Fashion’s New Bourgeoisie

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Fashion has always been reflective of social discourse, and this season was no different in Paris. While thousands of yellow vested-marchers have gathered on the streets since last November to protest France’s economic injustice, this season’s fashion runways saw a resurgence of bourgeoisie decadence. A sharp shift from the popular sportif athleisure trend and the extreme glamour of late, this return to the pragmatic, polished, and exacting look speaks not only to the cyclical nature of fashion but also the greater social movement. The Gilet Jaunes’ routine Saturday disruption is waning in sympathy from the bourgeoisie set they so vehemently oppose. And in retaliation, fashion provides its own form of protest.

But of course, the bourgeoisie has its own complicated history in France. Dating back to the 11th century, the term derives from “those who live in the borough,” which developed in contrast to the more proletariat, or rather the peasants outside the city walls. The class grew from merchants, guild members, and elite non-nobles (professionals, financiers, and officials) poised somewhere between the masses and nobility that were generally in favor of the status quo. Over time it became known as the well-to-do Third Estate, who opposed the monarchy and helped fuel the peasant revolt during the French Revolution. Later, the bourgeoisie became synonymous with ruling upper class in a capitalist society, which was mostly aptly represented in the 1972 film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by Luis Buñuel.

Though the French still debate exactly what defines the modern bourgeoisie, they mainly agree on a few tenets. As to the 1995 book Ni Vue, Ni Connue (“No view, Nor known”) by expert on the subject Beatrix Le Wita points out, several complex subsets are defined within this social group; petit, moyen, or haute? Catholic or industrial? In the text, Le Wita explores manners of conducting oneself that relate to a general politeness to the way they speak and even eat. The author even refers to a certain code of appearances that speak to why the fashion and style of dress matter so much. Often the bourgeoisie has been criticized for appearing to believe they are aristocrats and exploiting lesser economic classes. Breaking down this attitude and dress in a more tongue in chic manner, Thierry Mantoux’s BCBG: Le guide du bon chic bon genre is essentially France’s version of The Official Preppy Handbook. The title which translates to “good style, good attitude” proposes lifestyle choices much like its American counterpart, such as where to go to school or vacation, and how to at least appear to belong to this elite social status. Furthermore, the tome, which was written in 1985, outlines tastes preferences in dress such as natural fibers like cotton, wool and silk; classics such as an Hermès scarf and loafers and in conversation such as never talking about one’s origins.

However playful Mantoux’s book was, large portions of France still live and die by these codes, which are the anti-thesis of the Gilet Jaunes’ lifestyle. The group’s outrage was first spurred when Emmanuel Macron—more bougie than proletariat—proposed a gas tax for the country that could make or break an individual’s financial situation in rural areas that are dependent on car travel, demonstrating just how out blind the bourgeoisie are to the hardships of the lower classes. While sympathetic at first, part of the public grew weary of the violence and destruction that the soon-weekly protests caused over the winter months. Fashion retail, along with banking and hospitality industries, especially took a hit as businesses had their windows smashed, boarded up, and closed, losing holiday sales. Prestige brands such as Chanel, Valentino, Saint Laurent, and Tod’s as well a chain retailers Zara and H&M were among those impacted.

Like the general public, Parisian designers were not immune to the political events that beset their country. And while looking at the most recent Fall/Winter 2019 collections, a sense of French “preppiness” from the past can be re-seen. It’s a look of practicality yet also one that exudes a certain amount of stoicism required to endure the mini-revolutions happening at least once a week.

Hedi Slimane made a big statement for the look at Celine. His pleated wool skirts, knicker pants, and tall boots were matched with pussy-bow blouses and fitted blazers, while classic sweaters were given a shiny finish as models marched the runway with hands in pockets, a popular 1970s magazine spread pose. But other runways echoed the mood, too. Case in point: Givenchy’s belted tweed and wool plaids as pantsuits and overcoats; Miu Miu’s cape parade with touch of survivalist camouflage for an au courant touch; Chloé’s eschewed its romantic nature in favor of classic camels, smart denim and sweater dressing and Y/Project showed outerwear and shirt dressing with somewhat twisted view of the look. Even Demna Gvasalia took his generally streetwise Balenciaga collection in a proper direction. In Slimane’s case it’s hard to say whether he was luring back customers to the brand after an alienating debut, going for shock value or making this political statement. The designer is a pro at getting people to chat, after all.

Inès de la Fressange, whose style and brand depicts quintessential Parisian chic–think classic flared pants, crisp blouses and a nice tailored jacket—isn’t so sure the style is something one should aspire to. As she tells CR: “Bourgeoise is a very pejorative word in France actually! It means not open to new ideas; conventional and against mixing of class or worse, reactionary.” De la Fressange notes that today’s bourgeoisie may mimic the look of the past but that the attitude is totally different.

“Just like in the ‘70s, young people would buy ‘40s clothes in the flea markets,” she says. “They want to wear vintage silhouettes to prove they are not square but open-minded people.” Parisian tastemakers of the 1970s and ‘80s Paris included Stéphane Audran, Catherine Deneuve, and the German-born Romy Schneider, among the Bougie-set. Icons such as Jane Birkin, Françoise Hardy, and Françoise Dorléac “could wear symbols of bourgeoisie but [still] gave them a rock vibe.”

However today’s version of the bourgeoisie chooses to wear these iterations of classic style come the cooler temperatures of fall, one thing that surely won’t be trending is a yellow vest. Leave that for the masses—theirs will be a tonier protest look.

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