When Women Ruled Fashion

461829_1Joan DeJean at Lapham's Quarterly:

Today, to the extent to which the fashion industry is regulated, the process is managed principally by multinational luxury-goods conglomerates that control many of the most prestigious fashion houses, and to some extent by national professional organizations such as the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Fédération Française de la Couture. Prior to the French Revolution, the right to produce luxury garments was far more tightly controlled: each European country had a guild system; to make garments for the rich, it was necessary to be accepted into a prominent guild. In England men vied for admission to the Merchant Tailors Company; in France they sought positions as maîtres tailleurs, master tailors. These tailors worked for an elite and tiny clientele of nobles, who followed the fashions of the day. When Louis XIV appeared in a striking new outfit, for example, master tailors were sure to be asked to create a line-by-line copy.

In order to maintain the economic value of an appointment as master tailor, guild leaders controlled the number of positions. As part of this effort, for centuries, guilds in all countries fought off any attempt by women to win access to the highest ranks of fashion design. Officially, there were only tailors—and never seamstresses.

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