Versailles and its legacy on French fashion

Dior Exhibit at Musee des Arts Decoratifs

“Versailles et la mode” author Laurence Benaïm discusses her book about how Versailles impacted French fashion today

Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs—now recognized as MAD—hosted an evening lecture with fashion journalist and author Laurence Benaïm. Benaïm has written several books, including the biography of late designer and couturier Yves Saint Laurent.

Benaïm’s most recent book, Versailles et la mode, was published in Fall 2017.

Here’s a recap of her main ideas she highlighted during her talk*:

Versailles et la Mode Laurence Benaïm

Versailles is fashion, fashion is Versailles

The royal court of Versailles exemplified a new level of extravagance during the 17th century.

Fashion was a way to navigate the strange world of many mirrors and appearances—a method of survival that would be essential to an Austrian archduchess named Marie-Antoinette who married Louis XVI.

Naturally, the high-end fashions matched the grandeur of the palace to reflect the period and the sentiment of the nobility living at Versailles. The ritual to dress and to prepare for the day or an occasion was absolutely incredible.

What people wore in the royal court communicated their rank—these sumptuary laws were implemented either officially or by implicitly.

At the same time, the people of Versailles were equally interested in upholding strict etiquette as much as participating in extreme frivolity.

For example, in Sofia Coppola’s film rendition of Marie-Antoinette’s life, viewers can understand the full parameters of excess through the fashion, as well as the presence of rich food and drink. Champagne and decadent, sugary treats like macarons and cakes are some of the many elements that complete the luxurious picture of Versailles.

The royal court of Versailles was arguably the first vain metropolitan centers in Europe.

Dior Exhibit Musee des Arts Decoratifs
From the Dior: 70 Years exhibit (2017) at Musée des arts décoratifs

Becoming an #Influencer

In 2018, it is obvious that what celebrities or public figures wear can play a huge role in popular trends. To fully explain the impact of Versailles fashion on the French psyche, think of Marie-Antoinette as the first original influencer of the time. #Major

A more interesting analysis of Marie-Antoinette’s power as an influencer suggests the young monarch was the first Madame Bovary, a character in the eponymous novel written by Gustave Flaubert.

During her time at Versailles, Marie-Antoinette searched for another identity as she suffered from pressures of being an outsider and being very young—all she wanted to do was have fun, but her intentions did not meet the expectations of becoming a queen

Before the Hall of Mirrors, Marie-Antoinette would continue to reinvent her image that reflected upon the royal court and the general public.

Alas, as Marie-Antoinette and the women of the royal court continued to transform their appearances with more opulent clothes and hairstyles, it was the beginning of the end of an era.

The higher the hair, the worse the crisis was becoming amongst the French—the dire socio-economic circumstances were rising to a crisis that would result in the French Revolution.

La Galerie de Fantasie forever


In 2015, Versailles was ranked as one of the Top 10 Most Visited Attractions in the World with over 7.5 million visitors per year.

There are a number of reasons for the international fascination of Versailles, but it is mainly rooted in the palace’s identity as a nostalgic refuge for grandeur.

Versailles has left France as a legacy center for fashion—a haven for designers, ateliers, jewelers, etc.—and created such an industry that is recognized as uniquely French.

Fashion’s range of power to scandalize or to protect is a secondary legacy, but equally important because of the way style pervades daily life.  In truth, it is no coincidence that the French are often associated with exuding elegance and power through their personal style.

Dior Exhibit Petit Trianon
From the Dior: 70 Years exhibit (2017) at Musée des arts décoratifs

Rediscovering Versailles

The French revived the Versailles legacy several times throughout Les Folies Bergère, La Belle Époque, and the Café Society years.

After World War II, the Café Society social set was keen on revisiting Versailles as an escape to forget the times of hardship. Although noble titles had disappeared, there was a revival of a new surname title recognized as “Madame de ___.”

During the 1950s, les reines de l’écran like Jayne Mansfield Rita Hayworth or wore elaborate costumes in Hollywood films.

Fascination with fashion during the post-war era was fully renewed by designer Christian Dior and his “New Look” collection of tailored feminine silhouettes. The New Look from “Trianon Montaigne,” a nickname for Dior’s boutique in Paris, is recognized as an actual interpretation of Louis XVI Versailles during the 1950s. The introduction of a softer, delicate woman signaled the end of the severities imposed by wartime.


Long after the reign of Louis XIV, it is clear that Versailles continues to influence French fashion houses. Chanel, Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent continue to revisit the elegant motifs and elaborate details that can only be described as “exceptionally French” and clearly imbued with the Versailles legacy.


« Margiela les années Hermès » will be the next major fashion exhibit hosted in collaboration with MAD and Palais Galliera starting from March 3, 2018, until July 15, 2018.

*Note: This talk was given in French and interpreted on the spot in English. Apologies for any glaring errors. 

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A Francophile based in coastal New England

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