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.