The Essence of Style | Joan DeJean

Summary of: The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour
By: Joan DeJean


Prepare to immerse yourself in the dazzling world of 17th-century France, where the vision of King Louis XIV and minister of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert sparked an insatiable appetite for luxury and splendor. In ‘The Essence of Style’, Joan DeJean takes you on a journey through the birth of haute couture, fine cuisine, chic cafes, and the unmatched elegance of the French way of life. Discover how art, business, and revolutionary marketing strategies merged to create the first economy built on luxury goods, giving rise to new professions and transforming the way people shopped, ate, and adorned themselves. Are you ready to relive the glamor, sophistication, and style of Louis XIV’s France? Let the journey begin!

Luxury Revolution

The book highlights how King Louis XIV of France sparked an appetite for luxury that revolutionized the way people shopped and ate. Before the 17th century, only the elites had access to luxury goods. However, the Sun King and his minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, understood marketing and merged art and business. This led to the first economy based on producing luxury goods. The French food and fashion industries emerged, and new professions like hairdressers, chefs and couturières came into existence. Louis XIV paid attention to every detail, from the importation of swans to the height of heels on men’s shoes. Customers shopped at chic boutiques for clothing, jewelry, and home goods. What was once ordinary became extraordinary.

From Lady’s Maids to Hairdressers: The Evolution of Women’s Hair Care

In the late 17th century, women shifted from having lady’s maids to hiring hairdressers. Monsieur Champagne was among the most famous, using fabric, hairpieces, and accessories to add height, volume, and curl to their hair. Other hairdressers followed suit, with Mademoiselle Canilliat gaining popularity, and different shops offering different services. Women, for the first time, started cutting their hair, which some deemed wildly daring. King Louis XIV’s compliment of Duchesse de Fontanges’s hairstyle led to the “fontange”- a complex style with piled-high tresses- dominating the scene for three decades. This hairstyle also spawned a craze for human hair wigs. Women continued to keep the cumbersome, elaborate style until 1713. These changes in women’s hair care fuelled the rise of the first “celebrity stylist” and transformed the hairdressing industry, leading to an emergence of new styles, techniques, and services.

The Birth of French Couture

The birth of French fashion industry was a result of the realization that “high fashion must advertise.” The marketing strategy was based on disseminating images through fashion dolls and fashion plates. While fashion dolls were limited to a small audience, fashion plate engravings could be printed in hundreds. The images provided a glimpse into the aristocratic lifestyle, which led to the creation of “conjured celebrities.” The revolution in women’s hairstyling played a crucial role in the development of French couture, and the combination of sex and celebrity proved to be the most effective way to sell fashion.

The Birth of La Mode

The Paris fashion industry that originated under the patronage of King Louis XIV in the 1670s continues to impact fashion presently. Previously, personal tailors made dresses for wealthy women, reflecting an aristocrat’s status more than their fashion preference, and styles changed with little frequency. The first fashion publication, Le Mercure galant, introduced seasonal fashion trends, leading women to shop in boutiques. Accessories became popular, and Chinese coats, which were in vogue, were soon replaced with French textile-made mantuas. These innovative coats, created by Jean Paul Gaultier, were available for all women, not just the privileged class, making clothing less of a status symbol. Thus, la mode continued to revolutionize and attract widespread interest. Paris quickly became known as the fashion capital of the world because of its growing clientele, the ease of sharing fashion, and, most importantly, because of the King’s passion for shoes. Today, trendy fashion trends continue to come from Paris, with their historical origins dating back to King Louis XIV’s Paris.

The Fashion Revolution of Louis XIV’s Reign

Louis XIV’s love for fashionable and stylish shoes led to the evolution of footwear during the 17th century in France. He revolutionized the shoe industry by patronizing a royal boot maker who created seamless boots, and footwear became a noted craft. The emerging fashion trends included diamond buckles, hand-painted fabrics, scarlet heels and the famous French mule. The mule, an open-back shoe, became an emblematic French shoe, symbolizing the fashion revolution of Louis XIV’s reign. The contagious pursuit of luxury permeated all aspects of life in France during this time, as demonstrated in the coffee’s emergence as one of the most expensive luxury drinks, and the royal collection of diamonds that surpassed England’s Crown Jewels. French jewelers experimented with new cuts and settings, leading to significant progress in the trade. By the end of Louis XIV’s reign, many of the dishes that visitors still see on restaurant menus today became a staple food for the countrymen.

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