Fashion boasts a particular place of honor among the arts in France. Governed by the democratically elected Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, the industry produces among France’s most important exports and Paris’s reigning status as a global fashion capital is a particular point of pride. It’s closely elided with politics, too—since even before democracy took hold in France, the
look of the ruling class was tantamount (just think Marie Antoinette), and since the middle of the 19th century, French first ladies have been recognized for their sartorial savoir-faire. While Carla Bruni, the former model, singer, and wife of Nicolas Sarkozy, had ample fashion connections before she even married Sarkozy ( after he took office, quelle scandale) and is perhaps the most obvious example of politics’ connection to fashion, Élisabeth de Mac-Mahon, wife of Patrice de Mac-Mahon, displayed an interest in both fashion and the arts as far back as 1873. More recently, it’s become custom for first ladies like Claude Pompidou, Bernadette Chirac, Bruni, and, now, Brigitte Macron, wife of the recently elected Emmanuel Macron, to sit front-row at Paris’s most celebrated shows: Dior, Chanel, Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton. For in France, fashion is no frivolous concern—it’s as integral a part of the fabric of French cultural life as any art, literature, or film. Here, we look back at the relationships between France’s first ladies and the designers of the moment.
First lady from 1969 until her husband’s death in 1974, Claude Pompidou—née Cahour—was instrumental in founding the Centre Georges Pompidou, the contemporary art museum in her husband’s name. A noted patron of the arts and avid fashion lover, she was also frequently spotted in the front row of shows like Chanel (pictured here, Spring 1979, with Bernadette Chirac, wife of then-Paris major Jacques Chirac) and palling around with designer Karl Lagerfeld.
In addition to her public support of the arts and fashion, Pompidou also experimented with her own looks, favoring ensembles by the likes of avant-garde designer
Courrèges and Pierre Cardin and opting for then-scandalous pantsuits.
In addition to her devotion to fashion, Pompidou was also an art aficionado. She redecorated the Élysée Palace with contemporary, of-the-moment pieces; she and her husband regularly visited local galleries; and, a fan of the artist Yves Klein, she was also instrumental in negotiating the look of the Centre Georges Pompidou, which opened after her husband’s death.
Pompidou and Chirac, who would eventually become first lady herself, were frequently spotted at Chanel shows together—as here, at Fall 1985—up until Pompidou’s death in 2007.
Anne-Aymone Giscard D’Estaing
Following Pompidou, Anne-Aymone Giscard D’Estaing, wife of president Valéry Giscard D’Estaing (1974-1981) picked up the mantle of fashion’s first lady. Though never as much of an insider as her predecessor—and far less the art fan, as she and her husband dismantled much of the Élysée Palace’s contemporary décor—she nevertheless frequented Givenchy shows. Here, she’s pictured with the designer Hubert de Givenchy himself, September 1997.
Anne-Aymone Giscard D’Estaing
Though designer Jean-Louis Scherrer’s label has since closed up shop, it was a favorite of French politicians throughout the late 20th century; here, Giscard D’Estaing poses with the designer and his daughter, November 2005.
President from 1981 to 1995, François Mitterrand was the longest-serving president in French history. His wife, Danielle Mitterrand, focused primarily on human rights issues, pushing the role of first lady beyond its traditionally domestic bounds—yet she was no less chic for it, befriending designers like
Yves Saint Laurent, pictured here in 1992.
Each first lady seems to have favored a particular French fashion legend—and for Mitterrand, that legend was Yves Saint Laurent. Here, she sits front-row at the label’s Spring 1986 couture show.
And while for Mitterrand, fashion week was less of a pressing concern than for predecessors like Claude Pompidou, she still frequently attended the most exclusive shows. Here, she embraces Pierre Bergé, business and romantic partner of Yves Saint Laurent, before the label’s Fall 1992 show.
After cutting her teeth in the front row as the first lady of Paris (her husband Jacques was the mayor for nearly 20 years, from 1977 to 1995), Bernadette Chirac ascended to first lady of France when Jacques was elected president in 1995. He was succeeded by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. From Dior to Chanel to Yves Saint Laurent, Chirac took in everything, with friend Claude Pompidou by her side. Here, Chirac is pictured with designer Yves Saint Laurent at the designer’s Musée des Arts de la Mode restrospective in Paris, May 1986.
As recently as Spring 2013, Chirac has been spotted in the front row, still posing with designer Karl Lagerfeld as if it’s 1985 all over again.
Cécilia Sarkozy married French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 1996; they divorced, causing quite the scandal in France, in 2007. (Sarkozy remarried, to the supermodel and singer
Carla Bruni, the following year.) But despite her short reign as France’s first lady, Sarkozy nevertheless found a place in fashion; here, she’s front row with the late designer Sonia Rykiel at the Yves Saint Laurent Fall 1993 show.
After divorcing Cécilia, Nicolas Sarkozy remarried, wedding
Carla Bruni, the French-Italian supermodel and singer who had walked many of the same runways at which she’d later sit front row. Here, she walks Chanel Spring 1989 during Paris Fashion Week, October 1988. (She didn’t marry Sarkozy until 2008.)
Bruni’s eye for fashion was among the most remarked of recent first ladies; arriving in London for a state dinner, she wore a Dior ensemble complete with a pillbox hat that, at the time, many noted for looking like a contemporary update on the Jackie Kennedy image of a first lady.
And, of course, the selfies—here, with Karlie Kloss, September 2016.
Though she never married president François Hollande, who presided over France from 2012 to 2017, Valérie Trierweiler nevertheless took up the front-row place of honor occupied by most first ladies. Here, she appears with designer
Raf Simons, then of Dior, at the Dior Spring 2014 show.
Incoming first lady Brigitte Trogneux, wife of president-elect Emmanuel Macron, already has the requisite front-row credibility befitting a first lady. Here, she sits front-row at Dior’s Fall 2015 couture show.
Trogneux is nearly 30 years Macron’s elder; as has been amply reported, she was a teacher at his high school and advised him on a play when he was a young drama student. They married in 2007; she’s still a teacher, albeit one who also lands coveted spots at fashion week—here, alongside actress Léa Seydoux at the Louis Vuitton Fall 2016 show.