From Marie-Antoinette to Jean-Paul Gaultier: Paris, Capital of Fashion

Paris is the birthplace of fashion, so if you want to get a first-hand view of the latest trends, Paris Fashion Week, starting on September 23, is the place to be. You will see the best creations from the world's best designers. For those who are not so lucky, a catch-up session in fashion history will be held at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) where a new exhibition opening on September 6 explores just how exactly Paris attained its standing as the world’s leading fashion capital.
© Peter White/Getty Images

“I don’t do fashion,” Coco Chanel famously said. “I am fashion.” If cities could talk, Paris might say the same thing. Despite the competition from New York, Milan, Shanghai, and others, it not only remains the city most inextricably linked with fashion but seems to have style in its very DNA. Paris, Capital of Fashion, which opens at The Museum at FIT this month, seeks to explain why, while dazzling with some 100 garments and accessories dating from the 1700s to today.

“There are many exhibitions about Paris fashion, but they tend to just assume that, well, of course it’s the capital,” says Valerie Steele, director of the museum and curator of the show. “They invented couture, and they have that je ne sais quoi. This is the first exhibition that really looks at Paris in a global context and explains, historically, how it became so important, so really unique in the entire history of fashion, and also how it creates and maintains an aura with a kind of brand image of Paris as the ultimate fashion city.”

It all started with Louis XIV, who viewed magnificent personal attire as part and parcel of the grandeur of Versailles. Considering French craftsmanship, style, and culture to be vehicles for enhancing the power and prestige of the monarchy, his finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert strictly regulated domestic production and frowned on foreign imports. Clothing and textiles were naturally among the industries targeted. Colbert is said to have asserted that “fashion is to France what the goldmines of Peru are to Spain.”

paris-capital-of-fashion-museum-fit-John Galliano-Dior
John Galliano for Dior, fall/winter 2000-2001. © Guy Marineau

In the opening chapter of the book that accompanies the exhibition, Steele cautions that one can trace a through-line “from the splendor of the royal court to the spectacle of the haute couture.” This splendor is a recurring theme of French fashion, as evidenced by two highlights of the exhibition. One, featured on the cover of the book, is a short red and gold dress designed by Karl Lagerfeld for the Chanel Haute Couture fall-winter 1987-88 collection and named L’île enchantée after the first festival hosted by Louis XIV at Versailles. The other, a gown designed by John Galliano for the Dior Haute Couture fall-winter 2001 collection, was inspired by Marie-Antoinette; on the runway, the model was bewigged and befeathered.

The exhibition was developed in collaboration with the Château de Versailles and supported by Chargeurs Philanthropies, a partner of the Fashion Institute of Technology and one of the event’s sponsors along with the museum’s Couture Council. The Chargeurs group, which owns France- Amérique magazine, designed and provided the exhibition’s decor, including a spectacular reproduction of the gildings in the châteaux’s Galerie des Glaces.

Another vital contributor to the pre-eminence of French fashion was the establishment of the couture system. The British-born Paris designer Charles Frederick Worth, a business-savvy industry pioneer often credited as the father of haute couture, founded the Chambre syndicale de la couture et de la confection pour dames et fillettes in 1868. This trade association represented not only couturiers but also makers of ready-to-wear clothing and women’s tailors; the gap between the couturiers and the others would soon widen.

Jean Paul Gaultier dress, fall 1984. © The Museum at FIT

As Valerie Steele explains, “the couture developed right at the same time that the industrialization of the fashion industry took off. Other countries – the U.S., Great Britain, Germany – were more industrialized than France, and so the couture became a way for France to say, ‘Oh, yes, but that’s just common, mass-produced, industrialized schmatte. What we do is high art and luxury.’” Hence the adoption of the term “haute couture.”

In 1911, the trade organization founded by Worth became the Chambre syndicale de la couture parisienne, whose interests ran the gamut from training workers to promoting couture both at home and abroad. Its efforts on behalf of its members would ensure the preservation of the industry during both world wars. World War II proved particularly perilous, requiring careful negotiations with the occupying Germans, who threatened to fold Paris’s couture industry into an organization of their own headquartered in Berlin and Vienna. After the war, the Chambre worked to revive its battered industry by launching Théâtre de la Mode, a touring exhibition of some 200 27-inch-high couture-clad dolls posed in elaborate sets.

Perhaps most important for posterity, the Chambre established “haute couture” as a legally defined and regulated term in 1945. As Sophie Kurkdjian writes in the book, “when ‘haute couture’ became a designation of controlled origin, Paris made its industry unique and exclusive… Existing only in France, this name affirms the symbolic place of Paris as capital of the couture.” Colbert would surely have approved.

Paris, Capital of Fashion
From September 6, 2019, through January 4, 2020
The Museum at FIT, New York

Article published in the September 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.