Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent, Hermes, Louis Vuitton…the list is extensive and ever-expanding. French designers have long created the most renowned and coveted fashion brands in the world. Stylistically innovative and technically exceptional, the outstanding reputation of the French clothing industry can be traced as far back as the 17th century, and it is a reputation that has only continued to strengthen since.
The French arguably owe their original chic to King Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’ whose reign began in 1643. Louis had particularly lavish taste, evident in the spectacular Palace of Versailles (the expansion of which he commissioned) as well as in the way that he dressed. Recognizing the importance of luxury goods to the national economy, Louis brought a number of artistic industries, including the textile trade, under the control of the royal court, which became the worldwide arbiter of style. For centuries to come, the highest quality fabric and materials were to be found in France.
Thus when the craft of haute couture (fitting clothing to a specific client) flourished in the late 19th century, seamstresses and tailors had no choice but to establish their premises in France. Charles Frederick Worth, the Englishman credited with developing a haute couture industry, was the first to open his business on Paris’s Rue de la Paix, with several other fashion houses following suit – Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet among them. Before long, Paris had become a thriving fashion hub, while French designs were being replicated the world over.
Of these fashion houses, arguably the most famous – as remains the case today – was that of Coco Chanel. To say that Chanel changed the fashion industry would be an understatement – she completely deconstructed women’s clothing as it had been known by eradicating the corset, an incredibly painful undergarment which manipulated the upper-body into the culturally-idealistic shape. She instead favored loose free-flowing designs, the popularity of which soared during the 1920s, becoming the look that was to define an era – the ‘flapper style.’
France’s fashion industry significantly languished during the Second World War. Under Nazi occupation Chanel’s store was forced to close, along with several other maisons de couture. The USA took advantage of the opportunity to establish its own sartorial presence, diverting the attention of the press towards American designers like Claire McCardell.