Apres Moi, le Haggis; Has Sun Set on French High Style?

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 30, 2005 | Go to article overview

Apres Moi, le Haggis; Has Sun Set on French High Style?


Byline: Thomas Singer, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The most widely reported international news from France this past month, aside from Lance Armstrong's seventh consecutive Tour de France victory, concerned French President Jacques Chirac's bizarre remarks while dining with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Recalling a Scottish host who served him a plate of Scotland's national dish, haggis and neaps, Mr. Chirac took a swipe at British cuisine. "You can't trust people who cook as badly as that," he declared. "After Finland, it's the country with the worst food."

Following London's triumph over Paris in the bidding to host the 2012 Olympic Games, Mr. Chirac proclaimed in his Bastille Day address to the nation the self-evident superiority of all things French over what he called the "British model," citing France's better health care, greater longevity, higher birth rate and spending on education and research.

With the French unemployment rate seemingly stuck at about 10 percent, twice that of Great Britain, and anemic economic growth, Mr. Chirac apparently felt his nervous people needed some reassurance that all was well in France.

But did his strangely obsessive harping convey just the opposite?

With France apparently wrestling with unaccustomed national self-doubt and status anxiety, the timing could hardly be better for the publication of "The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour," scholar Joan DeJean's informative and entertaining new history of France's emergence centuries ago as the global superpower of style, the hegemon of the high life.

Of course, the French did not really "invent" all of these things - although they can claim sole credit for champagne, folding umbrellas and creme brulee, among other things. What they did do, during the reign of Louis XIV, the famed "Sun King," was to give state support to the perfecting of the technology of production, the manufacturing and the branding and marketing of the commodities of these industries.

So successful was this push that France came to possess a quasi-monopoly on the sale of a dazzling array of luxury fashion items to the rest of Europe.

At the same time, the wealthy residents of the city of Paris, the aristocrats of Versailles and, indeed, the king himself became living advertisements for the trappings of the high life the French sold to the increasing number of foreign tourists who came to gape at the city's wonders.

Those unable to come to Paris read about them in the newspapers and the newly created fashion magazines or visited the displays that circulated through Europe of miniature dolls modeling the latest clothing styles.

Miss DeJean traces the rise of French celebrity hairdressers, chefs, diamond setters, perfumeries, fashion couturiers and magazines - and the cafes where these items could be seen, worn, ingested or read by the privileged few who could afford them.

France's dash to global pre-eminence in these sectors was no accident, according to Miss DeJean. Louis XIV, who built the massive palace of Versailles and a good deal of the landmark buildings and monuments of Paris, made a calculated decision, in close collaboration with his Finance Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, to "make both himself and his country legendary," she argues. "When his reign began, his nation in no way exercised dominion over the realm of fashion.

By its end, his subjects had become accepted all over the Western world as the absolute arbiters in matters of style and taste, and his nation had found an economic mission: It ruled over the sectors of the luxury trade that have dominated that commerce ever since."

The high-life culture industry remains very much alive in our day, of course. There are still expensive clothes to wear, restaurants to frequent and baubles to flaunt. …

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