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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 Herm├Ęs, 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.

"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.)


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