The haute couture world unfolding in Paris last week–the “looks,” the buzz and the fleeting, fancy Frenchness of it–follows a long and surprisingly consistent tradition, begun in the 1670s (yes, a hundred years before the colonies revolted).
For the first time, a group of women decided, in league with their female seamstresses, to deliberately create fashion. January 1678 was the first season, with media-decreed styles, colors and specific accessories. Fashion could not exist without reportage, because fashion fosters the fleeting, fun competition on the runway of life–a life to be seen and compared. Then: opera, the court and church. Now: Instagram, the office and after-hours.
Le Mercure galant informed the fashionable who lived outside the court what to wear and how, via the first fashion periodical. The first seaworthy super model was a two-foot-tall, jointed “mannequin” (we’d call her a doll) with human hair, outfitted in exacting detail with the latest styles, so women from Portugal to St. Petersburg could acquaint themselves with, and copy, la mode Parisienne.
This January, the descendents of those ideas roamed the runway. One of the first fashion statements was lace. A detailed, labor-intensive fabric, lace remains at the heart of haute couture. Some of the most stunning looks, from collections by Elie Saab, Ralph & Russo, George Hobeika and Giambattista Valli, featured enough lace for even the 1670’s fashionista. The other creation of haute couture, an export that even a woman in the farthest reaches could buy, was the accessory. This year’s must-haves: shoulder-grazing earrings; headgear–anything from writhing-serpent tiaras to demure, beribboned headbands; and a white bag–shapes, sizes and styles differed amongst fashion houses. But the color? White.
When the newly fledged couturieres and their patrons decided what fashion would be, they turned the world on its head by introducing the mantua, a kind of exquisite housecoat. The first “separate.” Our 2016 mantua variants are Givenchy’s sheer, floor-length capes; long jackets–pieced, embroidered or beaded–in satin, velvet and silk at Valentino; and Buchra Jarrar’s version featuring military-style or fur lapels, in cropped, full-length, and everything in between.
Color trends, the concept of the “new black,” were also introduced in 1678. Instead of “Prince,” a crimson-and-blue undertoned black that enjoyed a long life of popularity, today we have lilac for spring 2016, Vogue announced.
Inherent in haute couture is the price tag. Exotic fabrics; intricate details like embroidery, lace and beading; and luxe touches of fur, feathers, and jewels limit the range of actual physical ownership. But the ideas: seasonability, trends, silhouettes and the very accessibility of how something is worn–giving the capacity to emulate, despite location or income–reveals the democracy of la mode, the modernity of fashion, and the commercial genius that spawned an industry.
An industry decided by women, fueled in fantastical fabrics and frills, and always and forevermore, French first. Merci, Mesdames.
(Details from The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour by Joan DeJean)