We Americans scratch our neatly coiffed heads and re-knot our brand new Hermes scarves and wonder why it is that we cannot achieve the effortless elegance that French women seem to have claimed as part of their national identity. Why can’t we pull off the je ne sais quoi of Ines de la Fressange in her bright fuchsia silk blouse, stovepipe jeans, and neat black ballet slippers? Or the sultry pout and sloppy chignon of Brigitte Bardot? Where is the rule written that says you can smoke tiny little cigarettes at the dinner table and still look like the epitome of chic, Catherine Deneuve? And how on earth does every Parisienne go to the market on Sunday morning, wait in line for a fresh baguette, and then drag one of those canvas trolleys home behind her in vertiginous heels, a skinny pencil skirt and a slash of red lipstick like it’s just another day of domestic bliss?
As an American Francophile I’ve spent years—possibly a lifetime—trying to emulate the unstudied style of my French girlfriends. I’ve even swallowed my pride and asked them how they do it, the answers flung back at me as humiliating directives. “Never buy new handbags!” They command. “Only vintage in the flea market!” Their style prescription could not be more precise—or unchanged after all these years. They wear oversized men’s cashmere V-necks and buttoned down shirts, the cuffs rolled up just so. They buy white t-shirts in the children’s department, the tighter the better. On the subject of makeup? “Only old ladies wear foundation,” they cluck as they apply a neat layer of lipstick. If I ever show up in something with a logo on it, or—heaven forbid—the wrong shade of orange, they shake their heads in disbelief and whisper under their breath: “À chacun son goût.” To each his own.
When my memoir, My Paris Dream: An Education in Style, Slang, and Seduction in the Great City on The Seine, was published last spring, I traveled back to the City of Light to host a book signing at Colette, a trendy Right Bank emporium. It was mid-July and the store was mobbed with hip-looking Parisian kids buying up funky iPhone cases and camouflage tee shirts. I stood next to a pile of signed books, making small talk with a few fashionable tourists who had wandered by the store. My friends, Domitille and Cristel showed up, dressed in their usual uniform of oversized buttoned down shirts, crisply pressed Levi’s, each with a battered Hermes Birkin bag slung over one arm. I had gone to the hairdresser that morning to have a blowout and had applied my makeup carefully, layering on perhaps a bit too much blush. At one point a photographer asked to take a picture of the three of us and I leaned in to Domitille to strike the pose.
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“But your hair!” she said, laughing. I didn’t understand. She laughed again and apologized, and then I understood.
“You mean, my brushing?” I asked, using the French term for blowout. I caught our image in a nearby mirror—my stick straight bob frozen in Elnet, her disheveled bangs softly framing her face.
“Oui!” she said, nodding. Of course, my “perfect” hair was out of fashion, and decidedly out of sync with her perfectly imperfect coiffure—the studied, slightly mussed style every Parisienne wears. And yet it takes just as long to achieve that effortless look as it does to get to the hairdresser. Nothing about French style is casual. American style might be about comfort and ease, but French style is all about discipline and adhering to hard and fast codes like never wearing white on a rainy day, or never taking off your shoes on the grass.
After living in Paris for five years in the late 1980s and traveling back there several times a year ever since, I know the codes and so I shouldn’t be fooled by the “unstudied” elegance of the French. I’ve witnessed first hand in friends like Domitille and Cristel and in iconic images of Deneuve and Bardot just how French women have elevated nonchalant style to an art form. And yet, I’m still that naïve American who never quite believes the amount of discipline it takes to perfect that imperfect look.
Image credits: jesych/Twenty20.com