Fury's Fashion People: Louis XIV, the power dresser

Louis XIV used fashion as political tool, says our style columnist

With fashion's attention focused for the past two weeks on Paris – first menswear, latterly haute couture – it seems natural to think back to the man who established France's predominance in matters sartorial, Louis XIV.

Relating a king to fashion seems odd – especially to the British, our monarchy being generally stodgy, a little podgy and far from the vagaries of style. But Louis le Grand, as he was often known, was as much a king of fashion as he was of France, using it as both a political tool and a propaganda tool. That's one of the reasons why Nicolas Sarkozy marrying a supermodel raised relatively few Parisian eyebrows.

Louis was determined to make France the most influential country in the world – and he certainly succeeded in the style stakes. As early as 1675, Louis passed a law to create the Parisian seamstresses' guild – groups of women who could make and sell women's and children's clothing, endorsed by the king. It was the first step towards the establishment of haute couture in the 19th century, and today's French fashion industry.

There was, of course, a voracious appetite for fashion at Louis' court, his nobility were eager to showcase their wealth on their backs. Louis was clever. He seized on the peacock impulses of his courtiers and formalised fashion changes, demanding different clothes for every event of the day. It all became part of etiquette, the complex rules Louis established to ensure everyone was doing the right thing and wearing the right clothes. If you did, you had an inroad to hanging around with Louis himself, whom the French (including Louis) considered a kind of god.

If your frock, or frock-coat, was especially perfect, you might even be permitted to dress Louis. Yes, dress. As part of the ritualisation of every facet of life at Versailles, Louis transformed the act of dressing and undressing his royal body into rigid ceremonies, denoted as the lever and the coucher (literally, the 'rising' and the 'laying'). There were other perks, too, like the talons rouges – literally red heels, created by Louis rather than Louboutin. These could be worn only by those with the necessary genealogical qualifications to assert their nobility. Basically, they were a symbol that not only were you 'in', but your father, and your father's father were, too – they were the first It-shoe. And we still refer to someone with money to spare as 'well-heeled'.

Louis' courtiers, however, didn't have money to spare. Which was one of the most interesting and Machiavellian aspects of his frenzied focus on fashion. His courtiers spent so much time dolling themselves up, chasing after the rights to wear red heels and remove the king's chemise at night, that they couldn't think about overthrowing him. If only Louis XVI had had his ancestor's fashion sense.

Alexander Fury is Fashion Editor of 'The Independent'

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