Do The French Really Have Better Style?
I'm currently sitting outside in a cafe in Saint-Germain-des-Prés thinking about style as I people watch (I know, tough job!). It's mid-morning on Tuesday (at least it was when I started the post) and while that's sort of a strange time for this activity (not the work rush, not the weekend) it's not raining like it was yesterday so people are out and about with a little pep in their step.
I would say the matter of the French having a superior sense of style is one of national fixation in the US. We studiously dissect their wardrobes, their diets, their approach to raising children, even their thought process. I find this, frankly, kind of strange. When was the last time we read a book on how the women in Iceland or Bolivia curate their wardrobe? And yet, I'm also lured in by the concept that a nationality can somehow hold a global monopoly on style that extends into virtually every realm of life. I'm curious: do the French really have better style? If so, how exactly does that operate? Is it in the water? Do parents teach their children? Is getting dressed on the national curriculum? Let's explore.
The roots of the fashion industry in France can be traced back to the ostentatious Louis XIV, whose monarchy from 1643-1745 ushered in the era of extravagant French luxury and craftsmanship that remains today. From clothing and jewelry, to furniture and architecture (he made Versailles as we know it), Louis XIV invested in cultivating a local French industry that would employ highly specialized tradespeople to craft objects of incredibly beauty and quality. He was so committed to fostering French industry that he cracked down on imports, banning many things that were made in France to be brought in from abroad (including certain types of cheese!). Under his reign, a fashion press was created in the 1670s to spread the most contemporary ideas about fashion, including trends and the concept of fashion being a dynamic entity that changes over time, throughout French society.
Eventually, it was out of this tradition of craftsmanship that some of the most famous French fashion houses, such as Goyard, Louis Vuitton, and Hermès were born in the 1800s. Of course, at the time that these young houses were creating leather trunks, saddles, and other refined leather goods, they catered only to the most elite clientele of the day.
In the late 1800s, France was home to yet another evolution in fashion: the birth of haute couture by designer Charles Fredrick Worth (an Englishman who moved to Paris) and his salon, House of Worth.
Worth undoubtedly revolutionized fashion, but we'll tackle that another time. Suffice to say for now that by the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, Worth inspired a crop of French fashion of designers and couturiers, including Paul Poiret, the House of Vionnet, Elsa Sciaperelli, and Balenciaga. France was now, firmly, the global epicenter of fashion. And we haven't even gotten to Chanel!
This speedy drive-by through the history of French fashion, rather than being anything comprehensive, was meant to demonstrate this: for the majority of the last 350+ years, the French have truly been at the heart of contemporary fashion as we know it. And that's not to say that in the long history of our humanity, other civilizations didn't flourish in the sartorial department. But the fashion of today is undoubtedly rooted in the vision and achievements of these key French figures and the legacies they left behind.
So, coming back now to the question of whether the French have better style. It's my fourth time in Paris (and my fifth time in France if you count that little lackluster spot known as the French Riviera!) and generally speaking, based on my eye alone, I say yes, the French really do have that certain something (they don't call it je ne sais quoi for nothing!). You see it in their attire, but also in the arrangement outside a flower shop, in the way pastries are displayed- there is an eye for detail; an intuitive understanding of beauty. There is taste.
I can't help but see these modern French sensibilities, which we call style, as the result of the fact that for the past four centuries, the French have been immersed in a culture of beauty. Not superficial beauty, but the lasting kind. They have been immersed in the art of creating, consuming, and observing truly beautiful things. They respect beauty, and acknowledge its power. I think that leaves a sort of imprint on a culture that becomes inseparable from the identity of the people, in much the way a DNA imprint would. While you can't possibly sum that up in a book on style, I do think there's something we can learn from the French.
Surrounding the eye with beauty, training the eye to notice the details and the qualities that make something truly beautiful, seems to me a most important investment. One of the places I get most discouraged to see the hold of fast fashion is Paris. Not because of the environmental or social consequences (although those matter to me) but because I worry that surrounding ourselves with cheaply made things, with things that aren't made to last, untrains our eye. We become desensitized to the important differences between a dress and a beautiful dress, between an outfit and style. Precisely what makes Paris a feast for the senses is that well-trained eye, passed down through generations and fastidiously guarded, which has the ability to discriminate between what is ordinary and what is beautiful. I've learned this from the French: one should look closely and carefully for beauty. Once we start, we realize it's all around us, and we learn how to create more of it.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell | The Atlantic: King of Couture: How Louis XIV invented fashion as we know it
The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Charles Fredrick Worth and the House of Worth
The Culture Trip | How France Became the Fashion Capital of the World
Feature Image French Vogue cover by Robert Doisneau, 1951.