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Why the French Look So Good : PARIS FASHION A Cultural History by Valerie Steele (Oxford University Press: $34.95; 386 pp.)

March 27, 1988|Francesca Stanfill | Stanfill is the author of a novel, "Shadows and Light." She is currently at work on a new novel to be published by William Morrow.

This is an original, gracefully written study of Paris fashion, one that manages to say as much about national character, in a sense, as it does about the rise and fall of hemlines, or the changing silhouette of skirts. I would not only recommend it to anyone interested in the psychology of clothes, but to anyone planning a sejour in France--as much required reading, say, as the Green Guides of Michelin or the restaurant critiques of Gault-Millaut. I had the good fortune to read it recently, while on holiday in Paris, and it added immeasurably not only to the enjoyment of my stay, but to my understanding of that humorless and world-weary breed, the Parisians--from the importance of their ravishing boulevards (all the better for parading one's latest outfit) to the arrogance of their formidable vendeuses (20th-Century descendants of the upwardly mobile 19th-Century working girl, the grisette ).

As befits the sensual nature of its subject, "Paris Fashion" is also a lovely looking book--the cover, with its boulevard scene painted by Beraud, is charming, and there is a rich feel about the pages and the way they have been illustrated and designed. Another successful aspect of the book is the way Valerie Steele--the author of "Fashion and Eroticism"--has chosen to divide the book into chapters: not chronologically, but far more intelligently and wittily, by theme: i.e. "Parisian Types," "Le High Life," "Liberty, Egality and Antiquity."

Steele sets out her theme succinctly in the book's first paragraph: "This is not a history of Paris fashion, still less of haute couture. It is a book about the significance and symbolism of fashion in modern society, and an analysis of the reasons why Paris was for so long the international capital of style." I would only quarrel with a statement that comes two paragraphs later, one which seemed to indicate to me at least that the author was momentarily brainwashed by her subject, for it is a statement that might have been dreamed up by the Parisian chamber of commerce, and that would undoubtably evince a posthumous nod from that famous Francophile, Nancy Mitford: "Revolutions in politics, art, literature and thought have begun in Paris (or reached their highest expressions there) often enough to form a significant theme in modern history." Indeed, it is precisely what Parisians would like us to believe --the arch chauvinistic attitude which lies at the root of their snobbism about style (that is to say, they are the only people truly capable of having it). And it is that mentality, as well, that Steele spends a great part of the book exploring--with more objectivity and humor, fortunately, than she shows in that errant sentence.

She succeeds in explaining why the Parisians were prime candidates for excelling in fashion: They were by nature super formal and consumed with status, precision and nuance (as anyone who has ever studied French language knows). And they had early on developed the resources and luxury industries which would make that laboratory of fashion--the haute couture --possible.

There are many fascinating parts of "Paris Fashion": the discussion of the "forgotten dressmaker," Mme. Paquin; the description of the importance of the fashionable and flashy demimondaine ; the role of fashion in the novels of Proust and Balzac (in the chapter relating to the latter, Steele includes this charming anecdote: "Much as he admired the 'sentiment of fashion,' Balzac was personally too busy for the elegant life. But then, he was such a single-minded artist that he is reported to have said once, after sex, 'There goes another book' "). Another theme that recurs throughout the book is the centuries-old American ambivalence toward Paris fashion (we are at once fascinated and intimidated by the dictums of Paris fashion, just as we long to be free of them).

But most interesting of all, perhaps, is the central issue of the book, Steele's theory about the language of clothes: that conformism and comfort are much less compelling motivators of change in dress than shifts in people's identities--in how we want to be perceived . "The real motive for fashion change originates in people's changing identities," she writes. "Just as traditional (premodern or non-Western) costume expressed a more static conception of the wearer's social identity, so also does modern fashion express our changing moods. . . . People want to 'say' something about the ambiguities of, for example, youth versus age, work versus play, androgyny versus singularity, conformism versus rebellion."

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