The King of Couture

How Louis XIV invented fashion as we know it

Claude Lefèbvre / Isaac Delgado Museum of Art

September 1 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of King Louis XIV, France’s longest-reigning monarch. Logging 72 years on the throne, Louis eclipsed Queen Victoria by a decade. But this tercentenary also commemorates a beginning: the birth of haute couture as people know it today, seasonal, corporate, media-driven, and—above all—French.

When Louis came to the throne in 1643, the fashion capital of the world wasn’t Paris, but Madrid. Taste tends to follow power, and for the past two centuries or so Spain had been enjoying its Golden Age, amassing a vast global empire that fueled a booming domestic economy. Spanish style was tight and rigid—both physically and figuratively—and predominantly black. Not only was black considered to be sober and dignified by the staunchly Catholic Habsburg monarchy, but high-quality black dye was extremely expensive, and the Spanish flaunted their wealth by using as much of it as possible. They advertised their imperial ambitions, as well, for Spain imported logwood—a key dyestuff—from its colonies in modern-day Mexico. While Spain’s explorers and armies conquered the New World, her fashions conquered the old one, and Spanish style was adopted at courts throughout Europe.

Just as French aristocrats imported their fashions from Spain, they bought their tapestries in Brussels, their lace and mirrors in Venice, and their silk in Milan. They didn’t have much choice; France simply wasn’t producing luxury goods of a comparable quality, and it didn’t have the political, economic, or cultural clout to dictate fashions to other countries.

Louis XIV set out to change that, and, over the course of his long reign, he succeeded brilliantly. Luxury was Louis’s New Deal: The furniture, textile, clothing, and jewelry industries he established not only provided jobs for his subjects, but made France the world’s leader in taste and technology. His shrewd finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, famously said that “fashions were to France what the mines of Peru were to Spain”—in other words, the source of an extremely lucrative domestic and export commodity. Louis’s reign saw about one-third of Parisian wage earners gain employment in the clothing and textile trades; Colbert organized these workers into highly specialized and strictly regulated professional guilds, ensuring quality control and helping them compete against foreign imports while effectively preventing them from competing with each other. Nothing that could be made in France was allowed to be imported; Louis once ordered his own son to burn his coat because it was made of foreign cloth. It was an unbeatable economic stimulus plan.

As he waged a never-ending series of expensive wars across Europe, the French luxury goods industry replenished his war chest and enhanced the king’s reputation at home and abroad. Louis transformed Versailles—a dilapidated royal hunting lodge buried in the countryside 12 miles from Paris—into a showplace for the best of French culture and industry; not just fashion but art, music, theater, landscape gardening, and cuisine. A strict code of court dress and etiquette ensured a steady market for French-made clothing and jewelry. Louis has been accused of trying to control his nobles by forcing them to bankrupt themselves on French fashions, but, in fact, he often underwrote these expenses, believing that luxury was necessary not only to the economic health of the country but to the prestige and very survival of the monarchy. France soon became the dominant political and economic power in Europe, and French fashion began to eclipse Spanish fashion from Italy to the Netherlands. French was the new black.

The king and Colbert employed the full range of available media in service of their fashion propaganda campaign. As the art historian Maxime Préaud writes in the catalogue to the current Getty Research Institute exhibition A Kingdom of Images: French Prints in the Age of Louis XIV, “from the very beginning of Louis’s reign, he ... recognized that images had the power to shape perception.” Louis subsidized the production of fashion plates by major French artists and engravers in order to promote French luxury goods and culture, both at home and abroad. Rather than being purely descriptive and informative, the captions of these plates—aimed at an affluent and sophisticated international audience—are arch and amusing, laced with sarcasm and sexual innuendo. Many give the figures elaborate backstories and interior monologues wholly unsupported by the innocuous images, while letting the clothes speak for themselves. They set the tone for countless fashion plates that followed, and such verbiage can still be found today in Vogue, Elle, and Marie Claire (to name three English-language publications that owe more than just their titles to France).

The king himself was the ultimate arbiter of style. A theater buff, Louis took his self-selected sobriquet “the Sun King” from his youthful performances as Apollo in lavish court ballets, and his love of dramatic artifice and splendor infused his offstage wardrobe. The fashions he introduced were colorful, voluminous, and ornamental, the antithesis of austere Spanish style. His idealized likeness appeared in fashion plates and his fashion choices were breathlessly reported in fashion magazines. With his distinctive mane of curls and signature high, red-heeled shoes, Louis combined the incontestable authority of an Anna Wintour with the charisma of a supermodel.

One of Colbert’s most effective and far-reaching innovations was to mandate that new textiles appeared seasonally, twice a year, encouraging people to buy more of them, on a predictable schedule. Fashion prints were often labelled hiver or été for winter or summer, with corresponding props like parasols, face masks, and fans for summer; for winter, there were furs, capes, and muffs for men and women alike. Lightweight silks were reserved for summer; velvet and satin for winter. Due to the changeable French climate, there had always been a certain seasonal rhythm to the textile trade, but now it became formalized and inescapable. Regardless of the weather, the summer fashion season began promptly on Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter; that is, mid- to late-May), with winter clothes donned on November 1, All Saint’s Day. Woe betide the woman who showed up at court in a summer gown on November 2. Other countries took note of the happy economic results of this planned obsolescence and began to impose similar seasonal schedules on their own weavers.

Fashions, too, changed seasonally in France. Whereas Spain had taken pride in the continuity of its fashions—a sartorial stability artificially enforced by sumptuary laws, which restricted certain garments and textiles to specific social classes—the French found this stagnation baffling. Not only was the fashion industry enriched by the constant updating of wardrobes, but the French tended to get bored if a trend lasted too long. As the economist Jacques de Savary observed in his 1675 treatise Le Parfait Negociant, “the French are naturally changeable”; fashion as we know it today is a reflection of the national character, conveniently aligned with the king’s economic goals.

The lavish standard of living and the intricate program of etiquette the Sun King introduced continued to define the French monarchy right up until the French Revolution of 1789. Louis’s name remains synonymous with the ancien regime or old regime the Revolution dismantled: political absolutism, unparalleled luxury, military glory, and grand artistic and architectural schemes. But while many of his innovations and reforms didn’t survive the Revolution, the high-end fashion and textile industry Louis founded is still going strong, bringing fame and fortune to France.

In the highly regimented and specialized haute couture industry, artificial flowers, embroidery, tapestries, buttons, and even fans continue to be handmade using the traditional skills and techniques passed down from the 17th century. More importantly, Louis’s legacy is evident in modern France’s attitude toward fashion; it isn’t a frivolous or trivial industry but an utterly serious one, inseparable from the country’s economic health and national identity. As Susan Sontag once observed, “The French have never shared the Anglo-American conviction that makes the fashionable the opposite of the serious.”