Touring France

Versailles: Louis XIV, King of French Fashion

How the height of French style led to her downfall.

There's more than one way to conquer the world. The flabby, charismatic "Sun King," Louis XIV, knew that he could impress the French with his insanely lavish royal lifestyle. But he also wanted to make his mark on Europe. Throughout his 55 year rule, he campaigned vigorously to establish Paris as the 17th century's capital of style, promoting its gourmet food and wine, its clothing, perfumes, furnishings and jewelry. Every new innovation required Louis' personal imprimatur, making him the world's first fashion dictator. Modern author Joan DeJean claims that Louis' devotion to elegance has shaped our style culture today – "Without the Sun King's program for defining France as the land of luxury in glamour, there would never have been a Stork Club, a Bergdorf Goodman, a Chez Panisse or a Christophe of Beverly Hills." The 700-room Palace of Versailles, which Louis built 10 miles from Paris, became the command center for this unique fashion experiment. It was a prototype for the Playboy Mansion, where courtiers could exist in a netherworld of art and pleasure. While France slowly descended into bankruptcy, Louis played hide and seek with mistresses, frolicked in tree houses and held resplendent soirees in the Hall of Mirrors, lit with thousands of candles. And his every taste became law – it was Louis’ passion for diamonds, for example, that first privileged them above all other gems. The flip side of all this was that Louis became corrupted by flattery. Crowds of admirers would gather around the king to help him bathe and dress. Versailles became a byword for shameless excess in the face of poverty. For one famous ball in 1696, the boutiques of Paris were stripped bare by invitees. One woman kidnapped a famous dressmaker so he could not design for other guests. In short, Versailles represented everything that French revolutionaries would soon come to hate about the monarchy.