Paris has long been associated with luxury trades and high fashion, a centralization that paralleled that of French culture and government. In her study of Paris fashion and “myths concerning Paris’s unquestionable and innate refinement and elegance” in literature and art, Valerie Steele argued that Paris had been the symbolic center in the “geography of fashion” based on its “knowledgeable fashion performers and spectators” or ability to stage fashion. This article considers how Paris has served as the stage for fashion, as well as being one of its actors, from the nineteenth century. But long before this time, there was an exchange and dialogue of emulation between Paris and other world cities, illustrated, for example, by fashion dolls sent between royal courts and, in the late eighteenth century, by the French corporation of marchandes de modes. The revolution led to the end of the Ancien Régime in 1789 and, over the course of the nineteenth century, the country underwent many structural changes. It also incited a heightened sense of country and nationalism, with Paris at the center in terms of politics and culture. And despite changes to the fashion system, the label of fashion capital is still attached to Paris, in France and abroad.
In their accounts of the fashion system, scholars often refer to a “geography of emulation,” in which, according to David Gilbert, “elite fashion was simultaneously metropolitan fashion … The archetypal example was the couture system, which projected Paris as world fashion’s central place.” The establishment of haute couture, a system of designer-led, made-to-measure clothing production, accompanied the emergence of the bureaucratic political system of the nineteenth century. The system is illustrated by the work of London-trained Charles Frederick Worth, who established his own atelier in Paris in 1859. Worth began designing and selling his own garments, as opposed to the standard process in which the client chose the cut, fabric, and trimmings from several craftsmen. Mirroring the aura that surrounded certain dressmakers and marchandes de modes, the couturier became imbued with the value of creative genius. A new hierarchy was put in place, enforced by the Paris-based Chambre syndicale de la confection et de la couture pour dames et fillettes. Created in 1868, this trade syndicate organized members and events, and legislated the workings of the fashion industry. Worth’s atelier also illustrated new methods of marketing and promotion that foreshadowed the contemporary system, including the presentation of sosies, or mannequins, in his salon to showcase his garments. Jacques Doucet, another couturier who opened his house in the 1870s, also fashioned himself as a French artist. These and other efforts served to equate Parisian couture to a form of creative high art, thus crystallizing the city’s reputation as the foremost fashion capital where trends were created and disseminated elsewhere.
The 1900 Paris Exposition illustrated how the city defined itself in relation to fashion. The symbol of the fair was a statue of a women dressed by the well-known couturière Jeanne Paquin. At once a version of Marianne, traditional female personification of France, and the fashionable Parisienne, the statue affirmed the connection between city, fashion, and women. Paquin was among other couturiers who opened houses at the turn of the century, including Louise Chéruit, Georges Doeuillet, and the Callot Sœurs. Their salons were located in the city’s traditional fashionable areas located in the centrally located Place Vendôme, Rue de la Paix, Rue Royale, and Rue Saint Honoré. The reputation of this locale was reinforced by the continual establishment of new houses: by Paul Poiret and Jeanne Lanvin in 1909, and, in the 1910s, by Gabrielle Chanel, Jean Patou, and Madeleine Vionnet.
Other shopping areas were located just north of these luxurious quarters, where passages and arcades traditionally housed shops. As opposed to these spaces located off the main streets, bazaars and later department stores that grouped together a wide range of services and goods, were established over the course of the nineteenth century, during the moment when Napoleon III’s prefect of the Seine, Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, redeveloped Paris. The shops, which included La Belle Jardinière (1824), Les Trois Quartiers (1829), Le Bon Marché (1852), Le Printemps (1865), Samaritaine (1869), and Galeries Lafayette (1899), were conceived in view of Paris’s new architecture and wide boulevards. Paris’s streets, decorated with the shops’ carefully organized, impressive window displays, cemented the connection between modernized Paris, walking as a leisure activity, and fashion spectacle. The area for fashion production, Sentier in the second arrondissement, was located near these areas of fashion consumption and display in the grands boulevards. This is where Albert Weill, one of the confectionneurs en gros (ready-made clothing manufacturers) that supplied new department stores, held his premises from the 1890s. As growing mechanization encouraged a commercial system that sold mass-produced goods, the rift between ill-reputed ready-made clothing and valued haute couture widened so that, from 1910, couture and ready-to-wear operated from separate syndicates.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Paris couture shone with names such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Sonia Delaunay, Marcel Rochas, Alix Grès, Nina Ricci, Madeleine de Rauch, Jean Dessès, Lucien Lelong, and Jacques Heim. They fed into the aura surrounding Paris fashion, as editor of Harper’s Bazaar Nancy White would later reminisce: “I approached the great names of Paris with awe and reverence … My awe, in those early days, was rightly founded on respect for what I saw, because it was unique in the world … I understood the workmanship, the creative thought and dedication that went into every seam and every stitch.” This aura and value became embedded in couturiers’ other products, such as perfume and ready-made garments, which brought Paris to less wealthy and foreign markets.
Similarly, fashion media allowed women across France and abroad to access fashion and Paris’s privileged spaces. The fashion press visualized and disseminated Paris’s centralization and situated their readers in the capital in terms of current events and happenings, the actual retail locations of the pictured clothing, and, through mainly fashion imagery, as a fantasized or imagined place for their use. In the 1910s and 1920s fashion photographs by the Séeberger Frères and illustrations in the publications like the Gazette du bon ton presented imagery of women in fashionable places such as parks, racetracks, and the Concours d’Elégance. Likewise, magazines such as Vogue and later Elle and the Jardin des modes typically used iconic spaces of imagined consumption, such as the Place Vendôme and Place de la Concorde, in their mythologizing of Paris fashion, so that, as noted sociologist Agnès Rocamora, “the Parisian fashion geography is often narrowed down to its front region, its luxurious side, epitomizing the ‘processes of urban ‘editing.’” Rocamora built on Steele’s study of the symbolic construction of Paris to explore the reconstruction of the Paris myth in contemporary French fashion media. She focused in particular on magazines’ use of the tropes “Paris, capitale de la mode,” the figure of “la Parisienne,” the figure of “la passante,” and the Eiffel Tower in their symbolic production of value. In such imagery, as Grant McCracken has shown, “meaning” is “shifted from the culturally constituted world to the consumer good. The myth of Paris is materialized with the purchase of the garment just as Paris, personified as a fashionable woman, like Paquin’s statue, plays an active role in its own mythologization.
The myth of Paris fashion ran so deep in the early twentieth century that clothing was not considered fashionable unless it was linked somehow to Parisian design, whether through purchase or copy. Paris’s status as a fashion center was challenged in the period surrounding World War II; and during the country’s occupation, Paris’s couturiers, who included Jacques Fath, Jacques Griffe, Robert Piguet, and Cristóbal Balenciaga, shut down or were cut off from rest of the world. As Paris could no longer serve as an influence, other countries developed their own industries, such as New York’s ready-to-wear. Although the end of the war and saw the return of old and new couturiers in Paris, such as Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, and Hubert de Givenchy, it had to compete with these new centers of production. In addition, French ready-to-wear manufacturers saw an opening, and sought to use the symbolic value of Paris for their success. Les Trois Hirondelles, a label and grouping of different French ready-to-wear brands assembled by the Association des Maisons de Couture en Gros, sought to attach itself to both Parisian luxury and its industrial modernity in their promotional material. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, magazines moved away from their construction of a Parisian-based and socially prestigious model of fashion with highly skilled craft production and began to promote and picture ready-made garments in ways that spoke to new cultural issues at stake, as practical clothing for active women in a fast-paced, decentralized society.
The city of Paris also underwent major changes after World War II and saw large-scale urbanization over the course of the 1950s and 1960s. Urban renewal, the demolition of old working-class quartiers, and a large push to the city’s periphery and new suburbs characterized the visual landscape. Consultants Françoise Vincent-Ricard, Maïmé Arnodin, and Denise Fayolle connected designers to manufacturers in the goal of creating fashion that would keep up with the modernity of the city and the industry. Brands like Déjac, Nale Junior, I.D., Pierre d’Alby, Cacharel, and Chloé employed and promoted designers including Emmanuelle Khanh, Michèle Rosier, Christiane Bailly, Daniel Hechter, Sonia Rykiel, Karl Lagerfeld, Jacques Delahaye, and Gérard Pipart. From the late 1950s, designer-owner boutiques such as Dorothée, Louis Féraud, Eve, Laura, and Virginie opened, connecting fashion with these names as well as new city areas such as the Rue de Sèvres. Furthermore, in 1966, Yves Saint Laurent made an explicit statement in opening Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, a boutique offering his prêt-à-porter line of the same name. The boutique’s Left Bank location—far from the Paris couture industry and his own couture house on the Right Bank—associated a couturier with a cheap, student, and bohemian area. Others couturiers and fashion designers, such as André Courrèges, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Paco Rabanne, employed a dialogue of industrial fashionability as the notion of a centralized Paris came under question.
Following the 1973 legislation that changed the framework of the fashion trade syndicate, couture and ready-to-wear came together in the same group, the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. From the 1970s to the 1990s, well-known names including Kenzo Takeda, Jean-Claude de Castelbajac, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, Azzedine Alaïa, Christian Lacroix, Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Marc Audibet, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Dries Van Noten were assembled in this group. Like their predecessors, many of these designers came from abroad for the value attached to working or showing in Paris. Over 100 designers present their ready-to-wear collections at the Salle de Carrousel du Louvre in October and March each year. The area surrounding the Louvre Museum and Tuileries Gardens are thus a favorite spot for fashion bloggers and photographers. Place is as important as the fashionable clothing worn in this imagery. Yuniya Kawamura has written that: “All participants in the events during fashion weeks in Paris reconfirm its membership and reinforce the conviction that the best designers are found in Paris.”
New designers change the meaning of Paris fashion while working in the shadow of historic houses such as Chanel and Dior. Advances in fashion studies and dress history as well as exhibitions at Paris fashion museums—the Musée de la mode et du textile (Les arts décoratifs) and Musée de la mode de la ville de Paris (Palais Galliera)—have further embedded current and past designers and their creations within the country’s cultural heritage. The locations of the museums themselves, in centers of tourism, next to art museums and monuments, reinforce the connection between fashion and Paris.
In addition, shopping continues to be a prime tourist activity in Paris. Established in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the Rue Cambon and Rue Saint Honoré, respectively, boutique Maria Luisa and concept and fashion store Colette continue to reinforce the importance of traditional haute couture areas. Designers and brands in the 1990s, such as Vanessa Bruno, Isabel Marant, Zadig et Voltaire, and Comptoir des Cotonniers also opened shops in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Marais. In opposition to these labels and experiences that promote a minimal version of Paris chic, superstores such as Louis Vuitton on the Champs Elysées attract hordes of tourist groups. Although many of these shops exist in other world cities or have online shopping options, the idea of Paris is used as a branding technique, and through purchase, Paris can be transported elsewhere.
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