From the Archives: French Style, or Not
Pictured above: La soirée au bord de la Seine, Pont Alexandre III - June 2014
Formerly, I blogged under the title Je Vis Je Meurs. Although it was fun, I'll no longer be updating that space - mostly because it turns out, um, weird, I write an anglophone blog and maybe should choose a name that doesn't require a pronunciation guide? Still, there were a lot of posts I didn't hate, and I'm posting them here to keep them preserved for accessibility.
Let's get one thing out of the way: don't buy an iPad for blogging unless you like browser crashes. So that's where I've been. Oh, I guess also having fun in Paris, and stuff ;)
In the past few weeks I've been doing a lot of careful observation of Parisian girls and their clothes. American girls, I think, have this really long and interesting history of fascination with our French counterparts, and particularly when it comes to fashion. There's a deeply rooted, century old trope of the stylish Parisian - oh sure, it waxes and wanes, and what exactly we like about her changes with the current "look" in vogue, but there is always this suggestion of an effortless yet impossible elegance, a certain "je ne sais quoi" that I think American culture finds fascinating. It starts young with little Eiffel Tower prints in our pink bedrooms. It continues through our teenage years with reblogged images of Jane Birkin and pouty French girls on our tumblrs. And it lands us in adulthood with books like Bringing Up Bébé flying off the shelves, a constant attempt to somehow harness this mysterious ease.
Search "French girl style" on the internet and you'll find a myriad of books and blog posts describing just how you, too, can achieve the nonchalant, devil-may-care elegance that every single Parisian girl supposedly has. There were times when I totally got sucked in - I mean, I'm like The Queen Mother of Starry Eyed Francophilia, let's be honest - but mostly, I've been ready to call bullshit. And so since I've been in Paris, I've been paying very close attention - how much truth is there to the myth of the Stylish French Girl, and what exactly is it about her that's so appealing to the American gaze?
To be clear: my intention here is not to prove that the French aren't as great as we think we are, that "Americans are just as great!" or any bullshit like that. Make no mistake - Paris is an absolutely killer city for fashion, and a great majority of the people here are unbelievably fucking chic. What I want to know, though, is if it warrants this insane cultural worship in which Americans paint French girls as mythical unicorns of style, and why that might be in the first place. It's not French style that I'm calling bullshit on - it's the American fetishization and reductionism.
I had - I still have - very mixed feelings about the glorification of "French style." On one hand, in many European countries there is definitely a distinct cultural value placed on looking presentable that simply doesn't exist in the US. No one's suggesting you wear a suit and tie or dress every day, but it's considered a mark of politeness and respect for others to at least trade the sweatpants for jeans before you leave the house. Further, France definitely has a very long and distinct history of garment design and construction, and I don't intend to minimize that. Certainly, many people dress well, and certainly there are things I think many Americans could really learn, but I think that basically ends at, "Stop leaving the house in sweatpants."
On the other hand, to suggest that there's some uniform "French style" is simplistic at best and, at worst, smells a little classist and narrow. Saying that every French girl is wearing a scarf and a blazer at all times is a bit like walking into an Upper East Side restaurant, seeing a girl in a Lilly Pulitzer dress, and declaring that you've found the key to "American" style. You can see how much that eliminates right off the bat - the contributions of, you know, the other 95% of the population. It's really weird to me that we can so easily narrow a country that's really incredibly cosmopolitan and diverse - if you wouldn't do it to New York, why would you do it to Paris?
One of the things about this American glorification of French style is that it created this set of myths about how French women supposedly dress that I think we all know are kind of ridiculous but are somehow constantly repeated as fact. Like, "French women don't wear sneakers." In fact I'm pretty sure 99.5% of French girls aged 18 -24 are currently wearing those Nike high tops with the velcro, you know the ones. Or, "If you wear jeans you'll look like a tourist!" Which, what? Because right now, outside my window, I can't actually find one person who isn't wearing denim. It's like, where is this stuff even coming from? Why are we spreading it around like it's undeniable fact?
So, okay, before we jump into the philosophical navel gazing, let's discuss what the landscape actually looks like, shall we? My sample is pretty diverse, but leans heavily towards people in their mid-twenties, perhaps slightly more Williamsburg than Bushwick, but definitely not Park Slope - do you see what I'm getting at here? Trendy but not really starving artist but definitely not Yuppie, although certainly representatives from all three.
Okay, here it is: there are a few things that stand out as particularly different, but for the most part, I think there's no real separation from major American cities like New York or LA. I can definitely tell you there's a huge separation from how people dress in Buffalo (sorry guys, I love you but you know it's true) but honestly, with the exception of dudes wearing scarves, it's all pretty much the same. You've got your young Bugaboo pushing mommies in blazers and ballet flats, and you've got your girls in boyfriend jeans sneakers, and your summer dresses and your cutoff shorts, etc, etc, etc. The gang's all here.
It's kind of weird, actually. I was in a bar a few weeks ago with an American friend - we were speaking English and the DJ was loud enough that you couldn't really hear anyone else. I was looking around at people's outfits, admiring this girl's denim jacket and wishing I'd had room to pack mine. The music stopped and I had this weird moment of shock that the people around me were speaking French - in my reverie, I'd actually completely forgotten I wasn't in Brooklyn.
There are a few distinctions - hardly universal, but noticeable nonetheless - and here they are, for women in my age range and general demographic. Obviously, these don't apply to every woman or even most women. However! Your look is generally less "finished," that is to say, hair can be a little unbrushed and natural texture is generally embraced. Makeup definitely tends to be a little more natural and simplistic - "No Makeup Makeup" or just literally no make up. Think more Alexa Chung and less "southern sorority cliché." Dressing up is not equated with dressing well, i.e no need to change out of the jeans and tee-shirt you wore today for the party tonight, as long as they're stylish (and clean). I would say outfits tend to be slightly less "matching" and more "complementary". Like I said, there is no mythic "French style" - really anything goes.
What you don't see is athletic wear worn casually (no Lululemon yoga pants or leggings for shopping, generally not athletic sneakers unless they're Nike Free's), or really casual clothing worn in public (oversized hoodies, pajama pants, sweats, you get the idea). The idea is that jeans and a sweater are totally just as comfortable. You also see a little less fast fashion "trend salad" - i.e navajo print or neon but not both.
Sidebar: If your concern is "not looking like a tourist" - totally fair, especially for safety reasons - I'd say 1) Tourists generally look like tourists no matter where they're from, just by privilege of who they travel with and overall demeanor, it is not the end of the world to look like one, relax; 2) If you're concerned about this, you are probably not the person wearing pajama pants to dinner in the first place, so what you wear normally is most likely fine; 3) Wake up in the morning and do your best to dress like you respect the culture of the city you're in and you will blend in perfectly well, I promise.
So what is it, exactly, that makes all of this so appealing to the American imagination? I can't speak for the general cultural values that Americans ascribe to the French, but I can speak for the style.
Like I said above, I think what appeals to us about this supposed "French Style" changes pretty consistently - right now, we love the "devil-may-care" nonchalance, and in years previously, it's been the unabashedly feminine and put-together elegance. It's almost as if we look at French women as an idealized version of ourselves - thinner, trendier, classier. If right now, the cool thing is tomboy-ish Alexa Chung (who, for the record, is not French) in a moto jacket and destroyed denim, then obviously that's what all the French girls are wearing. In five years, they'll all be wearing long skirts and marinières and ballet flats - obviously.
To give credit where credit is very much due, I think part of the idealization comes from the fact that if you took a 10 random girls from the street in a small, non-fashion hub city in France and 10 from a small, non-fashion hub city in the U.S, maybe 7 of the French girls would be "well dressed" - whatever that even means - and maybe 5 of the American girls would be. And I think this is because many Americans are raised to equate dressing up with dressing well - we know how to look nice when it's time to look nice, but we're also rebellious and fiercely individual and independent. There's no strong cultural emphasis on looking nice as a sign of respect - oh sure, at a nice restaurant, we bring it home. And although there are obviously a great majority of us who like to "look nice," in whatever way that means to us an individual, I think when it comes down to the runs to the grocery store, we consider it a personal choice to "look nice." Deep down we all identify with Honey Boo Boo more than we care to admit: "I look good when I wanna look good."
I get the impression that's different here on the continent, and so if I really had to take a guess, I'd say you're seeing the result of people who are geeeenerally more dressed up and have, ever so slightly, more experience with just putting themselves together. What I'm saying is, I think in the U.S there are wider extremes of being "dressed," whereas in Europe it tends to be a little more evenly-keeled.
Then there's the very long history of American idealization - almost fetishization - of French style, likely dating back to past centuries when America had yet to find its cultural foothold and we turned towards everything "continental" for matters of aesthetic. And I think a lot of that still resides in the American psyche, in the form of a very weird tension. America is the land of freedom! and independence! and adventure! but Europe is the land of class! and refinement! and civilization! I think there are plenty of people who will strongly take alliance to one side of this myth - let me present, as totally professional evidence, the reaction of Will Ferrel's character in Taladega Nights to the French race car driver. But there are the people who rest somewhere in the middle, and so you can see why it's easy to sell something Americans by labeling it "European" - I think, way deep down in the American psyche, there's a tiny but powerful little voice that suggests that the key to being stylish - or even, honestly "cultured" at all - is to be European. And thus, French girls.
I mean, no one is entirely pulling all of this out of thin air - like I said, the slightly disheveled look that Madewell is selling us hard right now is totally a thing here. But it goes both ways. I think many Europeans have a similar tiny little voice in their psyche that suggest that to experience innovation is to be American - although I'm not European (YET!) so I'm not going to pretend to know.
Myth or reality aside, I leave you with this: this a city with a really high population of girls on motorbikes who are seriously just unbelievably cool as fuck, so whether or not there's really any basis to the American idealization, we can all agree that they're winning that one.