Paris Fashion: A Cultural History

Image of Paris Fashion: A Cultural History
Release Date: 
September 19, 2017
Bloomsbury USA
Reviewed by: 

Reader beware!

“The emergence of modern fashion (la mode) is closely related to the rise of urban modernity (la modernité).”

Paris Fashion will present the reader with three possible alternatives: 1) you will slam the book shut shortly after starting; 2) you will revel in the historical details and minutiae; or 3) your curiosity or possibly your trainwreck mentality will keep you coming back for more. This reviewer can happily say that option number three was his choice despite the great efforts that were expended to get through the book.

Paris Fashion: A Cultural History is no light hearted romp through the annals of French fashion but rather an extremely scholarly, almost pedantic, and extremely expository accounting that could easily double as a text book or possibly as a thesis on this subject. The perceptive reader might find that sporadically they have forgotten that they are reading a fashion book, given the sociological, historical, and literary references that are so freely dispensed and articulated—fashion seems like a subfocus rather than the raison d’être of this book.

Valerie Steele offers one of the most comprehensive, exhaustive, and expansive monographs laser focused on the history of Paris fashion. The trick here is to not be discouraged by the extremely fact laden content but rather to embrace the book and its content, which you will slowly plod through rather than skim or leaf through to look at the pretty pictures. Unquestionably the morsels of information that are buried within this encyclopedic accounting make the efforts a very worthwhile result for true devotees of fashion.  

Did you know that Marie Antoinette was nicknamed Madame Deficit due to her constant overspending on wardrobe? That Balzac was once a fashion writer? That small hands and feet were once signs of refinement and aristocratic blood? That Spain was the first international fashion power to emerge in Europe? That a griffe, invented by Worth, was a stamped signature, aka label, that was sewn into a finished couture garment? And when was the last time you read Emanuelle Khan’s name in any fashion book?

Paris Fashion: A Cultural History certainly gives one pause to think that there should be a category of study with the moniker of “fashionology” since Steele provides so much French history and seemingly extraneous facts that, admittedly, have all played a part in the evolution of French fashion. By providing all of this information, Steele offers context unlike anyone else who has written about the world of fashion, whether it be designing, manner of dress, or trends. Some readers will find this endlessly fascinating while others might just get disgusted and slam the book shut forever!