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From the Archives: French Supremacy
Storytelling through women's magazines of years past
Whenever I’ve spoken in public about the myth of the Parisienne since The New Parisienne was released, my favorite moment has been seeing a flicker of astonishment in the eyes of those listening when they realize how far back its creation goes. A light bulb goes off and the mental wheels start turning wildly.
In the book I speak about Jean-Jacques Rousseau kicking things off hard in the 18th century and the extent to which his writings heavily influenced the depiction of Parisian women both in other literary works and in painting. But the aspect I dive into a bit more heavily in my guest lectures is the role of women’s magazines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in perpetuating the myth, giving new weight to France’s reputation as the leader in luxury, fashion, beauty, and skincare. The country’s preeminence in all matters of style was framed through the “French” women (they really mean, Parisian) who were meant to serve as living proof that they really did do it all better.
By the World’s Fair of 1900, Parisian women were considered the most beautiful in the world. Not only were they beautiful, they were armed with an innate understanding of style and refinement. But this sort of messaging was communicated to a foreign audience even before that. Vogue Magazine launched in 1892 as a journal for New York’s high society and while it didn’t initially cover fashion, it covered etiquette and lifestyle. Who could its editors draw from to inspire the moneyed New York City socialite? Parisians. Significant editorial space was devoted to documenting life and trends in the style capital, from smoking in public to wearing hats and renewed interest in frou-frou dresses— to name but a few themes that were actually covered in the early years of the magazine.
When Condé Nast acquired Vogue in 1909, fashion stories followed as did the magazine world’s first do it like a “French girl” how-to tales. Vogue is the most well-known example of spotlighting the supremacy of the Parisienne but there were countless others. Similarly, American personal care brands surfed on the reputation of French-made products, which were generally considered of the highest quality, to promote its own.
Case in point: Lux Toilet Soap, a Unilever brand introduced in America around the time this Modern Priscilla magazine issue was published. My pal Daniela Cadena sent me photos of this relic, which she thrifted in upstate New York. Can’t get the real thing, FRENCH soap? Here, try this American copy that will attempt to confer some of the elegance and smoothing properties of the original, in one single ten cent bar.
Companies are still doing this today, leveraging the perceived value of French-made brands, even if they are only French (or vaguely French) in name: Ouai haircare, Glossier, Etre Cécile, Journelle, Tôteme, and countless others.
Fake it till you make it, I suppose!
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