Ask a Fashion Historian: Who Is the Most Important Fashion Influencer in History?

Words by Lisa Santandrea | 5.17.18


Who really invented the little black dress? Why do men have fewer fashion options than women? Who made styling a thing? In this series, our resident fashion historian answers thought-provoking questions about fashion’s past and explores how they affect the present. Lisa Santandrea has a Master’s degree in Costume Studies from NYU and teaches courses in fashion history at Parsons School of Design.

Without pause, the answer is Louis XIV of France. More than 300 years after his death, Paris remains an international mecca of style, its artisans unmatched and its denizens renowned for their eternal chic. Blame Louis, whose influence still resonates in our modern opinions and even aspirations. When you grab for a French Vogue because “it’s better,” it’s Louis. When you plan a Parisian shopping trip with your girlfriends, Louis again. A romantic getaway with your significant other? Louis, Louis, Louis. For Louis, style was power—and he used the former to increase the latter. In doing so he forever changed the idea of fashion. Here’s how.
In 1660, when Louis began his reign, Spain was the richest, most powerful country in the West and its somber, conservative dress style influenced what people wore throughout Europe. Not so Louis. Considered one of the handsomest men in Europe, this libertine and aesthete preferred a more elaborate, brightly colored and beribboned style. A painting commemorating the meeting of Louis XIV and his bride-to-be, Maria Theresa of Spain, articulates the sartorial differences between the two countries. At right, the court of Spain in all its finery—dark colors, ruffs and fitted doublets, styles first popularized more than 100 years earlier. At left, Louis XIV and his court, attired with falling lace ruffs, ornate petticoat breeches and hair that could have fronted a 1980s-glam band. Not surprisingly, it’s a painting that fashion historians know as, “the biggest costume clash in history.”

So how did we get from dour Spanish styles to Paris Fashion Week? In keeping with his belief that style was power, Louis decided France must become the international arbiter of vogue. But it wasn’t all vanity. In fact, it was an effective economic stimulus plan. As finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert explained, “fashions were to France what the mines of Peru were to Spain.” Yes, there was big money in luxury, then as today. A silk industry was budding in Lyon, and Louis knew that a reputation for splendor would inspire luxury consumers across the globe. To support this industry, Louis and Colbert launched import quotas and tariffs on incoming textiles, and harsh fines for those who disobeyed. They supported the creation and distribution of fashion engravings illustrating what the well-dressed courtier was wearing, and they established a concept that has become a bedrock of our fashion system: summer/spring and winter/fall seasons.

Of course, Louis did more than his part to forward the cause of fashion; he and his court were the apex of splendor. Once he transformed a humble hunting lodge into the grandeur of Versailles, he moved his entire court there. Those who wanted his attention knew that looking good—i.e. luxurious and extravagant—was the way to get it. The demands on men were equal to those on women (this was before fashion became considered more a feminine sport), and nobles would spend vast amounts of time and money plotting perfect ensembles, even if it meant financial ruin. (This too may have been part of Louis’ strategy to strengthen his own power—preferring nobles focus on frivolities rather than rebellion.) They knew that at night, after an evening’s entertainment, the king might casually lean against his bedpost and dole out biting critiques of various ensembles worn by his guests. In 1668 he even issued a decree mandating fashionable dress at court. All these factors made for very well-dressed couturiers, indeed. And word spread.
Ultimately, however, nobody could match the sartorial magnificence that was Louis himself. At dinner, he was known to wear a coat so heavily emblazoned with diamonds that he had to change after the meal—he could no longer tolerate its weight.  The red heels he made famous were symbols of his court’s elevation above humanity—or its readiness for he and his nobles “to crush the enemies of state at their feet.” And, like today’s Instagram stars, he knew the value of an image. According to scholar Kimberly Crisman Cambell, Louis commissioned approximately 300 portraits during his reign; that’s one every three-and-a-half months. It wasn’t long before Louis’ initiatives began to take hold and French fashions dominated the world stage. His red heels sparked a craze, sported even by his sworn enemies William of Orange and George IV of England. Then, as now, it seems that good taste knows no boundaries.

Louis Vuitton 2017 Masters Collection Clutch Rubens | Céline Ankle Boots | Rosie Assoulin Top

Since Louis XIV, the siren call of Paris is a constant. In the 19th century, it beckoned young Louis Vuitton, who walked 300 miles toward a glorious future in the city of lights. And it was the ideal location for Thierry Hermès, whose craftsmanship wowed the European nobility who flocked for his harnesses, and whose company still produces its iconic silk scarves in Lyon today. Today, Parisian It girls are the new influencers; the style and smarts of modern icons like Jeanne Damas, Lou Doillon and Charlotte Gainsbourg would not be lost on Louis—indeed, they are his legacy.
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