DG Q&A: Joan DeJean

Dejean Joan DeJean is a professor at French literature at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a number of award-winning scholarly works. But she's best known outside the academy for what the NYT called "her effervescent account of the birth of French chic," her delightfully readable popular book, The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour.

In it, Joan argues that many of the styles, customs, and luxuries we associate with glamour and chic developed from Louis XIV's calculated policies. She traces the origins of champagne and umbrellas, explains how diamonds displaced pearls as the most desirable of jewels, and recounts how streetlights--a tough technological challenge--changed city life. Plus there's the tale of international skullduggery and industrial espionage--over the secret of making large mirrors.

Joan answered our questions from her home in Paris, where she is spending a sabbatical.

DG: How did The Essence of Style come about?

JD: I had a number of files in which I had been tracking individuals who were extraordinary inventors and creators in different domains–food, fashion, hairdressing, shoemaking. One day I realized that there was a big story that linked the shoemaker and the hairdresser, for example—that all these inventions had been possible because of an atmosphere that reigned in France in the final decades of the 17th century. So I decided to tell the story of the creation of a modern sense of style.

DG: You argue that during Louis XIV's reign, fashion emulating the court spread beyond the elite to a much broader public. How did that happen? What had to change to make it possible? How did the general public even come to think it appropriate, much less possible, to emulate the court (or even the king)?


JD: I think that style can spread at any period, so this could conceivably have happened before. Under Louis XIV, however, there was a fundamental change of mentality that began with the king’s desire to create a new national image for France, to make France known as the most elegant nation in Europe. This led, for example, to the creation of a fashion industry worthy of the name. And to make that happen, fashion was for the first time ever marketed in a truly modern way—in inexpensive engravings, fashion plates, for example. This meant that individuals who had never seen a great aristocrat, much less been to court, could see how people at court were dressed. They could then begin, even if only in a modest way, to copy fashions that had originated with the elite.

DG: We generally think of shopping as becoming a glamorous experience with the rise of department stores in the 19th century, as memorably portrayed by Zola in The Ladies' Paradise. But, again, you trace that experience back to the 17th century: "Parisian merchants were so successful at convincing people to buy for the sake of buying because they had made shopping glamorous, fun, and even sexy. Shopping had become....shopping theater in which consumers were spending money because they felt that their lives were somehow being transformed by the event." What was the experience of shopping like in this period, compared to later? How did the promise of transformation work?

JD: The experience started small. The original modern stores were a far cry from the 19th century’s gigantic department stores. But they were created to produce an entirely different experience, one of elegant discretion rather than the often frenetic overkill of later models. The original modern stores in the late 17th century were tiny compared to 19th-century grands magasins: they were jewel boxes. They displayed goods in luxurious settings, beautifully laid out--and, an innovation not found elsewhere in Europe, employed pretty young women dressed in the latest styles to wait on customers. There wasn’t the overwhelming rush of consumerism--too many ribbons, shelves overflowing with goods--that Zola describes so well. Clients of the late 17th century appreciated the experience as magical and elegant, rather than the orgy of consumerism shopping later became. All in all, it was closer to what we find today in high-end boutiques, where we find a selection of goods that represents a certain style.


DG: What has "Paris glamour" meant to people in different places and periods?

JD: Everything from the glorious experience that the first streetlights in the world meant for those who saw them in the late 17th century to the way the Eiffel Tower lit up the skyline two centuries later. Everything from the original ballet stars at the Paris Opera Ballet in the late 17th century to Josephine Baker in a far more recent age.

DG: Although Americans think of France (and Paris in particular) as glamorous, if my dictionary is to be believed, there isn't a word for "glamour" in French. The closest translations appear to be éclat, séduction, or fascination, but those aren't the same thing. Or are they? How would you explain glamour in French? (See this discussion, for instance.)

JD: When “glamour” entered the English language in the 18th century, in its original meaning of fairy-tale-like magic, French had lots of alternatives to convey the same sense—“enchantment” in particular. When “glamour” took on its modern meaning in the 19th century, French never followed suit. One never knows why these kind of Coverdivergences take place, but your question made me wonder about the following: it seems to me that glamour implies the attraction of the unattainable, the distant, whereas the French prefer the attraction of the more approachable. For example, the French will say of someone—much in the way Americans will say ”isn’t he/she glamorous?”—he/she “has charm.” (That’s returning to glamour’s original roots in magic by the way.) To be charming and stylish—that’s the ultimate attraction for the French.

DG: Do you have another book project in the works?

JD: I’m just finishing a book called The Age of Comfort—it will be out next September. It’s once more about Paris, this time in a slightly later period (the 18th century), and deals with the moment at which the French began to break away from the off-putting and stiff magnificence of Louis XIV’s court and to look instead for surroundings in which they could be relaxed and casual and at ease. It’s about the creation of the modern home and the invention of many of the things in it that we still see as essential for comfort—from sofas to luxurious bathrooms.

The DG Dozen

1) How do you define glamour?

A magnetic attraction; someone who possesses an air of mystery. And for me glamour is always elegant.

2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?

Cary Grant

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity?

A luxury but an awfully important one

4) Favorite glamorous movie?

The Awful Truth

5) What was your most glamorous moment?

The 1920s

6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)?

Currently: a present I received months ago and haven’t yet opened. It is so perfectly wrapped—the wrapping copies a 1930s design—that I just can’t bear to touch it. It sits on my sofa as a decorative object.

7) Most glamorous place?

Still certain parts of Paris

8) Most glamorous job?

I can’t imagine a truly glamorous job.

[9 and 10 were omitted.]

11) Can glamour survive?

I sincerely hope so.

12) Is glamour something you're born with?

Maybe. It’s also possible to manufacture it, and if that’s well done, who cares?


BB_Cate_one-sheet 1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett?

Cate Blanchett

2) Paris or Venice?


3) New York or Los Angeles?

New York

4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace?

Princess Grace

5) Tokyo or Kyoto?


6) Boots or stilettos?

Neither; t-straps with small heels from the 20s

7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau?

Art Deco


8) Jaguar or Astin Martin?


9) Armani or Versace?

Armani–if I must

10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour?

Diana Vreeland

11) Champagne or single malt?


12) 1960s or 1980s?


13) Diamonds or pearls?


14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell?


15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?

Sean Connery

Eiffel Tower by Flickr user digitalicon under Creative Commons license.