refined palates in the world. Today at least, the French do share characteristics that support their national image - they like to talk about food, particularly while putting away prodigious repasts, far more than, say, the English; an abnormally high percentage of French women have the fabulous bodies that make fashion into a statement without ever having sweated through a step class. It's not important that we'll never know whether any of this was already true in the seventeenth century, for one thing at least is clear: the transformation of the French into gourmets and fashion queens was a matter of much more than shared national propensities. It was truly an affair of state.

During the summer of 1676, Louis XIV came up with what some saw as one of the more eccentric of his many plans for the beautification of Paris. He imported hundreds of wildly expensive white swans to add a touch of elegance to the Seine. He ordered a colony established on a small island directly opposite the capital's favorite promenade, the Cours-la-Reine; Parisians and visitors could thus take a stroll, display their latest finery, and observe the exotic birds, all at the same time. The birds were also perfectly positioned so that anyone traveling from Paris to Versailles would have a view of them along the way. Critics pointed out that the noble birds were not cut out for the polluted and congested waters of a river that then bustled with the transport of merchandise to and from the French capital. The King would have none of it. It was style he was after, and style he was determined to get. It is hardly surprising that - despite the numerous laws that were passed to protect their nests - many of the King's exotic birds died. What is amazing is that so many of them survived that, more than half a century later, the head of the Parisian police was still personally looking out for their well-being.

From the beginning, it was always thus. Louis XIV seems to have known exactly the image he wanted conveyed when anyone thought of Paris or of France, an image of graceful elegance and tasteful opulence. In order to achieve this goal, every detail received his personal attention - from swans to streetlights for his capital city to the heels for men's shoes. "Louis XIV thought of everything," remarked one of his greatest admirers, Voltaire; "not only did great things happen during his reign, but he made them happen." In almost all cases, he not only succeeded in achieving his goals; those goals, once achieved, have since become synonymous with what we now think of both as a quintessentially French look and as the essence of style.

Even his methods are still our methods. Ours is an age in which everything from supermarkets to drugstores to cafés can increasingly be found open, as we now say, 24/7. The frontier between day and night is constantly being eroded because we refuse to wait for what we want. As long as the asparagus are tasty and the blooms beautiful, we don't care where they were grown. Critics may rail against our desire to dominate nature, but it has become a fact of life. And it means that Louis XIV is someone our instant-gratification society can understand. Like us, he wanted what he wanted when he wanted it: baby peas, bright lights, more diamonds than anyone had ever seen. When nature was against him, he had the technology invented that would make it bow to his desires. His life and his person were an advertisement for the passion for aesthetic perfection. The first customers for the fabulous new French fashions and cuisine and design also wanted a piece of the Sun King's very own style.

In 1660, Paris was poised to leave its mark on the Western world. In the course of the seventeenth century, and particularly during the century's final decades, Paris more than doubled in size. By 1700, Paris and London were about the same size (roughly 550,000 inhabitants), the largest cities in Europe, and virtually tied for the position of fourth-largest city in the world - after Constantinople, Edo (today's Tokyo), and Beijing. They had left far behind the many European cities - Venice, Prague, Naples, Rome - that had been only slightly smaller at the beginning of the century. Amsterdam had also known a growth spurt during the same period, but it never rivaled the two leaders. During the eighteenth century, London would continue its remarkable growth, whereas Paris remained stationary. But when Louis XIV began his reign, France's capital was on the move, undergoing one of the most spectacular periods of expansion in its history.

Louis XIV is remembered as the most powerful monarch in French history, the king who transformed France into a modern nation. In the early 1660s, at the beginning of his personal reign, he consciously set out to make France different from all its European rivals. In particular, he wanted to overshadow the country he contemptuously referred to as "that nation of shopkeepers," the Dutch, then Europe's greatest mercantile and shipping power. (He put England, Holland's foremost rival in these domains, in the same category.) The King resolved that France would become a mercantile superpower and that it would achieve this status fully on its own terms. With the help of his contrôleur général des finances, or minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert - the man who wrote the modern book on economic protectionism and trade wars - he was determined to corner for his country a hugely lucrative market: the luxury trade.

The partnership between the style-obsessed monarch and the hard-nosed businessman was a marriage made in heaven that was the guiding force during the key decades (1661-1683) for the invention of France's new national image. Together, they invented in particular the perfect partnership between art and merchandising: the King always required absolute stylistic perfection; Colbert kept his eye resolutely on the bottom line. Together, they created the first economy driven by fashion and taste. Because of their partnership, luxury commerce was, well, made commercial to a previously unheard-of degree. Colbert worked closely with the country's business elite; he made sure that every aspect of high-end merchandising - from trade regulations to import duties - was tailored to favor his nation's business community.

The foundation of the economic policy that Colbert imposed on France was simple: a nation's prosperity and strength were directly tied to the quantity of gold and silver it held in reserve. In order to increase this supply, imports had to be kept as low as possible, exports as high as possible. Those decades during which Colbert was in office were also the moment at which France knew its most acute monetary crisis of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For centuries after the conquest of the New World, precious metal had entered into circulation in France via Spain: just after the mid-seventeenth century, this source suddenly dried up.

In such an economic climate, Colbert's bottom line was plain: first, to make sure that all the goods Louis XIV considered essential to the promotion of his image as the wealthiest, the most sophisticated, and the most powerful monarch in Europe would be produced in France and by French workers; and second, to make certain that as many people as possible would be slavishly following the Sun King's dictates and buying only the same French-made luxury goods that the King featured at Versailles. Colbert accomplished his mission so successfully that one of his eighteenth-century successors, the Genevan banker Jacques Necker, who was among the last finance ministers to serve the French state before the Revolution of 1789, paid him the ultimate compliment, businessman to businessman: "For the French, taste is the most fruitful of businesses." The King created new standards for luxury that were accepted as inherently French, and Colbert saw to it that every product that could be linked to that look had been marketed as widely as possible. And we think that Hollywood and Madison Avenue are only now inventing tie-ins.


Excerpted from The Essence of Style by Joan DeJean Copyright © 2005 by Joan DeJean. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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