Paris Fashion, A Cultural History
Designers at many of fashion’s most important houses may not be French, but the capital of the fashion world is still Paris. In spite of World War II, in spite of the rise of American sportswear designers, in spite of the decline in the number of couture clients and the advent of ready-to-wear, in spite of the rise of Milan and the buzz generated by London, the capital of the fashion world is still Paris.
Valerie Steele’s Paris Fashion, A Cultural History, published in 1986 when Christian Lacroix was just gaining notice, looks at a number of threads of the culture and history of Paris, how they intertwine with one another and intertwine with fashion. She renews the reputation of Jeanne Paquin, sidelined in the modern canon of fashion geniuses and examines the role of the woman in fashion in general noting important dressmakers, illustrators, and the professionalization and specialization of fashion which led to men taking the top jobs and leaving the lesser jobs to the women. She traces the evolving social lives of the moneyed and the requirements they exerted on and opportunities they opened up in fashion.. She looks at the revolutions of the working classes and what that meant for dress (women in pants, for one thing).
She looks at fashion through art and literature, looking at the theater of Parisian boulevards, at dandyism, and the rise of the department store (in 1830) through the lens of Baudelaire, Zola, and Proust as well as Cassat and Alfred Stevens. Steele draws generously from these writers’ descriptions of Parisian dress. But she also takes us on a fascinating stroll through fashion publications of their era, and delivers a massive endnotes pileup of sources that could serve as the fashion history-lovers Summer Reading List.
She also devotes attention to fashion illustrators and illustrations (of which Steele is a collector). She And she interestingly notes the importance of the Art Deco-era illustrators who depicted looks by Paul Poiret in a far more evocative manner than either traditional fashion illustrations or early photographs could do, going far to help create the image of and communicate the message of the designer.
What she constructs is a picture of a city, from the early-to-mid 1700s to the mid 1980s that has, through war and upheaval retained its allure and mystique as well as its ateliers and those brilliant craftspeople in the needle trades. At the same time, beginning with the “birth of fashion” which she traces to Italy, not Paris, and the rise of cities (Paris was a late bloomer), it’s interesting to note the repetition of themes surrounding and weaving in and out of fashion: scandal, outrage, fashion’s responsiveness to cultural change, and finally the paradox between the follower of fashion and her refusal to follow too far, at the end of the day, the lady, in Paris as elsewhere, decides which fashions will live or die.