May 17, 2018
By Lisa Santandrea
ASK A FASHION HISTORIAN: WHO IS THE MOST IMPORTANT FASHION INFLUENCER IN HISTORY?
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.