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Curious Minds / Hot Docs / Toronto

As promised, a summary of notes & references from our Autumn 2023 “Paris Style” series at Curious Minds, which took place live in person at the fabulous Hot Docs Cinema on Bloor.


Famously, Parisians appreciate the finer things in life, from good food to elegant architecture and exquisitely tailored clothing. But our interest in this series about Paris Style is to discuss why. I am also interested in how Paris became such a style center—because, really, a chilly swampy spot on the Seine seems an unlikely choice to evolve into a global centre for fashion, design and aesthetics.


Over six lectures, we explored how Paris has set an international style standard, not just for how we dress, but for many other aspects of urban life today: from the look of our streets and our buildings, to how we eat and drink. We explored how the City of Light has defined what it means to be “cultured,” “sophisticated” and “chic,” giving the world a template for how a meaningful life is supposed to look.


Why is Paris Style still worthy of our interest? According to the census of 2019, Paris officially has just over 2 million inhabitants. Which makes it a very small city by today’s standards. Consider Tokyo, with its over 39 million people! Or Mexico City, with its 21.8 million. By these standards, Paris is barely a village. And yet, the City of Light has been punching above its weight on the international style scene for nearly four hundred years.


Why should we care? Mostly because we’re constantly being affected by style. So-called frivolous fashion influences what we wear, how we act, and the conditions in which we live. The working conditions of the style-sewers & builders, the so-called “petites mains”, are essential in our consideration of style. Today, labour, conditions, and appropriate pay, remain crucial issues around the world—and they’re constantly being encroached upon by our demand for inexpensive style.


A selected list of the most readable English-language books I consulted for this series:

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Honoré de Balzac, Treatise on Elegant Living (translated by Napoleon Jeffries)

Edmund White, Flâneur

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City

Josh O’Kane, Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy

Deyan Sudjic, The Language of Cities

Rebecca L. Spang, The Invention of The Restaurant

Stephane Kirkland, Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City

David Lebovitz, The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City

Luca Turin, Secret of Scent: Adventures In Perfume And The Science Of Smell


Here are a few of the video clips we watched (if the links fail, just type the subject into youtube & you'll get something that works)


Louis Vuitton show on the Pont Neuf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDsjAIrmSKM


Preservation of a Worth gown: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQBuIGFUgX4


Anita Briet, former Premiere d’atelier at Karl Lagerfeld, and textile artist Nicole Lefort https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHFanKFDFmc


A clip from Babette’s Feast https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILS0bZWiWvM


Footage from late 1800s Paris https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fo_eZuOTBNc


The Porcelain collection of Madame de Pompadour https://youtu.be/nEgRToXfkBs


We talked about a wide range of historical & contemporary Parisians, including many of my favourite personalities from the amazing & ongoing stylish history of the City of Light:

King Philip Augustus

Christine de Pisan (best-selling writer of the Middle Ages)

Duc de Berry (patron of the arts & brother of King Charles V)

Catherine de’ Medici (especially for her use of the fork & her commitment to astrology)

Louis XIV, for his intense sense of personal style, his wigs, and his dining habits

Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV (both of them maniacal porcelain collectors)

Fortunée Hamelin, a famous “Merveilleuse” fashionista friend of Josephine Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon III and Eugenie

Baron Haussmann

Park designer Jean-Charles Alphand, working with Hausmann

Model Marie Vernet & her husband designer Charles Worth

Celebrity spokesperson Princess Metternich (“I’m not pretty. I’m worse.”)

Louis Vuitton, apprentice trunk maker

Thierry Hermès, harness & leather worker

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and his painting “Le Déjeuner des canotiers” (seen above)

Inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont (who moored his private dirigible on the Champs)

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel

Théophile Bader & his cousin Alphonse Kahn, founders of Galeries Lafayette

Pierre Wertheimer & his grandsons, Alain & Gérard Wertheimer, who run Chanel today

Kiki de Montparnasse, Man Ray, & Léonard Tsuguharu Fujita (sometimes in French “Foujita”)

Perfumer Jacques Guerlain

Christian Dior

Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin (“Who wants an easy life? It’s boring.”)

Designer Philippe Starck

Chef Guy Martin & Le Grand Véfour

Christine Nagel, the perfume “nose” of Hermès

Eric Charles Donatien, the 'plumassier' - master feather craftsman

Emerging Parisian designers Ludovic de Saint Sernin, Christelle Kocher (who is also now head of the historic feather creators, the Maison Lemarié), and Stéphane Ashpool with his line Pigalle (designing for the French Olympic team.)

Karl Lagerfeld

Mayor Ann Hidalgo


Many of these people have Instagram accounts (yes, even some of the dead ones!) so if that's your thing, look them up! Many also have entire books devoted to their lives, so I recommend you hit your local library.


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