Paris Fashion: A Cultural History

Exclusive interview with author Valerie Steele discussing her updated guide to French fashion
By Gabrielle Pantera

“While traveling to Paris, I realized that there was no real cultural history of Paris fashion, only books that enumerated the various designers there,” says Paris Fashion: A Cultural History author Valerie Steele. “There is a reason why Paris fashion, and Paris itself, have become mythical, larger-than-life phenomena. There is so much beauty and history and excitement.”

This is the third edition of Paris Fashion. First published in 1988, it’s been completely revised to include fashion and designers from the 21st century. With beautiful illustrations and images, the book starts with the 14th century and moves to present day. It shows how fashion played a part in history and politics. Anyone who loves Paris or fashion will love this book.

For over 300 years Paris has been the capital of fashion. The Parisians tend to lead fashion. When Napoleon came into power, the Empire dress become all the rage. Despite the war with England, the style moved from Paris to London. Mostly the English ladies were not as daring as the French women who dampened their dresses to make them transparent. There were a few exceptions though. Some aristocratic British women like Lady Caroline Lamb were considered risqué.

Steele did extensive research and visited Paris dozens of times. She loves to travel. “It’s always great to travel to another city to promote the book,” says Steele.

“First you read books and then you start tracking down references in footnotes, or going through bibliographies or library data bases looking for intriguing titles,” says Steele. “I did years of research, reading everything from novels and letters to fashion magazines and biographies, looking at fashion prints and photographs, going to fashion shows, talking with designers. My favorite period in French fashion history would be now, although I also love the Belle Epoque.”

Steele has written 25 books, including Fashion A-Z: The Collection of The Museum at FIT (Taschen). Her book The Corset won a prize. Paris Fashion has yet to be optioned for film or TV.

Steele wrote Shoe Obsession, released in 2013, a wonderfully illustrated homage to an obsession for extreme and high fashion shoes. Japan Fashion, 2010, covers the 1980s Japanese fashion revolution with avant-garde designers Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons.

“Kathryn Earle is my editor, and a great friend,” says Steele. “She is incredibly enthusiastic, smart, and funny. As an editor, she’s also brilliant and supportive.”

“Val and I met at a fashion conference,” says editor Kathryn Earle. “We got on like a house afire and ended up launching a journal together called Fashion Theory. That had a transformative impact on how people thought about fashion. My first impression of her is no different from how I would describe her today…formidably intelligent, independent-minded, and with a wicked sense of humor.”

Earle had published an earlier edition, but so much has happened in the interim, and the subject is so visual that the publisher wanted to update the text significantly, and increase the extent and quality of the illustrations program to produce an absolutely gorgeous book.

“The enhanced production provides an appropriate showcase for the content, which is simply unparalleled,” says Earle. “Roxanne Lowit’s cover image, Galliano for Dior, 2000, sparked internal debate. Some thought it was macabre and wanted a more conventional image. But Val and I think it is simply perfect, ripe with historical references, thought-provoking and visually arresting. It’s hard to imagine a better image to sum up the history of French fashion.”

Steele is currently working on Think Pink, a book and exhibition on the color pink, on 300 years of pink in fashion, art, and culture. Born in Boston, Steele is based in New York City. She’s presenting a lecture and book signing at The Museum of FIT in New York City on October 17th, 2017. For more details visit


Paris Fashion: A Cultural History 3rd Edition by Valerie Steele. Hardcover, 344 pages. Publisher: Bloomsbury USA. September 19th, 2017. Language: English, ISBN: 9781635570892 $40