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How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour

by Joan DeJean

Pub Date: July 14th, 2005
ISBN: 0-7432-6413-4
Publisher: Free Press

An obsequiously titled but ultimately compelling study of the legacy of Louis XIV’s reign.

Once past the gloppy generalizations that try needlessly to snare the interest of nonscholars by dropping insipid anachronisms like “ladies who lunched” and “interior decoration’s ultimate bling-bling,” DeJean (French/Univ. of Pennsylvania) provides an intelligent, well-documented history of the luxury items taken for granted today that have also defined the culture of France. Essentially, the long, glorious rule of the Sun King, from 1660 to 1715, “unleashed desires that now seem fundamental” and inaugurated a program for redefining France as the land of luxury and glamour, often through a ruthless cornering of the market. As Louis’s obsession with style created the desire for fantastically luxurious goods, such as shoes, hosiery, diamonds and mirrors, his wily protectionist prime minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, worked with the business elite to ensure that France would become a mercantile superpower. The profession of the coiffeur, for example, seems to have been single-handedly invented by le sieur Champagne, whose unique touch with aristocratic hairdos instigated the first “brand recognition.” DeJean examines the important tool of the “fashion plates,” literally engravings, that served to advertise the luxurious new goods to the public, while Donneau de Vise’s newspaper, Le Mercure galant, became the first fashion organ aimed at provincial women dreaming of becoming as chic as the great ladies of Versailles. La Varenne brought butter and vegetables into the kitchen; cafes sprang up to serve the new coffee beverage and provide people with somewhere to go in a city newly lighted by state-of-the-art lanterns; and champagne, thanks to the tireless trial-and-error of the cellar master of Hautvillers, Dom Perignon, exploded on the scene. DeJean does a superb job of rendering comprehensible the new technology of mirror-making, while she relegates to a footnote, unfortunately, the ascendancy during this period of the classical French language.

Readers low and high will find this a winning companion, with excellent sources.