Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Essence of Style

It's that time of year...
3, rue Saint Sulpice, original watercolor, 9" x 11"
Breaking out the Champagne. And where does the good stuff comes from - France bien sur. But how come?
And how come cafes are the most authentic in France? Nowhere else does the cafe experience even come close...
Did you know the first silverware came from France?
The perfume industry - no mystery = France.
Meringues - we have Louis XIV to thank. Mirrors too. In fact most everything that attracts us to France and French ways came about and was instituted during Louis XVI's reign. The legions of expert craftsmen creating the finest of furniture. The finest of just about everything deluxe that we adore and covet got it's start during this era...
Joan DeJean's book, The Essence of Style tells the story in detail with wit and dash. Subtitled; How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication and Glamour.
Why is it that people all over the world share the conviction that a special occasion only becomes really special when a champagne cork pops -- and even more special when that cork comes from a bottle of Dom Perignon? Why are diamonds the status symbol gemstone, instantly signifying wealth, power, and even emotional commitment?
What makes fashionistas willing to pay a small fortune for a particular designer accessory like the luxe bag.
DeJean explains how a handsome and charismatic young king with a great sense of style and an even greater sense of history decided to make both himself and his country legendary. When the reign of Louis XIV began, his nation had no particular association with elegance, yet by its end, the French had become accepted all over the world as the arbiters in matters of taste and style and had established a dominance in the luxury trade that continues to this day.
The birth of haute cuisine, the first appearance of celebrity hairdressers, chic cafes, nightlife, and fashion in elegant dress that extended well beyond the limited confines of court circles. Paris was the magical center -- the destination of travelers all across Europe. Who knew the parapluie (umbrella) was created by the French?
Fashion? The French. They have every right to be arrogant - their street cred goes back centuries.
Shoes oui! The j'e ne sais quoi, the certain indefinable something or other they have and that we want so - it's all explained and it's origins are mapped out here.
DeJean's latest, The Age of Comfort, takes the French story further into our homes and not so luxe quotidian activities.
DeJean is professor of romance Languages at University of Pennsylvania. Here's a NYTimes review of Essence. You can hear Joan chat on NPR.
I'm still searching for the origins of French jam. I'm sure it lurks within the confines of one or the other book...


  1. I want that red dress--my grandfather always used to say "there's something about a woman in a red dress." Oui.

    Cute post again, and I LOVE that watercolor, Carol--tres chic and full of fun.

  2. ps
    Carol, this past weekend, we exchanged our "usual" painting of a bluebird you did for the "Christmas/holiday" version that I told you was a new tradition now in our house. We look forward to breaking it out every year for the holiday. Thought of you all day long...xo

  3. Hi there,

    Just curious: in the close-up of the cafe table, is that a real warning on the pack of Marlboros? "FUMAR MATA" - yikes! Not being a smoker myself, I hadn't noticed or even looked for warning labels on cigarettes on our trips over. Anyone know if that's a real warning, or a prop?

  4. Carol--thank you for this intriguing article on firsts--I wonder if these styles started with L'Age D'or?? Fascinating post.

  5. I just found strange the sign on the pack of Malboros written in portuguese!! All the pictures are wonderful, Angelina has the best hot chocolate ever, true that place!! Kisses

  6. Foodwalker12:43 PM

    Ah, the French! They are so very full of themselves, no? It is a naturally beautiful country.

  7. The cup is at cafe de la Mairie in Place Saint Sulpice..
    It could have been left by a tourist...

  8. J'adore le champagne!!
    peut être un jour une coupe ensemble?????



  9. Lynne G.1:01 PM

    I just want you to know how much I love your daily posts. I went to Paris for the first time in October to celebrate my 50th birthday. I absolutely LOVED every minute of it.
    I felt I had the inside scoop on all the good stuff.
    I was giddy when I came upon Laduree! I hope to go back some day but in the meantime I will continue to live vicariously through you!
    We share the same obsession with macarons and dogs.

  10. Anonymous1:11 PM

    From Dana in Canada,

    Just finished reading Essence myself...interesting book. What strikes me the most is how the impetus for the birth of stylistic creation in France came from the King's asute observation that keeping things local, supporting locally made artisanal goods and then encouraging citizens to buy their own goods, would strengthen their economy and national pride..So, perhaps, we're coming full circle with the recently growing trend to buy local and support local economies...look closer to home, support local artisans and develop our own styles. Blessings to you all and Merry Christmas!

  11. Bonjour Carol! Really interesting posts, your painting is perfect. The French do have a certain style that you can find nowhere else. Your eye for detail and witty observations made this post even more fabulus!

  12. I have The Essence of Style and its fabulous! Thanks for the info on his new book, didnt know he had one. Merry Christmas!

  13. Very cute post, Carol - I love the photos....

  14. Ironic, I just finished the Glass Castle and planned to begin The Essence of Style this evening! Now, I can't wait!

  15. Lovely, a toast to you, Mme. But of course I have to be a bit contrarian (I did go to university in France after all:)...Italy gives France a run for its money on many things...& cafes & shoes are but two.

    However, this IS PB so OK.


  16. parapluie is one of my favorite french words and oh how i would love a pair of red-soled your blog - it brings a smile to me face and makes me think of all the fun trips i have had to paris - oh so many years ago...

  17. Anonymous6:39 PM

    comment ne pas être fier d'être FRANCAIS, après un pareil post!
    but I love AMERICA also

  18. Valentina7:34 PM

    A great post!
    I wondered if you could shed light of a mystery for me-why is the coffee so bad in Paris??? I am italian and I have had the worst coffee in my life all over Paris.The coffee in America is also terrible, but taht does not surprise me. I just can't understand why Paris is so behind in this area!!!!

  19. This is fascinating! I'm eager to pick up the The Essence of Style!

  20. Quelle surprise! It is pretty amazing! I thought that the Chinese invented everything! :-)

  21. I love that cafe at St. Sulpice! Wonderful wonderful photos. I'm off to Paris in janvier. Can't wait to sink my teeth into a caramel macaron............mmmmm.

  22. l went to a perfume maker in Paris and it was so intresting, we were
    given strips of card and they put perfume on.
    A lady sat at what looked like a organ, it had layers to it with all
    the beautiful rich blue bottles which held the perfume, you got a free small bottle when you left.
    If its still there don't miss it as its good,
    Jill xxx

  23. Tre' chic.
    Love the cel-phone gal.

  24. The pictures are fantastic and i am definitely going to start reading The Essence of Style soon. Thanks!

  25. Anonymous11:38 AM

    Where can I find that red dress???

    I love your website! Très chic!

  26. Lovely post. LOVE your little watercolour!
    In answer to Dan: yes, those warnings are real. You see them all over Europe. Check out more labels here:


Love hearing from you