In the mid-1600’s, Europe’s sartorial superlatives were widely spread about. Italians produced the highest quality lace, Belgians were known for intricate tapestries, and the Spanish for divine silk. At the time, the city most recognized for its fashionable flair was Madrid, a place that had benefited from a few centuries of economic bounty. However, when asked today, which country ruled fashion in the 17th century, you’d likely respond with confidence, “France.” How did a country with little political power, producing virtually no luxury goods, transform into what would become the ultimate authority on European fashion? In a very short period of time, with the help of King Louis XIV, France was leading the cultural narrative, birthing couture fashion, and creating a global obsession with all things à la française. This zeitgeist took center stage just 12 miles outside of Paris, where a relatively humble hunting lodge would be transformed into the extravagant palace of Versaille. The court of Versaille from the time of King Louis XIV to King Louis XVI remains a major source of historical fascination, injecting itself into modern film, fashion, and art. The grandeur opulence of Versaille is a feast for the eyes to nearly 10 million tourists each year. This extravagance, first stimulating France economically and culturally, would eventually lead to the death of Marie Anotinette and ultimately to the French revolution. Although this period was confined to just over a century, it would shape the way we consume fashion forever.
In the beginning of his reign, King Louis XIV’s global reputation was enhanced by his ability to fund a multitude of European wars with the exports he strictly controlled in France. Under his watchful eye, nothing that could be made in France was allowed to be imported. This generated new jobs for roughly 30% of the country while implementing an unprecedented level of quality control in furniture, textiles, and jewelry manufacturing. With these strategic initiatives, Louis XIV quickly built a prestigious and thriving monarchy. Simultaneously, France became the most important print producer of the time, using the art form as a means of communication and propaganda. A parallel we see in today’s social media and celebrity-obsessed world, France and the rest of Europe were image hungry, willing and eager to buy into the court's lavish lifestyle trends.
Louis XIV was a lover of theater and his affinity for drama transferred into the voluminous, decorative style he championed at Versaille. Exquisite patterns were sewn into luxurious fabrics and generous color was utilized throughout. Various ornate accessories such as fans, muffs, and plumed hats, were designed for added delight. New elements of one’s ensemble were not just celebrated but strictly enforced while attending various events at court. Bouffant breeches, sashes, collars, and towering hairstyles were injected with symbolism. The quality of one's garments and the dictation of certain pieces by the king showcased the status of one’s nobility. In the presence of the king, men were required to wear elaborate coats, habit habille, made of silk or velvet. Women were also under strict guidelines, required to wear their grand habit de cour, or embroidered, full gowns. This sense of etiquette took on new economic power when it was coupled with a seasonal cadence. Today’s fashion designers still largely follow the fall/winter and spring/summer production calendar that began in the court of Versaille. While the 20th century introduced us to prêt-à-porter, or ready-to-wear as we know it, seasonal couture fashion still represents the time-consuming and detailed-oriented tradition of dressmaking in Louis XIV’s Versaille.
Since that time the Palace of Versaille has remained a historical monument and is now one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. Still it has, in recent history, hosted a number of fashionable events. One standout affair occurred in 1973, when to raise money for it’s renovation, a modern revolution in the form of a fashion show benefit took place and was dubbed the “Battle at Versailles,” by writer Robin Givhan. This was a memorable night in which five American “sportswear” designers (Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, and Halston) competed against the top French fashion designers (Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, and Christian Dior) in an evening that turned out to be a historical milestone in fashion; bringing diversity and freedom to the forefront of importance in cultural conversations. Today, a plethora of fashion designers from Simone Rocha to Alexander McQueen continue to take inspiration from the exaggerated and elegant style first seen in the court of Versailles. Filmmakers, such as Soffia Coppola and Benoît Jacquot have retold the stories of Louis XIV’s Versaille in all of its visual splendor. Undoubtedly, the physical presence of Versaille and the style it pioneered will remain an object of intrigue to curious consumers for centuries to come.
By: Alexis Kanter
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