She’s effortlessly chic, spontaneous, and nonchalant. Even without makeup, she is a model of poise. She carries herself gracefully with an elegance and beauty unmatched by any other.
Everyone has heard of the notorious “French Girl”. You’ve read about her in magazines, you’ve seen her in commercials and advertisements (*cough* Air France *cough*), and maybe you have even seen her in real life.
Dior Summer 2018 Collection
But why do we have such an image of the French Girl, and why does fashion surround France and its culture?
To understand this, one must look back to the very beginnings of the French girl, and French fashion as we know it.
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The year is 1643, and King Louis XIV has just been coronated. At the time, Madrid held the title of “fashion capital of the world”, and due to their booming economy they could afford black cloth, which was considered by the ruling Catholic Habsburg monarchs to be courtly and refined.
Back in France, foreign products were in high demand due to the insufficient quality of the French luxuries.
King Louis XIV set out to change this by employing a third of the Parisian population into the clothing and textiles trades and popularising the use of the “season”. His finance minister Jean Baptiste-Colbert famously stated that “fashions are to France what the mines of Peru are to Spain”, meaning that by capitalizing on their newfound luxury, they were gaining much needed profit. Much needed, as the King would then wage war against the Spanish Netherlands (War of Devolution), and the Dutch Republic (Franco-Dutch War), and revoke the Edict of Nante (which meant Protestants could no longer openly practice their faith), causing mass emigration of Protestants, which lead to severe damage to the economy.
(Above) King Louis XIV, (below) Isabel de Bourbón in 1632 Spain.
With the 18th Century came Rococó, a late-baroque style which was used in architecture, art, and fashion. Made popular by Louis XV’s mistress Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, more commonly known as Madame Pompadour, it was an overly elaborate, feminine style which, apart from looking extravagant, cost outrageous amounts of money to produce. Now bankrupted by its aid in the American Revolution and its unfair taxing, France- or rather its monarchs, could not keep up their expensive habit of buying clothes. Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI was the very model of this extravagant inconvenience. While the French peasants were starving due to high prices of food, she was spending every last cent on herself and her court (although mostly on herself). Enlightened by new ideas (which were actually old ideas that had been re-discovered) the French people revolted and decapitated Marie Antoinette and the King via guillotine, essentially decapitating the former monarchy and replacing the authoritarian regime with a new authoritarian regime which was to be that of Napoleon Bonaparte, Consul of France.
Above, Marie Antoinette 1778, and Madame Pompidou (below).
As Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself Emperor of France, so arose the Incroyables and Merveilleuses, who sported Neoclassical styles inspired by the Greeks and Romans. Thérésa Tallien, one of the most well known Merveilleuses, was renowned for her exorbitant sense of avant garde yet classic styles, such as wearing gold rings on her legs and arms.
It is important to note that although some radical French women chose not to wear corsets during this time, they later became essential for creating the desired bust, which was meant to almost reach the chin. However, around 1815, the previous waistline (which reached to about halfway up the ribs) suddenly began to drop- followed by the neckline. In the 1820s, the empire silhouette began to lose its popularity, and slowly, the sleeves and the skirt began to become almost unbearably large. In 1856 Paris, the crinoline was invented to maintain the desired shape of the skirt, which was made out of whalebone, cane, and gutta-percha (a tree found in Southeast Asia). In the late 19th century, the bustle was adopted for the new ideal shape, and rustles became more popular.
In 1892, the first edition of Vogue was released, and although it was intended for wealthy Americans (or more specifically, New Yorkers) its contents constantly focused on what French women were doing, wearing, or styling their hair with. There was even an entire column with the title, Paris. There is no doubt about it; France was now the fashion capital of the world, and all due to the thirst for luxuries of King Louis XIV.
Above, Thérésa Tallien in the Neoclassical style in the 1800s, and Princess Dagmar of Denmark wearing a crinoline in the 1860s (below)
1910s - Alas, begins the golden age of French fashion and couture, beginning with Paul Poiret’s “La Perse” coats, which allowed women to feel more free and did not require the use of corsets.
Above, a model in a Paul Poiret coat, and below, a model in his dress (1914)
1920s - Coco Chanel rises to fame with her “La Garçonne” looks, which became popular amongst fashionable flappers.
Louise Brooks in the La Garçonne look.
1930s - The surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli morphed art and clothing with her Salvador Dalí inspired looks.
Above, 1939 model in Schiaparelli clothes, and below Elsa Schiaparelli in her clothes, 1933.
1940s - Christian Dior changes the face of fashion with his “New Look” which brought back the femininity that had existed prior to World War 2, and introduced simplicity rather than over-decoration, which had been seen as fashionable for centuries before.
Model in Dior clothing, 1940s.
1950s - The “breton” stripe (which had previously been used as the French Navy’s uniform) became an androgynous must-have item. It was worn by Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, and Brigitte Bardot. (pictured below)
1960s - André Courrèges brought a new futuristic style which included long white boots, shiny plastic clothing, and thin physique (due to the post-war surplus in food).
Models in Courrèges’ futuristic clothing.
1970s - Prét-à-porter, or ready to wear became the new trend, with Sonia Rykiel making knitwear chic.
(Above) Models in Rykiel’s clothing, 1973, Helena Christensen in Sonia Rykiel (below)
1980s - Azzedine Alaïa (or the King of Cling) made the “body-con” dress popular, which emphasized physique with odd cutouts.
Alïa’s model in Vogue (above), Model in International Report, Spring 1987 (below)
1990s - Oscar de la Renta popularized plaid, which made a comeback after its popularity in the 1920s. Women were expressed as more powerful, wearing suits and bold lipsticks.
Oscar de la Renta advertisement.
Today, French fashion continues to captivate the world with designers like Christian Louboutin, who is known for his red-soled stilettos, Yves Saint Laurent who is renowned worldwide for his exquisite gowns, and Hubert de Givenchy, known for his edgy yet geometric patterns.
Nowadays, there is no single way to define French fashion, mainly due to the immense diversity in style, culture and technique that designers put into their works. The same can be said about the French Girl. She can be edgy, chic, extravagant- it doesn’t matter! She is open for interpretation.
Jean Paul Gaultier Spring 2015 Couture (above), Louis Vuitton Spring 2018 Ready to Wear (below)
Kaia Gerber in Yves Saint Laurent Spring 2018 Ready to Wear (above), Cara Delevingne in Chanel 2015 Pre Fall Runway Show (below)