Wednesday, July 13, 2005

And look how that society ended up.


July 13, 2005
A Style-Obsessed Despot Who Still Dictates to Us

The tyranny of name brands. The cult of celebrity. A consumer culture inflamed by advertisers who rely on sex to seduce. These are some of the defining features of modern life. They happen to be more than 300 years old, the creation of French image-makers who, in a dizzy era of excess and splendor, bequeathed to the world nearly all the signifiers of the beautiful life, from Champagne to fine jewelry to fickle, ever-changing fashion. Three centuries later, it's still Louis XIV's world. We're just living in it.

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. Today, the diamond reigns supreme among gemstones. But it was not always so. Throughout the Renaissance, it was the pearl that symbolized wealth and beauty, while the diamond, in treatises of the time, ranked only 18th in importance. In the 1660's, however, Louis developed a taste for the colorless stone that a French jeweler named Jean-Baptiste Tavernier began bringing back from India. In 1669, the king spent the equivalent of $75 million on diamonds, propelling the stone to the pre-eminent position it has enjoyed ever since, and establishing Paris as the world center for fine jewelry. The Sun King was also the bling king.

Royal preferences, closely studied by every courtier at Versailles, dictated fashion, and fashion at Versailles rippled throughout the civilized world. In 1694, a new expression, "slaves of fashion," entered the official French lexicon, but the slaves themselves had been hard at work for decades, as France quickly developed the fashion culture whose main features live on today. Ms. DeJean, a professor of French at the University of Pennsylvania, devotes several sparkling chapters to the emergence of hairdressers, seasonal fashions, boutiques, the fashion press and the culture of celebrity.

It all seems so contemporary. Parisian women submitted to the cruel attentions of a hairdresser known as Monsieur Champagne, who rewarded his faithful clients by insulting them to their faces or simply walking out in a huff, leaving his work half done. Many of them, in the 1690's, lined up for the "fontange," a tousled, hair-on-the-forehead look sported by the king's mistress, the Duchess of Fontange. The fashion press, above all the tireless, panting Mercure Galant, helped promote the idea of seasons and rapidly changing trends. This included "in" colors. In fall 1678, gray ruled, either mouse gray or pearl gray, but emphatically not the linen-gray of the summer before. The following winter, Le Mercure Galant announced that "everyone is wearing black."In a daring move, fashion swooped downscale in spring 1677 and co-opted grisette, the gray serge fabric worn by poor shopgirls. "This was the kind of blending of high and low, of class and mass, so adored by Isaac Mizrahi and other designers today - as if denim had been used to fashion a ball gown for a fete at Versailles," Ms. DeJean writes. To internationalize French fashion, couturiers sent wooden dolls outfitted in the latest styles to shops in London, Berlin and other capitals. "Their arrival was always anxiously awaited, an event covered in contemporary newspapers as though a real-life supermodel had come to town," Ms. DeJean writes. "The Essence of Style" is packed with savory tidbits like this. Ms. DeJean explains the transformative effects wrought by the introduction of large mirrors. The toilette, formerly done by a maid or servant, could now be carried out more or less solo, turning the toilette into a three-hour ritual, often performed in company, and powering the French cosmetics industry into the position of supremacy that it enjoys today.

Mirrors also changed interior decoration and, in a beautiful example of synergy, gave a boost to the work of France's fine jewelers, who could now see their diamond pendants and chandelier-like earrings reflected, ad infinitum, in showpiece galleries like the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Louis, who went to great effort and expense to steal Venice's mirror technology, went a bit overboard. In 1676 he unveiled the first grotto entirely lined with mirrors.

Ms. DeJean, obviously taking a busman's holiday from her serious scholarly work, can be overly playful. She uses the word "fashionista" repeatedly, constantly refers to 17th-century fashions as "trendy" or "hot," and at one point calls Martial, the king's favorite perfumer, a "scentmeister." It's a little dismaying, too, when a literary scholar writes "throws of passion" and "to the manor born." (That's "throes" and "manner.") Ms. DeJean is stronger on fashion than food. Her chapter on French cuisine reads dutifully, and she adds little to the oft-told story of Dom PĂ©rignon and the invention of Champagne.

On shoes, she is brilliant. Of course, in Louis, she has one of the great shoe fetishists of all time as a subject. It was during his reign, Ms. DeJean writes, that "almost all types of shoes and boots worn ever since were invented." That includes the mule, the shoe par excellence of the era, with the curvy heel still known as the Louis heel. It was a mule, in fact, that slipped off Cinderella's little foot as she raced home from the ball, not a glass slipper. ) In one version of the story, the prince is obsessed not with the girl but with the shoe.

There was a price to pay for luxury and glory, of course. That's why the French will be celebrating Bastille Day tomorrow.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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