Luxury Shopping in 18th century Paris

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Paris as a capital in the 18th century has particular associations of luxury – as Jean-Baptiste Colbert (Louis XIV’s minister in 1665) writes: “Fashion is to France what the gold mines of Peru are to Spain” and, true to form, its ‘Ancien Regime’ brought about the flourishing of European style. Not only a taste for its French silks, tapestry, porcelain, mirrors, clocks and cabinetwork which prompted Voltaire in 1735 to sigh “we are the whipped cream of Europe”, but also a wider, exotic market: Asian goods – cottons, especially muslins and printed calicoes, silk, porcelain, ornamental brass and ironware, lacquer and paper goods – became prized luxuries.

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A reading of Molière, Jean François de Troy, about 1728

These were to accompany Enlightened tastes for domestic dining, tea-drinking, collecting and complementary leisure in coffee houses, shops, pleasure gardens, assemblies and theatres. In this way, luxury shopping in 18th century Paris ushers in modern comfort and convenience, enjoyment and sociability, taste, aesthetics and refinement; savoured in elegantly decorated stores.

The uniqueness of Paris was heavily influenced by its court who were catered to by craftsmen and shopkeepers well-versed in the rule of distinction attributed to their clientele. From this was borne the notion of quality, one which promoted invention, skill of craft and novelty to entice the cities affluent patrons. The luxury industries thrived with various accolades praising the reputation of goods made in Paris, a preference owed to elegantly turned out wares. 

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La Marchande de Mode’ René Gaillard (maker) after François Boucher (artist) 1755.

This print shows a Marchande de Modes displaying her box of trimmings to her wealthy client. These retailers sold embellishments for clothing, in particular fine lace, ribbons and silks. Small trinkets and accessories like snuffboxes and fans fed into their repertoire. Marchands de Modes constituted the high end of the luxury retail market: Attractively appointed shops such as ‘Le Petit Dunkerque’ (1767)  along with the art dealers on the rue Saint-Honoré were frequented by the fashionable elite.

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View of Paris from the Pont Neuf (1763)

The Parisian market itself diversifies in the pursuit of distinction and individuality according to popular tastes, marked by its appetites for new and affordable luxuries. This in particular is where we see semi-luxury goods flood the world of consumerism: strass (to manufacture artificial stones), plated wares, earthenwares and mixed silks are described as ‘populuxe’ by Cissie Fairchilds.

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An attractive and qualitative vocabulary was used by shopkeepers to richen the appeal of their wares, the trade almanac became a means to facilitate these descriptive elements and, through the smallness of its format, in its calendrical composition and notable variety, was  a highly fashionable form of publication at the time. Merchants of the mechanical arts and manufactures of the capital were provided, detailing quantitive and qualitative classifications. Advertisements within these almanacs stressed the novelty of the product, its high quality, beauty, tastefulness, variety and comparative cheapness, the honesty of the shopkeeper and the opportunities for mail order.

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Illustrated advertisements adopted visual play on the name of the shop, on the refinement of ornament and on the choice typeface. For example, celebrated jeweller, Granchez, had his bill heads made up with decoration which incorporated a refined and theatrical image illustrating the name of his shop (le petit Dunkerque) and the luxury objects to be found within. The same image was used on his trade card: a putto unveils the view of fortified town, Dunkirk, bridged to the capital, with nautical notes of sailing ships. The foreground is used to display the treasures of the shop: tooled boxes, snuffboxes, necklaces and jewellery – consolidating the shopkeeper’s reputation.

Granchez, owner of the Extensive and beautiful Shop of French and English goods, à la Perle d’Orien at Dunkerque and at Paris, Quay de Conti, au Petit Dunkerque, stocks all the novelties that art produces in jewellery and metalware, and sells without overcharging both wholesale and retail’

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Reputable shops earned their prestige from courtly patronage: absolutist power impelled court society to curry favour and boast rank through consumption; the wealthy’s hôtels particulier of St Germain and St Honoré required lavish food, dress, architecture and interior decoration which merchants supplied, knowingly exploiting the rule of distinction. For example, they made claims to quality, that of the shopkeeper, their clientele, the shop and its products by reputation. The shopkeeper’s themselves created an aristocracy of sorts based on being ‘well known’, ‘renowned’, ‘famous’ or ‘successful’ by trade – one might even be ‘privileged by the King’ or an ‘expert’ in their field thus bestowing a sense of rank and standing. Clearly, this was to appeal to rich connoisseurs who pursued and cultivated the arts.

A collector might, for example, have sufficient funds and leisure to indulge in life’s pleasures, follow the fashions, be curious about inventions and particular when it came to quality, skill and selecting art. Shopping was indeed a form of seduction and flattery, ushering the consumer in as ‘the man of taste’ whose critical eye was solicited by the eager-to-supply shopkeeper…

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Shops would pander to taste, novelty and curiosity: wallpaper merchant Crépy promised that ‘one would always find in his shops those ready to satisfy the curious’; the florist Grou ‘all that is beautiful and rare’; Compigné ‘tortoise-shell boxes, made in a new taste and with much art’; haberdasher, Besson ‘things made in the newest and most distinguished tastes’ and Miss Blakey, ‘all those things of taste that may interest Seigneurs on account of their novelty and perfection’.

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The location and decoration of shops became part of an elaborate show, employing a whole economy of persuasion, promising to guarantee the customer a luxury experience beyond the goods sold. This included window-dressing, displays, exhibitions, promotional sales and sale announcements, creating an attractive aesthetic and front both complimented the objects and established the owner’s expertise and reputation. Shops took on the appearance of private collections, reception rooms, a cabinet of curiosities and even museums.

Thiéry’s description in the Guide des amateurs et des étrangers voyageurs à Paris (1787), for example, of Syke’s English shop at the Palais Royal mentions a tempting assortment of ‘collections’, ‘english prints’ and ‘a very varied and well-assorted display of all manner of the rarest and most curious things…’. The baronne d’Oberkirch records how Rose Bertin welcomed her clients into a ‘salon’ decorated with ‘all the crowned heads who honoured her with their protection’ and smartly outfitted on all sides in ‘damasks, dauphines, brocaded satins, brocades and lace.’

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Critical to the experience was the explanation, demonstration and tactile encouragement of the merchandise. This behaviour was to improve and embellish the city, fitting interiors with mirrors, mahogany and gilded wood; all the better to reflect precious jewels and tempting trinkets.

Read about Pauline Bonaparte’s risqué sculpture  here…
Find out about how Augustus II decorated his porcelain palace here…
Fancy a change of scenery? Discover the meaning behind Botticelli’s Primavera here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!


Sources Used: 

Clare Haru Crowston, The Queen and her ‘Minister of Fashion’: Gender, Credit and Politics in Pre–Revolutionary France in Gender & History, Volume 14, Issue 1, April 2002, Pages 92–116. (available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com)

Amanda Vickery, ’18th-century Paris: the capital of luxury’, The Guardian, Art and Design, July 29th, 2011. (available at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jul/29/paris-life-luxury-getty-museum)

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