THE ESSENCE OF STYLE
How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food,
Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour
By Joan DeJean
Free Press. 303 pp. $25 The Essence of Style is about what its author calls "the most crucial period ever in the history of elegance, elan, and luxury goods." If you are inclined to feel, as I am, that in history's great sweep this is at best a trivial if not outright silly little footnote, it is interesting all the same, and, despite Joan DeJean's occasional foray into flippancy, her book is interesting as well. Its central premise is stated at the outset:
"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, [France] 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. . . ."
Like it or not -- and a great many Americans don't -- this is true. During Louis XIV's incredibly long reign -- he assumed the throne as a boy in 1643 and left it at his death in 1715, four days shy of his 77th birthday -- France, Paris specifically, was indeed transformed into "the world capital of style" and remains that to this day. It is true that the Sun King plundered the French treasury to fight an endless succession of wars (mentioned by DeJean only in passing), built a vast monument to himself at Versailles and adorned himself in raiment almost too grand and lavish to describe, but he also goaded and inspired his country's artists and artisans to make France synonymous with elegance, sophistication and panache.
From the late 17th century to the early 18th century, France metamorphosed from a place wracked by internal dissension and civil war into something approximating the unified nation of today, though plenty more dissension and civil strife lay ahead of it. In the arts and life's other finer pursuits, though, France made astonishing progress from which it would never retreat. In close cooperation with his prime minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, "the man who wrote the modern book on economic protectionism and trade wars," Louis XIV concentrated on making France economically self-sufficient. This policy had many manifestations, not the least of which was his campaign to stop importing luxury goods and start creating them at home, which was intended to reduce the drain on the treasury (giving him more money to fight all those wars) and, as it turned out, to make "haute cuisine and haute couture" the essential ingredients in "France's national image." Louis XIV succeeded on both counts, which has much to do with the high regard in which he was held by Voltaire and many other French intellectuals and the reputation he has enjoyed over the centuries as an enlightened if self-indulgent ruler.
The catalogue of accomplishments in haute cuisine and haute couture that DeJean has assembled is impressive indeed. At times, to be sure, you feel as if you are wading through a 17th-century equivalent of one of those glossy American magazines that bow in whatever direction wretched excess is to be found, but it is true that, as DeJean argues, the achievements in food and fashion that were made on behalf of Louis XIV and his court in time benefited the lesser orders as well. The folding umbrella, for example, invented by Jean Marius in the early 18th century with "a steel frame virtually indistinguishable from those found in modern folding umbrellas," was initially exceedingly expensive (even by mid-century it fetched "somewhere between $750 and $1,100"), but as production techniques improved it became available to just about everyone, making it possible for people to go their ways in damp weather without arriving at their destinations sopping wet.
The same goes for mirrors. Until Louis XIV goosed French artisans into action, the mirror market had been cornered by the glassblowers of Venice, whose products were very small, very irregular and very expensive, primarily because the glass was blown. Once the French figured how to make sheet glass, it became possible to manufacture large, even wall-size, mirrors, with their "capacity to brighten up a room, to multiply the glitz of glittering surfaces, and to make everything seem larger than life." Again, at first only the very wealthy could afford them, but soon enough the less affluent were able to use mirrors for all those purposes as well as to groom themselves, which for a 17th-century Frenchman or Frenchwoman occupied as much as three hours a day.
It is to fashion, though, that DeJean gives greatest emphasis. Even those of us who find the fashionistas tiresome and/or contemptible must acknowledge that she is right to do so, for the global influence of French haute couture cannot be overestimated. "In the late 1670s," DeJean writes, "a number of developments essential to the transformation of fashion into the fashion industry came together: an expanded clientele for high-fashion goods; increasingly sophisticated means of supplying the new demand; and for the first time ever, ways of disseminating news of trends in the making widely and quickly, thereby guaranteeing that the ranks of the fashion obsessed would continue to grow. And perhaps most important of all, it was then that fashionistas were introduced to what is still today the fundamental tool in the marketing of fashion: in the late 1670s, fashion seasons began."
DeJean, who obviously takes fashion very, very seriously (according to her publisher, "She divides her time between Philadelphia and Paris, where she lives in the most fashionable neighborhood of 17th-century Paris, the Marais"), no less obviously knows her subject. She is smart about how "imitation" -- finding for yourself "that adorable little number you saw on a lady strolling down the Champs-Elysees" -- ranks high among the "thrills" of fashion, about how women superseded men as the chief beneficiaries of and market for fashion, and how the market gradually evolved from catering to the aristocracy to serving a far wider public. Her discussion of the outer garment known as the mantua makes this last point:
" . . . the mantua was not close-fitting, so while it could be made to measure, this wasn't strictly necessary. It thus marked the first giant step toward pret-a-porter. And since it was less expensive to produce, the mantua was the first high-fashion garment to which nonaristocratic women could aspire. They could never hope to own a mantua made from luxe fabric, but they could -- and did -- adopt the new style. The mantua meant that for the first time a woman's outfit did not function as an absolute class marker; from then on, it was far less easy to know at a glance who belonged where on the social spectrum."
As for haute cuisine, DeJean has less to say than one might expect. She dates "the process by which France became a culinary world apart" to the publication in 1651 of a cookbook by a professional chef, Francois Pierre, called Le Cuisinier francais (The French Chef). Following this, "Paris became enshrined as gastronomy's international capital: the age of celebrity chefs, of the restaurant, and of must-have dishes had begun." Sweet dishes, previously part of every course, were moved to the end of the meal, and French cuisine as we now know it began to take shape. Like many other French eaters, Louis XIV benefited from these dramatic culinary developments (as his full-length portraits make unmistakably clear), but in this instance he seems to have been more the beneficiary than the initiator.
Precisely where all of this fits in the larger scheme of things is not entirely clear, apart from the obvious economic benefits to France, tourism among them. Certainly, though, The Essence of Style is a useful reminder that every once in a while the now-repudiated Great Man theory of history is absolutely correct: The Sun King was indeed a Great Man, and -- no matter how one feels about fashionistas and other frivolities -- the magnitude of his legacy cannot be denied. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.