Le fashion, c'est Louis XIV

How the Sun King 'invented' style and shaped an image of chic for his country for centuries to come

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When Oprah Winfrey was not allowed after-hour shopping privileges at Hermès, the ultra-luxurious shop in Paris, headlines dominated newspaper style sections for days. French fashion makes news, it seems, even without a celebrity associated with it. Most of us just accept this; few ask why.

Except, that is, for author Joan DeJean. This scholar of all things French digs deep into the roots of Parisian trend-setting and headline-grabbing in her fascinating new book, "The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour."

Dr. DeJean's seventh book on French culture is not an extension of Cosmo or Vogue. You won't find tips on how to wrap yourself in a shawl or dot your wrists with Chanel No. 5. "The Essence of Style" is a thoroughly researched explanation of the 17th- and 18th-century origins of "Living Luxe," as she calls it - including French haute couture, haute cuisine, coiffure, perfume, parties, and more - written in a contemporary, conversational tone.

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"The Essence of Style" packs in a lot of information, and perhaps more detail than one might want on some topics, such as Jean Marius's invention of the original folding umbrella, radical as it was at the turn of the 18th century.

But the book's 300-plus pages can be read out of sequence, as each of the dozen chapters is distinct. Readers might wish to flit randomly among them, choosing to focus on such topics as "The Birth of Haute Couture," "Marketing a la Mode," "Chic Cafes," "Antiques, Fine Furniture, and Interior Decoration," or "Perfume, Cosmetics, and La Toilette."

The common thread that runs throughout them all is the enormous impact of Louis XIV's reign from 1643 to 1715. When he inherited the throne, DeJean writes, the young, handsome, style-obsessed "Sun King" set out to make both himself and his country legendary for a sense of glamour and elegance never before seen.

Visitors to the Chateau de Versailles have witnessed Louis XIV's extravagant taste. (DeJean asserts that Versailles may well have been the original theme park, as it was open to the public and required an entrance pass.)

But little did anyone realize that as the Sun King transformed the modest hunting lodge he'd inherited from his father into one of the largest, most luxurious castles in the world, he was also shaping France's image as the international capital of style.

Of particular interest are the many examples DeJean draws of luxurious living from the Versailles era that are still alive and well today.

Many of the inventions and customs we now take for granted emerged during Louis XIV's reign. The marketing of fashion, for example, had a clear beginning in 1670, when fashion seasons became a marketing tool. At the same time, acquiring designer-made accessories became the rage, not unlike the designer-mania, as DeJean calls it, that we know today.

DeJean's book is full of interesting factoids. Full-length mirrors, for example, weren't fixtures in private homes until 1690. By the end of the 18th century, the world had gone "mirror mad," writes DeJean, with Versailles' Hall of Mirrors exemplifying the mirror's capacity to brighten a room and make it appear larger.

In 1662, Paris earned its name as the "City of Light" because it was the first city anywhere ever to illuminate its streets after dark on a regular, permanent basis. It was an innovation of Louis XIV, DeJean writes, that made Paris the first city to glitter after sunset, allowing for nighttime outings to the theater, opera, and lavish parties.

A professor of French at the University of Pennsylvania who previously taught at both Yale and Princeton, DeJean knows how to research and relies heavily on material published during Louis XIV's reign, such as 17th-century newspapers, newsletters, and gazettes, in addition to late 17th- and early 18th-century guidebooks to Paris and accounts of journeys to France left by travelers of the period.

The result is a book that proves there's much more to Parisian elegance and glamour than a certain je ne sais quoi.

Jennifer Wolcott is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Mass.

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