Have you ever wondered how Paris became the undisputed epicenter of the fashion world?

The short answer is, there’s no one specific reason, but in the Wall Street Journal’s review of the Museum at FIT’s Fall exhibit, you’ll find a few causes rooted in the city’s history and penchant for being “over-the-top” that explain how the story unfolds.

Perugia shoes (1940) PHOTO: THE MUSEUM AT FIT

 

An exhibition at the Museum at FIT traces the evolution of the couture mecca from the 1700s to the present.

 

By Laura Jacobs for WSJ

 
I’ve never forgotten the offhand comment of a young press rep who worked in Paris fashion, something between a confession and a boast: “I’m Parisian. I hate everything.” There it is. Critical distance. Aesthetic elitism. Snobbery about what is (and isn’t) sublime. If you can’t hate, you can’t really love, and when it comes to fashion, no city, or its citizens, loves like Paris. It was ever thus. “For all manner of things that a woman can put / On the crown of her head or the sole of her foot… / For bonnets, mantillas, capes, collars, and shawls, / Dresses for breakfasts and dinners and balls.” These lines from 1857 are about the fashionable woman’s required weeks in Paris, updating her wardrobe. Any other city was beside the point, because they all followed Paris.
There is no one event or moment that put Paris on its pedestal, we learn in “Paris, Capital of Fashion,” the Museum at FIT’s fall exhibition. But certainly that flinty French nature—forever rejecting, refining, reaching higher—had much to do with it. We have a perfect template in the over-the-top fashions of the French queen Marie Antoinette (“the mother of the entire fashion business,” according to the English milliner Stephen Jones ). Her extravagant experiments in style influenced aristocratic women all over Europe. Valerie Steele, the show’s curator and the director of FIT’s museum, informs us that the Paris trajectory begins in that century, the 1700s, with “royal splendor at court,” in nearby Versailles. By the end of the 1700s, six-month cycles of spring and fall fashions (newness! novelty!) had become a dynamic that is with us to this day. Ms. Steele also makes clear that Paris itself was thought to be a woman—a luxury-loving “she,” just as London is a correctly appointed “he.” The title of this exhibition could just as easily have been “Paris, Queen of Fashion.”

 Dress by John Galliano for Christian Dior (fall/winter 2000-2001) PHOTO: GUY MARINEAU

 
The opening note of the show is struck in the introductory gallery, where a pair of classic Chanel suits in a windowpane tweed (fall/winter 1966-67) stand in isolation. They appear to be identical but are not—one is a couture original and the other a licensed copy made by Ohrbach’s department store. A video slideshow leads us through the differences, some visible (four pockets versus two), many invisible (a quilted lining, for instance, versus one that’s unquilted and skimpy). Grouped around the room is a series of similar pairings, starting in the 1750s and working up to the present, all illustrating how French designs surfaced elsewhere at various skill levels and price points. Paris tried mightily (still tries) to charge for access to patterns. It knew that the buck stopped at copies.

Chanel suit and licensed copy (fall/winter 1966-67) PHOTO: THE MUSEUM AT FIT

 
At the same time there was pushback against Paris. Puritan impulses left Americans ambivalent about the pleasure implicit in couture creations worn by—gasp—beautiful European courtesans. Later, however, the innovative American Claire McCardell, influenced by the sensually fluid cut of Madeleine Vionnet, took that fluid freedom into American sportswear, as shown in her ensemble for Townley (1945-55). In 1973’s “Battle of Versailles,” a fashion fundraiser that saw five French couturiers showing against five American designers, the Americans actually won. Their colorful spontaneity was a wake-up call for the French, whose work had grown too bourgeois, too stiff and safe. And in the 1980s, the shocking nihilism of Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto presented an existential threat to Parisian relevance, which was sidestepped because these geniuses decided to show in Paris.

Christian Dior (Stephen Jones) top hat (fall 2000) PHOTO: THE MUSEUM AT FIT

In the main gallery we see why designers of all nationalities wish to show in Paris, and why they’ve been welcomed. The first section, “The Rise of the Haute Couture,” introduces Charles Frederick Worth, the man who modernized the Paris couture house in 1858. He was an Englishman, yet from Paris he ruled, creating the era’s definitive silhouette, seen here in three tightly corseted, gorgeously trimmed and embellished gowns. Worth took the small-scale artisanal craft of French dressmaking and turned it into a big business with class status. To be dressed by Worth was an electric measure of social worth, as Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s gold-emblazoned ballgown of 1883 symbolizes dazzlingly.
The section called “Paris = La Parisienne = Fashion” displays the visionary guild work, deeply generational, of French accessories and trims. The cultural construction of the fashionable Parisian, seriously embraced by artists such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Édouard Manet, would not have existed without the artisans who made lace, buttons, gloves, hats, shoes, parasols and fans.
Most sensational is the section “From the Splendor of the Royal Court to the Spectacle of the Haute Couture.” Positioned in the center of the gallery, it’s a dreamlike re-creation of Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors. Within this hall are archetypal and iconographic pieces, all winking at one another in echoes of panniered reference and refraction. A 1760s fashion doll in gilt brocade. A black velvet Adrian gown from MGM’s 1938 film “Marie Antoinette.” Elsa Schiaparelli’s Sun King cape of 1938-39, a last burst of radiance before the fall of France. John Galliano’s ebullient Marie Antoinette dress for Christian Dior (fall/winter 2000-2001), a beribboned history lesson embroidered with guillotines. Whenever Paris needs to reassert its reign over fashion, it nods to the kings and queens who made an art of it. And pulls rank.
 

—Ms. Jacobs is the Arts Intel Report editor for the weekly newsletter Air Mail.