Men have always played an outsized role in women’s fashion, all things considered. Which is what makes late-seventeenth-century France and its powerful couturières so fascinating. Not to mention refreshing.

Lapham’s Quarterly has an enthralling, detailed piece (worth reading in full) about this particular historical moment, when haute couture was first emerging—and run, in no small part, by women. It begins with the 1675 creation of the Maîtresses Couturières (or mistress seamstresses) as part of an expansion of the rigorously structured French trade guilds, under Louis XIV. Suddenly, women were sanctioned to do work that had previously been the domain of male tailors. They couldn’t make clothing for men, or the formal gowns worn by noblewomen at court—but within a few years, those would be considered fusty, anyway. Instead, they had free reign over casual attire like the dressing gown, “one-piece dresses with a basic cut in general much like that of a kimono.” And they got creative, says author Joan DeJean:

But the original couturières produced dressing gowns unlike any seen before. They were loosely fitted gowns, loose coat dresses if you will, without stays to limit women’s movement. Worn over a bodice (which usually did contain stays, though readily adjustable ones) and a skirt of either matching or contrasting fabric, much in the spirit of what are now called separates, the casual dress of the 1670s often showed off textiles and trim just as luxurious as those used for court dress. But while robes de cour were designed to be imposing and formal, robes de chambre were easygoing and relaxed. The couturières had transformed the kimono into Western high fashion. Parisiennes took their casual wear—all of it designed by couturières—out into the world, even the world of high society—everywhere, that is, but to court. And on this fashion dichotomy, court versus city, the sector of the modern fashion industry known as couture was founded.

Women were driving, and they were working off a different map. Explains DeJean:

Parisian high fashion was now dictated by women—by women designers taking their lead from their clients and producing high-fashion garments suited to the way these women wanted to live. For the first time, luxury fashion aimed to do more than make its clients look wealthy and grand: designers began to take their clients’ lifestyles into account.

At the same time, French fashion was booming, with more out-of-towners looking to take home some Parisian class and more locals with the means to dress rich. Plus the fashion press was first getting off the ground, in the form of periodicals like Le Mercure galant, which published quarterly style reports. So you had proto fashion editors informing their eager-to-keep-current audiences that the dressing gown was the must-have uniform for this more casual age, calling out specific (female) designers. DeJean compares it to the stylistic revolution of the 1920s.

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But the moment didn’t last. The guild system was destroyed during the Revolution, and couturières lost the legal protections the system had afforded them. And even to this day, many of the most powerful positions at the world’s elite fashion houses are held by men—but it’s often women doing the detailed craft work.


Contact the author at kelly@jezebel.com.

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