Paris Fashion: Three Centuries of Couture

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Fashion by Maison Christian Dior, in the Salon des Malachites, at Versailles

Maison Christian Dior in the Salon des Malachites. © Christian Milet, courtesy Château de Versailles and Musée Galliera.

This month, Paris fashion lovers flock to the fall couture shows. But most will also make a pilgrimage to Versailles. They want to see that landmark show, “The 18th Century Back in Fashion,” currently installed in the château’s Grand Trianon.

It was curated by Olivier Saillard, the man behind the blockbuster “Madame Grès: Couture at Work.” Throughout the palace rooms, he has displayed gems of Paris fashion, each of which incorporates 18th-century elements. These are juxtaposed with the era’s genuine articles, period garments of a sleek and dazzling elegance.

18th-century clothing and Chanel dresses in the Salon des Glaces, at Versailles

18th-century clothing and Chanel dresses in the Salon des Glaces. © Christian Milet, courtesy Château de Versailles and Musée Galliera.

Any girl who views the show will come out feeling more feminine, something, Saillard says, he thought about when choosing every piece. “They’re all united by membership, real or fictitious, in one century. But our 18th century is also every century. Modern fashion has interpreters of the whalebone corset, as well as designers whose versions of Versailles are quite dark.”

From the queen’s bedroom to its salon des seigneurs, the show includes rarities by names such as the Boué sisters. Witty takes on the era by the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier or literal grandeur by Christian Lacroix seem right at home. The scholarship of the show is stunning but it is subtle, with funky touches such as bulbous lights strewn on the floor. Saillard says he discovered Versailles in the 18th century, “just the way I would discover a new collection by Comme des Garçons.”

Maison Christian Dior, Doutzen Kroes dress inspired by Fragonard, at Versailles

Maison Christian Dior, Doutzen Kroes dress inspired by Fragonard. © Christian Milet, courtesy Château de Versailles and Musée Galliera.

His show zeroes in on a vital moment for Paris fashion. It lets you see how luxury once limited to the royals eventually created an industry known around the world. This began under Louis XIV, who created the Trianon. Louis did not just suggest his court be à la mode. He actively policed its dress, giving Versailles very strict rules. It was the king who determined what could be worn and by whom.

Yet it was during his reign that Paris developed the fashion we know. Miles away from Versailles, tailors, milliners and modistes were constantly at work—all creating styles that changed almost weekly. Their wares were bought not just by rich aristocrats but also by influential foreign tourists.

Left, gown à la française and skirt, circa 1750–1760; right, dress circa 1750–1753 in the Salon de la Chapelle, at Versailles

Left, gown à la française and skirt, circa 1750–1760; right, dress circa 1750–1753 in the Salon de la Chapelle. © Christian Milet, courtesy Château de Versailles and Musée Galliera.

In the end, Paris fashion proved too much for even the Sun King. The month before he died, the youngest ladies of his court revolted. Rather than follow Louis’s dictates, they pined for the latest from Paris. These rebellious teens, as painter François Boucher recorded, forced the king to agree, “They could dress as they pleased”.

Paris retains her power over the world of fashion. But the 18th century and its rules still wield influence; the era’s clothing and decor are central to how the French think about style. This exhibition’s 60 modern pieces may span two centuries but none would exist without their powdered predecessors. All the major names of French couture are involved and, from Azzedine Alaïa to Yohji Yamamoto, they leave no doubt about what debt we owe the age of artifice.

Thierry Mugler, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons in the Salon des Seigneurs, at Versailles

Thierry Mugler, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons in the Salon des Seigneurs. © Christian Milet, courtesy Château de Versailles and Musée Galliera.

For, as a Paris fashion pilgrim wrote in 1712, “to be in Paris without seeing the fashions, you have to close your eyes . . . Whenever a fashion begins to dawn, the capital is infatuated.”

TIP
The organizers know you, too, have a view on fashion. So they are holding an online competition, a Concours de Style. To enter, you upload a photo showing the 18th century’s influence on you: an outfit, a hairstyle—even a favorite accessory. Three winners will be chosen by a special jury and prizes include digital cameras as well as gift cards from Le Bon Marché worth 500 euros, 300 euros and 200 euros.

Related links:

“The 18th Century Back in Fashion”; take a virtual tour here

Grand Trianon

Olivier Saillard

Boué sisters

Louis XIV

Concours de Style

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