How the French invented the concept of ‘chic’

TALK/Penn Professor talks about the birth of luxury, style and finer things in life

The French have long cornered the market on high fashion, fine wine and flavorful food. We can thank them for introducing champagne as a luxury drink and diamonds as the most sought-after of jewels.

This reputation was actually cultivated long before models took to the catwalks at spring fashion shows in Paris. Indeed, it was borne during the late 17th-century reign of King Louis XIV, who had quite a reputation as a consumer of beautiful things—from savory food to elaborate gilded mirrors. According to Joan DeJean, Trustee Professor of French in the Department of Romance Languages, it was during his reign that France turned into the stylish, chic place to be. “Paris changed,” she said in a Nov. 8 talk at the Penn Bookstore. “It became the European capital of style.”

DeJean, on hand to talk about her new book, “The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication and Glamour,” noted that some luxurious items gained appeal simply because Louis XIV was a fan. This was the case with diamonds, for example, which became sought after because the king purchased the stones in massive quantities. In fact, by the time his reign ended, he had purchased $650 million (in today’s dollars) worth of the jewels.

This was also the time when the first chic café anywhere in the world was created. Until that point, said DeJean, coffeehouses were vulgar places where men gathered to smoke and drink. With the advent of the first upscale café, women began to gather there, eating pastries and drinking champagne—another of the age’s most famous creations.

Fashion took off in the mid-1670s, too, with the very first fashion journalist, who encouraged men and women to buy new clothing for each season. Such fashions were marketed to consumers through dolls and fashion plates, which also instructed people how to wear the clothing.

Around this time, explained DeJean, people added indexes to cookbooks, making them much more user-friendly. Cooking, too, changed dramatically. Prior to the later 17th century, honey was used throughout the meal; now sugar was moved to the end of the meal and the French began using native ingredients in their dishes. Some of the signature dishes of French cuisine emerged from this period, including stews and slow-cooked meats. Chocolate and crème brulee were also first made around this time.

Louis XIV insisted on lighting the streets of Paris at night, said DeJean, making roads safer and encouraging nightlife in Paris.

This led to a tourist trade and the birth of the modern guidebook, with suggestions for where to eat, shop and stay.

Fine French goods were a big boon to the country’s economy. When a Chinese silk coat became all the rage in fashion circles, the king forbade the import of foreign fabric. He then ordered French mills to make the materials and coats, thus keeping the revenue in France.

Louis XIV encouraged artists of all stripes to make beautiful things—not only for his own consumption—but also because “art was not only about painting a painting or writing a book,” said DeJean. “It was making what you were making as beautiful as it could be.

Originally published on November 17, 2005