Founder’s Letter: Fashion – How Louis XIV Brought Style
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Once upon a time, long ago, there were European kings and queens who had nowhere to go. There were no restaurants, no clubs or even museums to visit on weekends or free nights. While Monarchs and nobles had good “clothes”, their wardrobe was a low priority, while the middle-class man and woman dressed for need.
And then there was a king in France who gifted the world, this thing we all love and cherish today. Fashion.
Louis XIV, known as Louis the Great, was born in 1638, and died in 1715. He was the first Royal to bring style to Europe.
Louis was the monarch of the House of Bourbon and ruled his country for 72 years and 110 days, which is longer than any Monarch’s rule in European history.
He allowed Classical French Literature to flourish protecting and encouraging writers such as Molière, Racine, and La Fontaine, whose work remain important and influential today. Louis actively patronized the visual arts and musicians. He also loved champagne, diamonds on his fingers and toes and clothes. He’d (rumor has it) scoop tons of crème brûlée down his throat after his meals.
In 1661, Louis decided he needed to improve the chateau his predecessor built. Louis wanted a place to hang that was not just cool, but the most outrageous crib in the world, so Louis built Versailles Palace about seventeen miles (twenty-six kms) outside of Paris. It was constructed in three phases, in today’s dollars Louis’ place would cost billions and require armies of humans to build it.
The interiors encompass miles. Louis needed a staff of 5000 to maintain it. Each night thousands of candles were lit, and inestimable number of flowerpots were circulated throughout the 250 acres of lawns and gardens each year. Since Louis liked fountains, Versailles had 1400 of them. In short, Louis XIV had style and money. He was the originator, creator and promoter of luxury.
Since it was no use to have a great house and badly dressed guests, Louis decreed that all those attending future functions at his place, needed to wear something special. In fact, he decreed that those sharing events with him needed a different outfit for each function.
Nobles wanting and needing to “stay” in the King’s company naturally complied to Louis’ law. As clothes were an exorbitant expense, many people fell into debt dressing up for Versailles functions. The King was not even slightly opposed to this problem since he would loan money to those individuals and with these loans, Louis gained leverage on the noble’s — a certain and intelligent hedge against dissent.
Louis designed a blue silk jacket the justaucorps á brevet, embroidered in silver and gold, for his courtiers. He implored the middle class who wished to visit Versailles and see the grounds or the famous, dazzling carrousel to come well-dressed or not come at all.
In such ways Louis turned fashion into a tool that would create respect, status, and entry.
Marie-Catherine de Barneville, Comtesse d’Aulnoy during Louis’ reign wrote a story in 1697 about Cinderella going to a ball. In the story she wore red velvet mules encrusted with pearls and a glorious dress. Eventually, as we all know, Cinderella became a princess, all because she looked hot for an important prince.
Charles Perrault wrote Puss and Boots where the cat Puss tricks the King into giving the cat’s master (a poor milliner) a great pair of boots. Like Cinderella’s dress, the boots were enough to woo the princess to the cat’s owner. Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, and Tom Thumb continue the theme where good clothes get you where you want to go.
In Louis’s time, France outlawed foreign fabrics enabling employment to commoners who produced silk and velvet fabrics as well as all the shoes and apparel for the French society that had eyes on social advancement. “Haute Couture” in French means “high sewing” and its inception came during this period.
The fashion industry should kiss both Louis XIV’s cheeks for its birth.