Wednesday, July 24, 2019

"The Essence of Style"

Innovations! Author Joan deJean discusses the origins of a surprising variety of innovations in her book The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour (published in 2005). To my amazement, this book convinced me that much popular culture was indeed invented because of the influence and power of King Louis XIV of France.

For the rich people, especially the nobility, there were revolutions among other things in cooking styles (with the publication of La Varenne's cookbook), in shopping and collecting things like antiques, and in personal grooming.

Specifically, the personal grooming revolution had two sources. The first was the development of glass-making technology for making mirrors more than a few inches square. This enabled fancy people to look in a mirror while doing their hair and makeup, and even to see a full-length reflection.

The second part of this major change was emergence of constant new fashions in hair styles made by trendy hairdressers. Everyone wanted to be coiffed by the one or two most famous coiffeurs who worked for the trend setters at court. Meanwhile, following fashions in designer clothing became a new thing as well. Nothing like this had been happening in earlier eras.

Both King Louis' court at Versailles and the atmosphere of the city of Paris created the conditions for these new forms of consumption available to the richest, noblest, most beautiful, and most creative of the population, all described with great flair. I didn't think the book could live up to its hype -- but it did. It's charmingly written and full of remarkable facts about stuff that's often neglected. Normally I wouldn't like a lot of modern slang and comparisons to modern rock stars and clothing designers, but this author pulls it off.

Let's look at a few of the surprises:

  • Who ever thinks about the invention of the umbrella, especially of the folding umbrella? It's all here: deJean has a whole chapter about how it was invented and popularized in the age of Louis XIV. 
  • Diamonds? King Louis loved them so much he wore them in profusion: 1500 carats at a time, especially diamond buttons. He started the trend that's still going for adoring diamonds. (Before Louis, it was pearls all the way.) 
  • Perfume? The French were ahead for a while but then scents began to give Louis a headache, so perfumes weren't so popular in France and Cologne, Germany, became the iconic spot for it: cologne. 
  • Fashion magazines and publications? Innovated in Paris at this time too.
  • Street lights? Louis decided that the darkness wasn't good for Paris, so he ordered the right people to figure out how to light the streets, and Paris became the City of Light. No kidding! 

The elegant use of light was also enhanced as mirrors could be made larger and larger. They could now be architectural features, initiated in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Still more light was seen in the sparkling diamonds on everyone's high-piled hair and elegant clothing, on men's garters and shoe buckles, and just about everywhere else that one could wear a diamond. DeJean enables you to imagine all this extreme luxury and never demands that you think about the poor people, though you can see the looming social problem with starvation in the background of all the waste, and you know what's going to happen in a century or so. But it's a fun read.

From Chapter 6, "The World's First High-Priced Lattes," Fig. 6-1, p 141.
"Entretiens sur les cafés" frontispiece of the book by Louis de Mailly, 1702.
I especially enjoyed the chapter on the introduction of coffee to Parisians and the quickly following invention of the café during Louis' reign.  Coffee houses had already developed as men's establishments in London and elsewhere in Europe, but the Paris coffee houses catered to both men and women, as illustrated above. Coffee was served in dainty cups, accompanied by pastry or sorbet.  And it cost a lot. Who can resist mentioning Starbucks?

I'm sharing this book with the participants in "Paris in July," which is wrapping up this week at the blog Thyme for Tea ( It's been a great month so far, with a wide variety of blog posts showing bloggers' original photos of Paris, a number of books on Paris and French subjects, and a few recipes and food posts, many with common themes or coincidental relationships. My post last weekend about the Detroit Institute of Arts' exhibit of luxury items from 18th century Paris is interestingly related to Joan deJean's Essence of Style, which I had begun reading before our visit there. (link)

Text in this post is copyright © 2019 by Mae at maefood dot If you are reading this at another blog, it's been stolen.


Lisbeth said...

What an interesting book and post. Some things we take for granted but they were invented some time along the line. I think I have to look for this book. An excellent contribution to Paris in July.

bermudaonion said...

I'm with Louis on diamonds but don't have many to wear. This book sounds fascinating.

Kitchen Riffs said...

What a great review! Sounds like a terrific read. And no, I never thought about the invention of the umbrella! :-)

Jeanie said...

You read the most diverse books, Mae -- and always write the best overviews. I love how you do that and I am in awe you can do it so completely and thoroughly yet read so much -- and not "easy" books! This one looks quite fascinating!

Tamara said...

Another great book to help understand the french...I'm interested.. I love the fascination french have with fashion and perfume. I'd also intrigued in the chapter on coffee...