The evolution of French fashion from 16th century to 21st century
It appears that a French fashion is an integral part of social and cultural life in the country. This makes its evolution one of a kind since it was often in a tight correlation with art, politics and other societal circumstances, as well as certain historical moments, of course. And all the way from Louis XIV court fashion to Christian Dior’s post-WWII fashion revolution, its evolution often took interesting and unexpected course, as we’re about to see.
16th-17th Century or the Ages of Baroque and Classicisme
During this period, the fashion becomes to gain its importance as we know it today, mostly due to the French court which dictated the trends at the time. The most prominent fashion (and historical) figure was the one of King Louis XIV because he managed to put the majority of luxury goods production under the crown’s direct influence. The fashion press (predecessors of Vogue and Elle that won’t be founded until 1920 and 1945, respectively) was also conceived at this time, with a purpose was to inform the residents outside of the court regarding the newest styles and trends. Louis XIV also started the trend of wearing huge curly wigs and many suspected it was because he was slowly getting bald; we’re not sure whether it’s the truth but the fact is wigs remained popular for the next century or so.
18th – 19th Century or Ages of Rococó, New classicism and Empire Style
This was the era of an extravagant style that was simply obligatory on the court, often at the expense of simple men and this is one of the main reasons that Marie Antoinette, one of the most famous figures from the era, was so hated among the peasants. Either way, she became a cultural icon of a kind, mainly due to her glamorous style that was a sheer representation of her wealth. We can freely say that she was the closest to concept of celebrities as we know it today. Anyways, the end of 18th century brings some innovations also: the powdered wigs are losing their popularity while lace and brocade as materials are no longer the most desired fabrics in clothing manufacture. Full-length trousers, on the other hand, step to the scene. Natural hair also reclaims its rightful place.
Later on, in the 19th century, the clothes are inspired by Greek and Latin influences, meaning that gowns looked like togas. The cleavages were getting bigger and bigger while the dresses got so tight that ladies had to keep their handkerchiefs in the small purses called reticules. Once again, wigs return to fashion, this time blond, black, green and blue ones. On the other hand, greek sandals are all the rage at the moment. The use of perfumes becomes very frequent while the unusual jewelry such as feet toe rings and gold circlets can also be seen. The eccentricity doesn’t stop there, though, as men often opt for bludgeons, huge neckties, wide trousers and thick glasses.
French Fashion in the 20th Century
France finally establishes its reputation as the fashion force somewhere between the ages 1860-1960 when the majority of haute couture houses are officially founded, some of which are now the most renowned ones in the world. The fashion press is on the rise and fashion shows also become regular. One of the first founded fashion houses was the one established by Spaniard Cristobal Balenciaga in 1937. Chanel by Coco Chanel, on the other hand, reignited the world of French fashion in the ‘20s since her designs were refreshing, innovative and the world quickly embraced them as such. On the other hand, Chanel herself was some sort of a contrast to beauty standards that ruled at the time but the world accepted her as she was. Moreover, she’s still deeply appreciated for her revolutionized approach to fashion during the post-WWI era.
During the WWII and occupation, there was a shortage of materials. Numerous fashion houses close their doors and Coco Chanel won’t return to Paris until 1952. Small numbers of new fashion houses are founded during this time, including the one belonging to Nina Ricci. The war imposes the need for practicality and so the economical zouzou suit becomes accepted by young men. Women, on the other hand, turn to hats, which are basically the only accessory that can refresh often grey, lifeless outfits that are unfortunately, in accordance with the wartimes. At this moment, the hat has somewhat a sacred status – like the one owned by cowboys and cowgirls since it makes an integral part of bearer’s identity and is basically an only fashion statement that one is allowed to make. More than often, they are made of scraps and other remaining materials that would otherwise end up in the trash.
Post-war fashion gets once again in the limelight thanks to Christian Dior’s famous collection from 1947 called “New Look” and it consists of feminine dresses made of predominantly rich materials, which is kind of logical having in mind both the above-mentioned lack of fabrics and creativity that was reduced to a minimum during the times of war. The post-war clientele, on the other hand, is clearly up for something bright and glamorous, something that will contrast the sadness of the war and Dior is aware of this. Other famous houses such as Balmain and Givenchy also open their doors during this time.
The Second Half of 20th Century
The French youth of ‘60s era rejects haute couture and turns to the Great Britain and more casual styles instead. Yves Saint-Laurent is the first one who decides to break up with haute couture tradition and thus launches his first ready-to-wear collection. He believes that mass production and marketing are next logical steps in order to keep and expand the circle of consumers. Saint-Laurent was also a pioneer when it comes to using non-European cultural references, non-caucasian models and is known as an inventor of the first female tuxedo suit.
Post-’60s fashion is focused on a casual, hippy look that completely leaves glamorous and luxury trends behind. The new fashion figures arise, the most notable being Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne in the late ‘60s, accompanied by Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Christian Lacroix in ‘80s and ‘90s. The ‘90s also brought a merge of single brands into huge luxury conglomerates.
In spite of the fact that Paris nowadays has many competitors from Milan, New York, London and Tokyo, it seems that the history and evolution of French fashion remain unique due to specific French philosophy and look on life that developed in direction that understands love toward physical beauty and the celebration of life in all its colors. It’s hard to talk about the fashion of the 21st century just yet, mostly because the trends from the past keep coming back, which often leaves us with an impression that everything is allowed. One thing remains true, though: Having French haute couture creations in your wardrobe is still a matter of prestige and as such is reserved only for those with deep pockets.