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“Louis XIV,” Joan DeJean writes in The Essence of Style, her ebullient new history of high living in 17th-century France, “is someone our instant-gratification society can understand.” The Sun King could not tolerate dull evenings indoors, so he outfitted Paris with thousands of twinkling streetlights. Rainy weather hindered his afternoon strolls, and, voilà, the collapsible umbrella was born. Disdaining bathing and body odor in equal measure, Louis granted legal status to the first perfumers’ guild; centuries later France’s fragrance industry still thrives. And when he decided that the crown jewels were looking rather shabby (the pearl had been the bijou of choice throughout the Middle Ages), he amassed a trove of diamonds valued at a half-billion dollars. “Like us, he wanted what he wanted when he wanted it.”
Louis XIV’s fine (and fast) tastes were, DeJean solidly argues, more than just the personal indulgences of a flighty monarch; they formed the basis of “the first economy driven by fashion and taste.” Though DeJean’s subtitle promises that the book will explain how “the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour,” she attributes these accomplishments not to France but to one of its most decadent leaders. (Doubtless Louis would not have minded this confusion; he performed the same tidy elision with his famous proclamation, “L’état, c’est moi.”)
When the young Sun King assumed the throne in 1643, France possessed none of its now-signature institutions of Gallic chic—haute couture, fine cuisine, elegant cafes, even champagne. It was Louis XIV, determined to establish his country as the cultural hub of Europe, who made these goods fixtures of sophisticated style; and it was his minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who ensured that they were manufactured in France. The King’s opulence redirected precious livres from the royal coffers to the national economy. This was the dawn of what DeJean terms “the age of too much muchness,” when luxury and its imitations became a way of life.
It was also the start of a “perfect partnership between art and merchandising,” and DeJean ably explains how the latest trends traveled from the mirrored halls of Versailles to the cobbled streets of Paris. One newspaper, Le Mercure galant, seems to have been chiefly responsible. Launched in 1672 by the enterprising Jean Donneau de Visé, the paper was among the first in the country, accustoming Parisians to a rapid influx of expiring reports on weather, livestock, and even la mode. Donneau de Visé advised his female readers on everything from the latest colors for evening frocks to the proper width of hair ribbons. He also insisted that “to be fashionable, it was necessary to change one’s garments not only and not even when the weather changed, but the minute one began to notice other women dressing in a different manner.” And lest you were not in the position to “notice” the most glamorous ladies of French society, Le Mercure printed engravings of them turned out in their elaborate finery. (The phrase “fashion plate” comes from these ubiquitous and influential illustrations.)
Dressing, however, was just one aspect of being fashionable. To achieve true style in the age of Louis XIV required, for the first time, paying someone exorbitant sums to trim and arrange your hair, tottering on vertiginously high heels, and acquiring a pricey mirror for careful self-inspection. Rule No. 1 of looking good was suddenly, as DeJean puts it, “make it chic and make it cher.” Of course, only a narrow sliver of French society could afford to be governed by fashion’s firm dictate. The less fortunate made do with occasional obedience—curling their hair, selecting gray muslin instead of brown.
DeJean has unfortunately little to say about the economic forces that allowed style to sift down from the court to the Third Estate. She notes the emulation and social climbers that provided trends with momentum, but largely ignores the societal changes that had enabled the creation of a class of strivers. Like the lavish goods it catalogs, The Essence of Style is a well-crafted, if sometimes superficial, exercise in panache.
Still, even without much background, DeJean’s examples persuasively show that many of the grooming habits of contemporary Western society began 300 years ago at toilette tables throughout France. Ladies could apply their own makeup with the aid of a mirror. Accessories and aromatic oils flourished. And fashion began tilting toward the feminine: It wasn’t until the turn of the 18th century that women surpassed men in their spending on clothes and accessories.
Something both sexes could relish equally was gourmet cooking. DeJean devotes only one chapter to cuisine, and the result is a relatively skeletal account of French food preparation. “A radical separation of sugar and salt went into effect” during Louis XIV’s lifetime, DeJean mentions, without detailing the kind of sweet and salty dishes one might have expected to find on the king’s dinner plate. The focus falls instead on what might be called the culture of eating—place settings, banquet halls, cookbooks, and candlesticks. Dining out was just catching on in the late 1600s and, as DeJean points out, the experience was never really about filling one’s belly. Even early French restaurateurs knew that “the way in which the plate and the food were displayed was as important as what was on the plate.”
DeJean, a professor of French at the University of Pennsylvania, keeps the frothy details from floating away with occasional forays into literary scholarship. She references the theater and popular writing of the day, much of it obsessed with style, to illuminating effect: The fashion mania that had infiltrated France was creating a new niche for satire and farce. In 1663, DeJean recounts, the scintillating comedy Champagne le Coiffeur riveted Parisian society with its depiction of a lecherous real-life hairdresser and his well-born clients and conquests. Such playwrights as Molière, Florent Dancourt, and Edmé Boursault peppered their work with the names of famed luxury merchants and the increasingly bizarre slang of the fashionable set. The letters and diaries of such gossipy court doyennes as the Marquises de Dangeau and de Sévigné provide DeJean with tart eyewitness assessments of changing styles. When, in 1671, Sévigné caught sight of the first short hairstyles for women, she wrote to her daughter that the coif made ladies resemble “little heads of cabbage.” (But not even a prickly marquise could remain indifferent to a trend; three days later she admitted herself “completely won over” by the cropped look.)
And then, of course, there’s “Cinderella,” the quintessential French fashion fable. An old folktale, the story of Cendrillon and her slipper first appeared in print in the middle of Louis XIV’s reign. DeJean performs deft readings of two versions of the story, convincingly making the case for Prince Charming as one of literature’s first footwear fetishists. For him, the shoe, not the lady, “is the ultimate object of desire.” In this way, the prince was not unlike the young Louis XIV, who reportedly sported a pair of showstopping silk pumps to his nuptials and “thought about his new shoes as much as his bride.”
Yet the foppish king had worries as well, as DeJean occasionally hints: At one point, he ordered 27 tons of his own solid silver furniture melted down to finance the wars he interminably waged. (He refused, however, “to part with any of his diamonds.”) DeJean skimps on historical context throughout the book, but hardly to its detriment. A subject like fashion holds up best in relative isolation; a silk chaise looks awfully small next to battle-ready frigate.
DeJean does, however, take note when weighty affairs of state intersected with France’s new “economic mission” in the luxury trade. Warfare kept France forever in contact with its European competitors, whetting its appetite for cultural dominance and military victory. Constant fighting during the Sun King’s rule even transformed gruff military men into dashing trendsetters. Some, like the naval hero Jean Bart, were regularly—and probably without permission or even basis in reality—depicted in fashion engravings. The image was frequently an incongruous one: Bart, clad in court regalia and a formal wig, brandishing a sword at a squadron of Dutch ships, at once the perfect soldier and the perfect gentleman. As The Essence of Style eloquently documents, in peril as in idyll, the French followed their king in keeping up appearances.CP