Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Cover Image

Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion

West Europe


Lise Skov (ed)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Paris as a Fashion City

Martine Elzingre

Translated by Pierre Hodgson

Encyclopedia entry

DOI: 10.2752/BEWDF/EDch8037
Pages: 193–198


Paris fashions—clothes, lingerie, accessories, and jewelry, together with other beauty products such as hairstyles, fragrances, and cosmetics—have come to dominate the world beyond the borders of France, as well as beyond Europe and indeed outside the West. In Paris itself, the two arts of dressing and seduction have thrived because innumerable ideas and techniques for applying those ideas have constantly been discovered—a continual process of experimentation.

Paris fashions—clothes, lingerie, accessories, and jewelry, together with other beauty products such as hairstyles, fragrances, and cosmetics—have come to dominate the world beyond the borders of France, as well as beyond Europe and indeed outside the West. In Paris itself, the two arts of dressing and seduction have thrived because innumerable ideas and techniques for applying those ideas have constantly been discovered—a continual process of experimentation.

The history of Paris is unique in this respect. It has seen the birth and development of, first, a craft of hand-sewn dressmaking, then haute couture (literally “high sewing,” meaning custom-made fashion), and then, once again, a return to dressmaking as a modest individual clothing trade. It has also witnessed the birth of industrial designer-clothing manufacture as well as new approaches to presentation and advertising, distribution, and sales. In order to adapt to changing habits, values, social distinctions, and markets, the couture houses have developed prêt-à-porter lines (clothes that are manufactured in series in standardized sizes), as well as innovative commercial arrangements, such as licensing agreements, which were initiated by the House of Christian Dior in the 1960s. Market-research companies specializing in prediction and trend analysis first emerged in Paris. Methods for putting clothes into circulation and for introducing them first to a select clientele and then to the general public developed in an original and meaningful way in Paris by means of the innovation of the live model and, subsequently, the professional fashion model. The art of presenting clothes on live models soon spread beyond the department stores (large shops with many departments under one roof) and fashion houses where it originated.

Paris, the locus of fashion creation and production where designers launch their collections, has attracted designers and tailors from across the globe: English, Irish, Spanish, later Japanese and Korean, and, in the early twenty-first century, Chinese professionals have come to enrich the creative mix. Close neighbors—principally Belgians, Italians, and Portuguese—have also influenced and redefined the meaning of Paris fashions, which, since the days of the Third Republic, have been the most distinguished in the field of women’s (but not men’s) design. Men’s design has not been entirely ignored, however: Witness the styles of George “Beau” Brummell, an Englishman who became an arbiter of fashion for men and who brought to Paris the nineteenth-century elegance of English dandies; and, more recently, the introduction of certain novelties since the 1950s and 1960s by designers such as Pierre Cardin, Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Hedi Slimane for Dior. Paris’s couture designers have also developed other products to introduce greater elegance into private and public life beyond the realm of dress: scents; accessories such as jewelry, handbags, scarves, gloves, hats, and glasses; and luxury objects for everyday use in furnishings, tableware, and travel goods.

France’s fashion craftspeople and manufacturers have benefited from support by trade organizations and public authorities, which have helped couture adapt and develop in a changing social context. Trade associations have devised labels and monitored their use to enforce quality standards. Prizes and scholarships have created a system of competition and awards. Museums of dress and fashion have been established, and fashion and embroidery schools have been set up. Several international modeling agencies have been founded, or are based, in Paris. Designers are funded by the state and the city as well as by influential and visionary individuals who are capable of providing financial support, in collaboration with trade associations, and whose companies have been acquiring fashion houses.

The women’s fashion press, born and developed in Paris, has always played an essential driving role in supporting the creative energies of designers. In the 1950s and 1960s, one hundred years after the start of haute couture, the press helped establish the Paris prêt-à-porter trade—a press that, in those days, unlike in 2008, was not financially dependent on advertising. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, well-known fine artists captured fashions in their work, as did photographers and filmmakers. The development of such visual media as photography and television has helped translate fashion—and establish its reputation—for both upmarket and generalist audiences. As a result, a new profession has come into being: the press officer or publicist working for a fashion designer.

The History of Paris as a Fashion Capital

The success of Paris fashions relates to the history of France: to the city’s status and destiny as a national capital; to its original qualities, its working-class vitality, and the energy of its elites; and to the specifics of its dense social intercourse—public and private customs, street language, and the language of poets. The forces behind Paris fashions, high-quality craftspeople and designers, have kept their vitality, their dynamism and flair, together with the support of an international customer base, for more than one hundred and fifty years, despite the series of brutal socioeconomic changes that have affected class structures in France, Europe, and the world as a whole and despite two world wars and foreign armies occupying French soil. The reason for such continuity lies in the unique concentration of factors found in Paris, without which fashion cannot exist as an applied art: ancient crafts and new trades that coexist with stylists, trend-spotters, and artistic directors skilled at staging catwalk shows, not to mention textile researchers and, of course, the press.

What, then, were the precursors and other circumstances that established Paris as the capital of fashion? During the eighteenth century, women’s fashions in Europe were dominated by the French and men’s fashions by the English. Europe led the world economically, intellectually, and artistically. Social life became more cosmopolitan as ships crossed the Atlantic between the Continent and the New World. With them traveled fashion dolls dressed in the latest French styles. In this period, too, the fashion magazine developed.

The continuing success of Paris fashions in the nineteenth century was predicated on a heritage that included the abolition of craft guilds in the seventeenth century, reforms that created a distinction between the profession of seamstress and that of tailor, and European court fashions’ domination of local fashions. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, royal and aristocratic patronage established the reputations of both male and female couturiers. And it was in these circumstances that Paris couture was born, before gradually filtering down the social scale.

Paris thus became a symbol of fashion. The city came to be defined as a space within which fashions of all sorts were created, manufactured, used, consecrated, and disseminated.

During this process, Paris became a powerful locus for the production of fantasy and a theater for the body. The city became a stage on which high society could display techniques of seduction, manners, gallantry, coquettishness, and etiquette. All of this brought the social world of high society into contact with couturiers, models, and designers; with ladies of the bourgeoisie and ladies of the aristocracy; with ladies of dubious reputation; and with working-class women, housewives, and other women unused to social life. Thus was the character of the Parisienne born—an icon of the femininity, charm, and self-awareness displayed by women from all levels of society. French designers have continued to use fashionable Parisian women as models for both studio and on-location photography.

The nineteenth century saw a tremendous increase in the pace of this social whirl, and the notion of le Tout Paris—an expression best translated as “anyone who is anyone”—came into vogue around 1820. Napoléon III’s urban-renewal schemes led to the establishment of social gathering places where members of the high society, the demimonde, and dandies mingled. Several thousand guests might attend a society ball, so that an immense appetite developed for clothing, both day and evening wear.

From the 1850s on, Western women of the property-owning classes began to bear the brunt of the social duty to seduce and to embody prestige. Their bodies, the clothes and ornaments they wore, their strictly coded manners, and the ostentation they deployed were all designed to demonstrate a capacity for leisure. This led to an acceleration of the factors involved in couture de création: Couturiers and seamstresses invented their own designs for clothing to be worn by rich society women.

A view of a changing room at the couture fashion house of Worth, Paris, 1907. The house was founded by Charles Frederick Worth (1826–1895) and, after his death, was led by his sons, Jean Phillippe and Gaston.Roger Viollet/Getty Images.

Charles Frederick Worth, an English designer who settled in Paris in 1858, invented a new form of dressmaking; he produced original designs suited to the needs and tastes of each customer. This he called haute couture. At a time when new, nonaristocratic elites had come into existence, their money, power, and talent presided over the birth and development of haute couture. Luxury, fame, and sophisticated manners become the new avant-garde, with new opportunities founded on fashion and elegance.

Artists have always contributed to the reputation of certain glamorous women, and they certainly did so in Paris, which, at the fin-de-siècle, became a city of artists and the arts: painters, sculptors, poets, and, later, photographers and filmmakers.

Paris also supported a high concentration of professionals in the clothing trade, notably in high-fashion design. But it also housed craftspeople’s workshops, government-run manufactures (at the Gobelins in jewelry and tapestry), as well as emerging modeling and fashion-design schools, production units, a retail and sales trade, and later department stores, factories, and boutiques.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Paris saw the rise of a new practice: the use of live models to show the designers’ collections. This was partly anticipated by the universal exhibitions that made Paris a meeting point for the general public and talented designers, who started exhibiting their clothes as early as 1855 and also showed them in 1867, 1900, 1925, and 1937. Individual designers’ collections were first presented on stage, before a general audience, in 1908. Initially, the models were amateurs who worked in department stores and fashion houses’ reception rooms. Fashion shows reflected the clients’ social calendar: Autumn and winter were the hunting seasons, summer was the time when people went on vacations. In 1910, Jeanne Paquin became the first designer to hold shows at fixed times during the year.

In 1940, during World War II, the Nazis occupied Paris. There was an attempt to move the haute couture industry to Berlin, but the Parisian couturiers under the Chambre Syndicale prevented this from happening. Although trade continued, many couturiers were forced either to close or to make clothes for the German occupiers in order to survive. Coco Chanel closed her business for the duration, and Jeanne Paquin worked out of Cannes. During the war and immediately after it, clothes rationing forced designers to come up with ingenious solutions and methods of reusing materials. Then, after the war, in 1947, Christian Dior’s “New Look” had an international impact, bringing increasing attention back to Parisian fashions.

In the 1970s, fashion shows were increasingly directed at the press and became more spectacular. Later on, in the 1980s and 1990s, sophisticated staging amplified the scope of Paris fashions, generating what were sometimes gigantic spectacles. Thierry Mugler’s anniversary show at the Zenith in 1984, for example, drew an audience of six thousand. Prêt-à-porter shows have been held in the Louvre’s Cour Carrée since 1982, and, since 1994, both couture and prêt-à-porter have used the underground Carrousel du Louvre space. In the twenty-first century, many designers prefer to show their collections in novel locations.

Fashions in clothes and their display have also thrived at the margins of couture. Historically, bands of rebels have repeatedly created a special look for girls and boys, from the Muscadins and Merveilleuses in the eighteenth century to the dandies, romantics, Zazous, swingers, rockers, hippies, punks, Goths, rastas, and grunge subcultures during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

During the course of 150 years, Paris fashions have engaged in successive breaks with convention and abrupt innovations in practices and techniques. Management, design, and form have also evolved over time. Conventions about what constitutes the feminine have repeatedly been demolished. All of this has led to a wide variety of approaches to dress, as well as a new idea of the feminine that is predicated on notions of youth, imperfection, and gender confusion.

Such technological and stylistic developments were devised and tried out in Paris as innovations, from couture to prêt-à-porter to the twenty-first-century nouvelle couture (a hybrid between couture and prêt-à-porter), first in new collections, then in catwalk shows, retail distribution, and advertising.

Technical Developments and the Labor Force

Couture de création and made-to-measure clothing lie at the heart of the Paris fashion business, whose success has been reinforced by technical advances in the manufacture of textiles, new cutting techniques and tools, and new methods of measuring the body for clothing. In the early 1800s, silk weaver Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752–1834) invented the mechanical loom. Later, other machines were devised: a cutting machine that could cut through several layers of cloth at the same time, the sewing machine, and an improved hot iron. A measuring stick marked off in centimeters was adopted in France in 1875 and was followed by measuring tapes for patterns, together with mannequins and stuffed models made of straw that could be adapted to customers’ sizes. Later came what was known as the Stockman, a stuffed mannequin that came in different bust sizes. After 1900, manufactured fibers were introduced. Paris was also well known for its Articles de Paris: hats, buttons, feathers, glitter, beads, and ribbons.

After 1850, migration from the countryside to urban areas produced a large, very cheap, and readily available workforce. Both permanent and temporary employment existed, with some of the women working from home. Apprenticeships in couture were considered prestigious for women. In the nineteenth century, before the advent of prêt-à-porter, department stores employed women workers to alter clothes. Their workshops were located in the center of Paris. These women workers and apprentices—the ouvrières, as they were called—were so numerous in the fashion trade were known as the “Gaiety” of Paris.

Some idea of the scale of employment in the Paris fashion industry can be gathered from various statistics. Worth, for instance, employed twelve hundred employees in 1871 and one thousand in 1886. Paquin—considered the first woman fashion designer—had one thousand employees under her command in 1900. At the height of his success in the years after 1900, Paul Poiret employed three hundred workers, while in 1908 the fashion house Jenny’s consisted of twenty workshops occupying two entire buildings. Lucien Lelong employed twelve hundred people in 1926, and when Nina Ricci was founded in 1932, it had five hundred workers on its payroll.

Women’s “trouser skirt,” Paris, 1911. Paris fashions are known for defying the norm and introducing new styles, so that successive conventions of what constitutes feminine dress are challenged.Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-56772.

Statistics remained more or less the same during the immediate post–World War II period. In 1957, Christian Dior, for example, employed one thousand people, housed in a total of five buildings, and, in 1959, it was estimated that there were five thousand full-time wage earners and three thousand part-time workers in the couture industry. In contrast, in 2002, before its closure, the Yves Saint-Laurent house employed just 150 people, working in three dressmaking (Flou) workshops, three tailoring (Tailleur) workshops, one millinery (Modiste) workshop, and one shoemaking (Chaussures) workshop. Similarly, in 2008, when Valentino closed its haute couture department upon the designer’s retirement, there were ninety female laborers working there.

Skills, Heritage, and Creativity

Some of Paris’s most famous designers came to be associated with a signature look or griffe a word that refers to both a label and a style. Historians and biographers sometimes trace fashion lineages. The historian Jean-Baptiste du Roselle, for instance, traces a line from Edward Molyneux (in 1919) to André Courrèges (1963) by way of Pierre Balmain and Cristóbal Balenciaga (1940s).

Learning craft skills and original design is in part an oral practice, made possible by an enduring collective memory of a craft tradition and the art of couture. In addition, the French Federation of Fashion Designers (Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt à Porter, des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode), established in 1973, certifies Parisian designers as either full, guest, or foreign members. The federation has a steering committee and a sponsorship committee composed of senior designers. Paris’s strength as a world fashion capital, despite competition from London, Milan, and New York, is related to the division between tailoring and dressmaking workshops and to the excellence of the foremen (chefs d’atelier) and the hierarchy of seamstresses arranged in order of seniority and skill (première main, seconde main, petites mains), as well as the authority of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne, the trade association set up in 1868.

The famous designers of the twenty-first century come from a variety of backgrounds and were trained in a variety of different ways. Some attended schools and some did not; some were apprenticed here and some there. The influence of recognized masters—maîtres—lives on for a very long time and is associated with specific connections. Thus, John Galliano, the artistic director at Dior today, has Christian Dior, Madeleine Vionnet, and Charles James as influences. The resulting diversity of creative methods is considerable. Some designers use drawings and some do not; some work directly on Stockmans or other mannequins (miniature mannequins, in the case of Madeleine Vionnet and, in the twenty-first century, Anne-Valerie Hash); and so on.

The sheer concentration of fashion houses in Paris allows for an enormous range of design practices. In twenty-first-century haute couture and fashion, male designers far outnumber women and have done so since 1950. However, well-known and innovative women designers from the past include Jeanne Paquin, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Gabrielle Chanel, Alix Grès, and Elsa Schiaparelli. Bias cutting is associated with Vionnet, and drapery and folds with Grès. Chanel’s “total look,” with its couture jewelry and baroquism; Schiaparelli’s embroidery and surrealist extravagance; and Lanvin’s embroidery still influence designers in the twenty-first century, although many of their houses no longer exist.

Women such as these played an important part in developing Paris’s designer prêt-à-porter styles beginning in the 1960s. Their work was promoted by women’s magazines, such as Elle and Jardin des Modes, with the stylistic input of those publications’ editors. Designer boutiques started developing their own collections. Later, haute couture designers branched out into prêt-à-porter, and specialized prêt-à-porter manufacturing companies were set up. The expression fashion designer, or in French le créateur, began to replace the notion of stylist around 1970, and its acceptance in Paris led the federation to establish the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-a-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode (Union of Couturiers’ and Fashion Designers’ Prêt-à-Porter) in 1973.

In the twenty-first century, students and graduates of fashion schools commonly move on to become interns and assistants to designers, working with a creative team in a workshop environment. Established designers also sponsor candidates applying to join the calendar, that is, to find a place within the time slots for the collections and catwalk shows organized by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne. Since the time of Worth, designers have concentrated their workshops within an area in the shape of an isosceles triangle on the Right Bank of the Seine River. This consists of the place Vendôme, Faubourg Saint Honoré, rue Cambon, rue Royale, the Opera and Saint-Lazare neighborhoods, avenue Matignon, avenue Franklin Roosevelt, avenue Marceau, and the Trocadéro. Haute couture is thus found in the eighth, second, first, and sixteenth districts of the city. From the 1950s on, the triangle extended into the Sentier neighborhood (ready-to-wear, industrial manufacture, and textiles), as well as the Arts-et-Métiers neighborhood and then further into the third district. All of Paris’s department stores are located on the Right Bank, with one exception.

An employee of the embroidery house Lesage works on a piece for an haute couture collection, Paris, 2003. In 1868 (when it was known as Michonet), the house embroidered for Empress Eugénie, and it has since embroidered for the most significant fashion designers: Worth, Doucet, Paquin, Poiret, Vionnet, Shiaparelli, Balenciaga, and Chanel.Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images.

On the Left Bank, prêt-à-porter designer boutiques are found, such as those of Tan Giudicelli, Cacharel, Kenzo, Sonya Rykiel, Marithé François Girbaud, Agnès B, Elysabeth de Senneville, Dorothée Bis, Yohji Yamamoto, Y’s, Claude Montana, and so on. Also found there are the couture and prêt-à-porter boutiques of designers like Paco Rabanne, Thierry Mugler, Yves Saint-Laurent, and others, along with ready-to-wear outlets, like Bensimon, and shops selling fast fashion, including The Gap, H&M, Benneton, Kookaï, Chevignon, and so on. In the early twenty-first century, there are also multibrand boutiques selling luxury prêt-à-porter on both sides of the Seine.

In the global trading system of the twenty-first century, fashion products have attained iconic status. The role of couturiers and their workshops’ designs has been transformed by the birth of a new collaborative approach: the studio. In the studio system, the couturier works not only with technicians but also with a creative team that is building the designer’s brand. This becomes more complex when larger companies own the fashion houses, which used to be run and managed by the couturiers themselves.

Paris in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

Paris continues to act as a crucible of new influences in the fashion world. For example, from the beginning of the twentieth century, work-wear has given rise to two fashion trends: First, straight dresses emulated women’s work-wear during World War I. Second, during the 1960s, designers found inspiration in factory work clothes, which led to ready-to-wear civilian clothing sold in chain stores like Prisunic.

From early in the twentieth century, a slender figure and youthful appearance also became a perceived goal for all women. Sports clothes began to develop, influencing first men’s, then women’s, clothing. Women’s fashion thus became a vehicle for the expression of bodily movement. Poiret and the early Chanel (until 1940) boldly designed women’s trousers for daytime wear—a look not generally accepted until the 1960s. In every era, Paris—by day and above all by night—has combined dance, music, performance, and fashion as a means of encouraging social interaction and a buoyant social life in the city’s classic settings. In the early twenty-first century, certain designers—notably Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix—have created clothes for the ballet, opera, and theater. Issey Miyake has even employed dancers as catwalk models.

Luxury goods—real or fake, handmade or machine manufactured—have been a part of Paris fashion since the 1930s, with Révillon Frères, a French fur and luxury goods company, and the vogue for costume jewelry in the 1950s. Fashion accessories contribute the most to a haute couture fashion house’s turnover in the twenty-first century. Although the 1920s and 1930s saw the heyday of embroidery, nearly all prêt-à-porter designers continue to call on the skills of immigrant laborers: Near Eastern (Lebanese) and Indian embroiderers working for Western luxury firms and Indian and Lebanese workshops participating in the Paris fashion trade.

Beyond innovations in design and manufacturing, immense social changes in the areas of technology, communication, levels of permissiveness in the West (including levels of violence and conflict), have contributed to new paradigms in dress. Some notable fashion directions of the early twenty-first century include a new minimalism, deliberately imperfect or worn effects, and androgyny.

Twenty-first-century haute couture still preserves a tradition of display: large volumes of heavy or brilliant cloth weighed down with embroidery, contributing to an impractical ostentation. But there is also a move in the profession toward greater discretion and lightness, while preserving high standards of craftsmanship. New selection criteria have been put into effect to admit guest members into haute couture. The seasonal fashion weeks in Paris welcome thousands of professionals and others. During the Autumn/Winter 2008 prêt-à-porter season, 150 shows took place over eight days, with twenty-eight haute couture shows, including fifteen guest members. The number of haute couture houses has, however, declined steadily, from 106 in 1945 to 20 in 1990 and just 10 in 2005; causes for this include rising overhead costs and the increasing sophistication and convenience of ready-to-wear garments.

Nevertheless, the haute couture designers who have achieved fame in Paris over the years, from Worth and Poiret and Dior to twenty-first-century designers, have all introduced audacious new silhouettes, continually refashioning the iconic, well-dressed woman of Paris.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Bell Quentin. On Human Finery. London: Hogarth Press, 1976.

Find in Library Breward Christopher, and David Gilbert, eds. Fashion’s World Cities. Oxford: Berg, 2006.

Find in Library Barthes Roland. “ ‘Blue Is in Fashion This Year’: A Note on Research into Signifying Units in Fashion Clothing.” In The Language of Fashion, edited by Andy Stafford and Michael Carter. Oxford: Berg, 2006.

Find in Library De Marly Diana. The History of Haute-Couture, 1850–1950. London: B. T. Batsford, 1980.

Find in Library Elzingre M. Femmes habillées: la mode de luxe: styles et images. Paris: Austral, 1996.

Find in Library Lipovetsky Gilles. The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Find in Library Mackrell Alice. Paul Poiret (Fashion Designers). London: B. T. Batsford, 1990.

Find in Library McDowell Colin. Galliano romantique, réaliste et révolutionnaire. Paris: Assouline, 1997.

Find in Library Musée Galliera. Showtime le défilé de mode. Paris: Paris Musées, 2006.

Find in Library Parmal Pamela, and Didier Grumbach, eds. Fashion Show: Paris Style. Hamburg: Gingko Press, 2006.

Find in Library Perrot Philippe. Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. Translated by Richard Bienvenu. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Find in Library Roche Daniel. The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the “Ancien Regime.” Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Find in Library Steele Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. Oxford: Berg, 1998.