The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour! Joan DeJean, May 2006 ; Publisher: Free Press ; Format: Paperback , 320pp ; ISBN-13: 9780743264143 ; ISBN: 0743264142
Writing with great élan, one of the foremost authorities on seventeenth-century French culture provides the answer to these and other fascinating questions in her account of how, at one glittering moment in history, the French under Louis XIV set the standards of sophistication, style, and glamour that still rule our lives today. Joan DeJean takes us back to the birth of haute cuisine, the first appearance of celebrity hairdressers, chic cafés, nightlife, and fashion in elegant dress that extended well beyond the limited confines of court circles. And Paris was the magical center — the destination of travelers all across Europe.
Full of wit, dash, and verve, The Essence of Style will delight fans of history and everybody who wonders about the elusive definition of good taste.
Joan DeJean, author of seven previous books on French literature, history, and culture during the reign of Louis XIV, is Trustee Professor of French at the University of Pennsylvania, where she has taught for the past fifteen years. She has also held positions at both Princeton and Yale. Bicultural, she shuttles regularly between her homes in Philadelphia and Paris, with her finger on the pulse of both venues.
Why is it that people all over the world share the conviction that a special occasion becomes really special only when a champagne cork pops? And why is that occasion so much more special when the sparkling wine being poured is French? Why are diamonds the status symbol gemstone, instantly signifying wealth, power, and even emotional commitment ? What makes fashionistas so sure that a particular designer accessory —a luxe handbag, for instance- will be the ultimate proof of their fashion sense that they are willing to search high and low for it and, if necessary, wait for months for the privilege of paying a small fortune to acquire it ? Why is having a haircut from the one-and-only stylist, and that stylist alone, so essential to the psychic well-being of so many that it seems they would do almost anything to make sure that less magic scissors never come near their hair?
All these dilemmas, and many other mysteries of the fashionable life as well, ﬁrst became what we now call issues at the same period ——what may well be the most crucial period ever in the history of elegance, élan, and luxury goods. At that moment, Louis XIV, a handsome and charismatic young king with a great sense of style and an even greater sense of history, decided to make both himself and his country legendary. When his reign began, his nation in no way exercised dominion over the realm of fashion. By its end, his subjects had become accepted all over the Western world as the absolute arbiters in matters of style and taste, and his nation had found an economic mission: it ruled over the sectors of the luxury trade that have dominated that commerce ever since.
This book chronicles the origins of fashion and gastronomy and the process that brought luxury goods and luxurious experiences into the lives of people all over the Western world. It tells how the young King succeeded in giving his nation’s culture a unique deﬁnitions. It also describes how he accomplished something far more impressive : he set new standards for food, fashion, and interior decoration, standards that still provide the framework for our deﬁnitions of style.
Experiences that range from dining out in a fashionable spot to shopping in a chic boutique for a must-have fashion accessory or a diamond ring ; luxury products such as champagne, as well as some of the dishes we most love to savor while we sip it (crème brûlée, for instance)—all of them came into being at the same moment. The extraordinary wave of creativity that swept over France under Louis XIV’s patronage unleashed desires that now seem fundamental. Without the Sun King’s program for redeﬁning France as the land of luxury and glamour, there would never have been a Stork Club, a Bergdorf Goodman, a Chez Panisse, or a Cristophe of Beverly Hills (and President Clinton would never have dreamed of holding Air Force One on the run-way of LAX for an hour while Cristophe worked his styling magic on his hair).
The story of Louis XIV and of France at the deﬁning moment of its history, the half century between 1660 and Louis XIV’s death in 1715, is a saga that forces us to ask ourselves just how it is that countries and cities acquire a personality or a sense of deﬁnition. In most cases, no one person can be said to be responsible for these national images, The characteristics on which they are based—Dutch cleanliness, German precision—are the product of the shared sociopsychological makeup of a people.
But in the case of France, a national personality was the product of the type of elaborate and deliberate image making of which Hollywood or Madison Avenue would be proud. In the sixteenth century, the French were not thought of as the most elegant or the most sophisticated European nation. By the early eighteenth century, however, people all over Europe declared that « the French are stylish » or “the French know good food, » just as they said, “the Dutch are clean.” France had acquired a sort of monopoly on culture, style, and luxury living, a position that it has occupied ever since. At the same time, Paris had won out over all its obvious contemporary rivals—Venice, London, Amsterdam—and had become universally recognized as the place to ﬁnd elegance, glamour, even romance. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, travelers were saying what novelists and ﬁlmmakers are still repeating: travel to Paris was guaranteed to add a touch of magic to every life.