Le Bon Marché: The Other French Revolution

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Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Hermès… These names remind us that fashion and Paris are synonymous, with styles and trends changing as quickly as the temperamental Parisian weather.  Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the grands magasins to shop designer labels; given their grandeur, these stores seem to have been a fixture in the fabric of French fashion history since the whimsical styles of Marie-Antoinette’s court. However, the concept of shopping at a department store is actually a more recent – and revolutionary – development, a facet docent Virgina Vogwill, who has spent over a decade working as a costumer in the French film industry, explores on our new walk covering the history of fashion in Paris.

Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, the business of fashion was dominated by designers such as Rose Bertin, Charles Worth and Jacques Doucet, who held court in their ateliers on rue de la Paix and rue Saint-Honoré. Their expensive and made-to-order styles attracted royalty and aristocracy from all over the world, establishing Paris as a true fashion capital. So when did this change?

The transformation began in 1838, when a businessman named Aristide Boucicaut opened a haberdasher’s shop on the Left Bank. Through a series of shrewd business moves,in 1852 his small shop eventually expanded into one of the first department stores, Le Bon Marché. Inspired by English emporiums and, later by the World’s Fair in 1862 and 1867, Le Bon Marché was modeled after an exhibition hall, with Boucicaut and other shop owners embracing revolutionary concepts like fixed pricing, advertising, and browsing for goods before purchasing. Fashion suddenly became accessible to a much wider audience and was no longer reserved for the upper classes.

Le Bon Marché was soon followed by La Samartaine, Galeries Lafayette, and Printemps; together, they became hallmarks of the late 19th century in Paris, a time of expansion marked by Baron von Haussman’s revitalization of the city.  Virginia notes, “These department stores represented massive real estate and business investments and their construction was in phase with the transformation of Paris.” The sprawling expansion of the department store was even chronicled in Emile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des Dames, whose main character, Octave Mouret, was said to be based off of Boucicaut.

Many smaller shops were squeezed out of business, and, Virginia notes, “only the best survived to become the haute couture industry, mostly because they supplied the courts of Europe.” The everyday shopper was left transfixed by the mass-produced, affordable, ready-to-wear styles that could be easily purchased on a whim at the department stores. As the separation between haute couture and ready-to-wear grew, the grands magasins established themselves firmly in history, forever changing the way shopping and fashion was perceived and making Paris the destination for shoppers around the world.


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