Paris Fashion: A Cultural History

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Oxford University Press, 1988 - Design - 317 pages
Paris has been the international capital of style for over three hundred years. In this provocative and richly illustrated volume, Valerie Steele--author of the highly acclaimed Fashion and Eroticism--offers a penetrating social and cultural analysis of fashion in Paris. More than just a history of famous designers and changing styles, the book is about fashion as a cultural ideal and a social phenomenon. Steele explains why Paris was the center of fashion for so long, providing brilliant insight into the concept of "style" and the significance of fashion in modern society.
Just as Fashion and Eroticism radically revised the stereotype of "prudish" Victorian dress, so also does Paris Fashion debunk many long-standing myths about the fashion industry. Steele shows that the "great names" of fashion, from Worth to Dior, were not so much "dictators" or radical innovators as they were astute barometers of fashion trends, and that, contrary to popular belief, Coco Chanel was not the first great woman designer, but rather one of a very long line of women who influenced the world of fashion. Both the French belief in the innate national "genius" of their couturiers and the equally popular idea that American women finally smashed the "dictatorship" of Parisian men are shown to be incorrect.
While focusing primarily on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Steele also traces the early history of fashion, from the cities of Renaissance Italy to the courts of Burgundy and Versailles, and the streets of Revolutionary Paris. She explores the "geography of fashion" in Second Empire Paris, showing how the new boulevards, cafes, and theaters vastly expanded the stage for the public display of fashion. Steele excels at revealing how fashion has been portrayed in the work of great French writers and artists, with fascinating chapters on the role of fashion in Balzac's novels--Balzac himself was usually horribly dressed--and how Proust dwelled on the "mute language of clothes." "The Black Prince of Elegance," Steele's analysis of dandyism in the life and work of Baudelaire, illuminates the changing meaning of men's dark apparel in the era of high capitalism, while her study of fashion and art provides a new way of looking at Impressionism and modernism as an artistic vision.
By focusing on a "case study" of Paris, Steele shows how the clothing we wear today continues to express the way we see the world and ourselves.

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Paris fashion: a cultural history

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Steele aims to underscore the importance of style and dress in modern society and concurrently to reveal why Paris has long been designated the center of world fashion, yet she claims, "This is not a ... Read full review


Mode and Meaning in the Capital of Style
The Picture of Paris
Liberty Equality and Antiquity

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About the author (1988)

About the Author:
Valerie Steele received her Ph.D. in History from Yale University, and teaches in the division of graduate studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY).

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