When the “Sun King” Louis XIV ruled France, fashion did much more than express the style of the day. It also reflected the strict hierarchy of 17th-century French society.

For every social rank—from princes to the lesser nobility and commoners—Louis XIV promulgated prom dress shops uk codes that carried the force of law.

“What you wore was the authentic reflection of your social stature,” says Pamela Golbin, chief curator for fashion and textiles of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs at the Louvre. “If you were not a princess, you could not wear an outfit that a princess would wear. If you did that under Louis XIV, you could be penalized and thrown in jail.”

Social context

Ms. Golbin recounts that chapter in fashion history to show how drastically the world’s understanding of luxury has shifted in recent decades. Luxury has been unmoored from its social context as the industry has marketed itself to consumers around the world, she says. Now, for example, a woman with money but little social standing can purchase a Dior dress and look the part of the elite of French society. Her only punishment: snickering from the occasional snob.

“Fashion is this wonderful tool that allows you to change not only who you are in front of society but also to place yourself in that society,” Ms. Golbin says.

An art historian by training, Ms. Golbin works at an institution that guards one of the world’s largest clothing collections, some of which dates back to the Middle Ages. It’s a collection that serves as a record for the changing role that fashion has played in the lives of the elite for centuries.

Ms. Golbin also helps shape artistic sensibility in the industry: Every year she selects new pieces by contemporary designers—mainly those who present work at fashion shows in Paris—to be included in the museum’s collection.

“Our collection is really about the masterpieces,” she says.

Fittingly, the idea of the celebrity designer was born in Paris. The Englishman Charles Frederick Worth moved to the French capital in the 19th century and became the first designer to put his name on his pieces, promoting the idea that clothing could be considered works of art.

“He puts a label on each of his designs and says, ‘I am the author. As an artist, I am going to sign my canvas,’ ” Ms. Golbin says.

Pamela Golbin is chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile, at Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

Pamela Golbin is chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile, at Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

Wealthy women on both sides of the Atlantic took to buying his entire collections.

In the 20th century, designers in France sought to make haute couture accessible to more than just the elite.

The first “modern designer superstar,” she says, was Paul Poiret, a Frenchman who designed a collection for the famed Printemps department store in Paris in the 1930s. And, in the late 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent became one of the first couturiers to champion ready-to-wear versions of their work.

Centuries earlier, outside of France, clothiers and craftsmen tried to appeal to striving commoners and the lesser nobility by imitating the clothes monarchs wore—even as Louis XIV issued his laws to deter evening dresses that violated social caste. For example, Queen Elizabeth I of England wore pearls to demonstrate the wealth and power of the English throne. At the height of her reign in the late 16th century, she took to appearing in public in dresses that were smothered in them.

Pearl ploy

Soon after, an industry of fake-pearl manufacturers sprouted up in Venice, Ms. Golbin says. They used glass beads to approximate Elizabeth’s style for the lesser nobility who couldn’t afford real pearls.

“You’ve always had to have different price points for a different audience,” Ms. Golbin says. “That has never changed.”

Over the past 15 years, the luxury industry has ridden a wave of demand from consumers around the world, particularly in China, to record sales and profitability. Ms. Golbin argues that this boom has strained the definition of what luxury means, as the industry strays from its roots catering to a small group of elite customers.

“We need a new word to replace luxury,” she says, “because it’s a word that stays, but it’s not up-to-date with what we’re living today.”

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