Henri Gervex, Cinq Heures Chez Paquin, 1906
I am writing this in the City of Light. As we head into the Christmas season, my thoughts turn to the freight, economic and emotional, borne by these few short weeks. For the merchant, this is the quarter that will turn the year black. If Q4 doesn’t do it for you, perhaps you can’t be saved.
Some say fashion was born in Paris. Others argue that it was born in Renaissance Italy, or Ming China, or — as a product of convergent evolution — simply appeared everywhere, like mushrooms after the rain. Historiographic debates aside, Paris continues to hold a special place in our imagination. Jean-Baptiste Colbert supposedly declared, “Fashion is to France what the gold mines are to Peru.” In “The Empire of Fashion and the Rise of Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century France,” William Sewall wrote, “If we conceptualize eighteenth-century capitalism properly, that is, as inextricably bound up with an ever expanding empire of fashion, we may find that it was — after all — a key source of the era’s epochal political and cultural transformations.” Whether or not Colbert actually made that statement, it sounds right to us. We are living in a world made by capitalism, and we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of ourselves as consumer agents.
This time of year, the streets of Paris are clogged with shoppers. It is truly a heaven–or hell, depending on your perspective–of consumption. In the eighteenth century, Paris was also a major center of fashion production. Luxury goods were designed and finished right here, in Parisian ateliers. In the 19th century, the Parisian brand was so alluring that American designers and producers had trouble competing with imported French goods. Hind Abdul-Jabbar‘s piece in the Fashion Studies Journal notes that after the passage of the McKinley Tariff Act in 1890, dress smuggling became a full-fledged industry, and smugglers came up with an impressive range of tactics to outsmart Customs House inspectors.
But what does it mean for contemporary Paris to be a “center of fashion”? Like New York, Paris continues to be a center for design and marketing, but very little production actually takes place in either New York or Paris these days. (So little manufacturing happens in New York’s Garment District these days, the city has proposed to do away with existing zoning restrictions that protect fashion- and apparel-related businesses.) In this brief interview, Valerie Steele makes a case for Paris’s continued economic importance, arguing that the French luxury conglomerates continue to play an important role in our 21st-century economy of desire, by spinning inchoate desires into beautiful, shimmering, tangible things. The objects may have been manufactured elsewhere, but the dreams are still spun right here.