Wednesday, November 12, 2008

French women don't get coiffed

My blogging friends Deja Pseu and Karen have already remarked that when they visit Paris, they notice how womens' hair is frequently styled in a more relaxed manner. Let us pause to parse this.

Many North American women go to Paris and don't stand out because of their hair. But when a woman does, there's a very good chance she's North American, and in her bags has packed the requisite arsenal of appliances and products.

Among French woman, North American women are known for heavy highlights (like the pic at far left, above) or elaborately constructed, fiercely maintained styles.
To be fair, I saw a few iffy colour jobs on Parisienne heads, but often I could play Spot the Tourist with predictable results. Juliette Binoche, near left, is closer to their desired look.

How did North American women drift toward a look so controlled it's as much an identifier as their language? Since we weren't born with hot rollers clutched in our wee hands, I will attempt to find reasons for this acquired affection.

1. You style what you see

Pick up a copy of InStyle or other mid-market womens' mags and you'll see lots of 'dos presented with Photoshop precision. A subconscious message is sent: "Control that hair, no flyaways, nothing poking out!"


2. Clean and neat is a cultural norm
North Americans like clean and new. Our oldest buildings are only several hundred years old; we tear many down to build something modern. The moody decrepitude of crumbling facades is not generally admired. We emulate this bright, shiny effect in our personal facades, too.

3. The tyranny of perfection

The trainer or gym, the diet, the fillers and procedures, the continual societal nagging to "be your best." Whether intrinsic or socially dictated, a woman seeking perfection will extend this imperative
to every hair on her head. Perfection's silent partner is control. The ironed, sprayed and strenuously styled 'do is a high control hallmark.

4. Primp creep
You start at ten or eleven, painting your sister's nails. In adolescence, you begin "doing" your hair. Time passes, you work your way through enough products to fill the Rose Bowl. Momentum just takes you into more stuff, more fussing. Extensions seem like a reasonable next step. Letting go of
some of the gear you've built up over decades feels like letting yourself go.

Whenever I write about critically about over-coiffed hair, at least one woman replies that she must discipline her unruly, difficult hair, that a soigneé look requires an hour and a half of blowing, brush-rolling, serum application and ironing.

Is this
absolutely true? Who would she be if this were not true?

I just ran into my friend C. She worked in the financial district as a sales professional for years. Designer suits, her blonde hair in a side-parted chin length blunt cut that framed her face like elegant parentheses. We thought she looked wonderful. Then she left her profession and changed hairdressers.

New guy gave her a slightly shorter layered cut with bangs. Most significantly, it moved. When C. strides, her bangs shift; when C. laughs, the sides slide forward. Always lovely, C. became alluring. She also looks a decade younger. (Le Duc said "Mon dieu, C. looks fantastic, who is her hairdresser? Go there!") She looked marvelous before, she looked even better after.

Is there no hairdresser in her town like C.'s, who can burnish the natural beauty she was born with? Who aims for healthy shine rather than immobile head-upholstery? If it takes an hour-plus every day on hair alone, that's a lot of life spent fighting what you've got.

The object of the exercise is not to pass for a native in a European city, it is to let ones' self bloom, bien dans sa peau, like Julie Delpy, one of my favourite French talents.

17 comments:

Deja Pseu said...

Growing up, our mother always cut our hair in short pixies because she said that when long it looked "messy and stringy." I think work environments are loosening up, but for most of my life, the loose, flyaway look that the French women wear would be thought of as "unkempt". I've enjoyed my very short cut the last couple of years, but am starting to feel the pull to go just a little longer and softer again, inspired partly by hairstyles I saw on some of the Parisienne femmes d'un certain age. I love that style you've shown on Juliette Binoche. One thing I know is that I no longer fight my hair type (baby-fine and straight) with perms and the like; I just try to find cuts that work with it.

Duchesse said...

Pseu: Yes! Our mothers liked "neat". My mother was spray, spray, then spray again in case a typhoon hit Michigan.

In an unscientific study I did not see much very short hair while there (nothing covering ear, but lots of softer short among our age group.

materfamilias said...

While I've had fun this last year learning how to straighten my hair so that I can have some occasional variety, my usual regime for my curlyhead is to wash/wet to reactivate the curl after the night's flattening, then apply a coin-sized dollop of product, tousle curls into shape and go -- hair dries on the way and when I get a minute later, I use a pick to give it a bit of volume -- less than two minutes total. I'm always amazed when I find that someone whose stylishly-coiffed straight hair is actually a sister curlyhead but spends the requisite daily hours subduing -- all that time to read or walk or cook or knit or garden or shop for shoes or . . . spent hooked up to hair appliances?! I'm with the Parisiennes!

Deja Pseu said...

And on the subject of mothers and hair, when I was growing up my mother went every Saturday morning to the "beauty parlor" where she got a shampoo/set/combout (which usually included lots of back-combing to get that bouffant look) and then didn't touch it the rest of the week, except to wrap her head in toilet paper to sleep, and then pull a piece or two back into place and add more spray. It wasn't until the mid-70's when curling irons became popular that she stopped going to the salon and started washing/styling herself.

mater - the most time I ever spent on my hair was back in high school, when I'd set it with hot rollers every morning to try and coax some curl out of it. I'd spend 45 minutes to get a curl that would last maybe an hour. :-)

Duchesse said...

Pseu and materfamilias: In high school I SLEPT on beer can rollers! Also, from age 14-23, chemicals, blowouts, industrial gels and avoiding humid environments. Anything to fit in. At 23, walked into the best hairdresser I could find and said, help me work with this. Like ma, have friend who to this day straightens... her hair is fried.

Rita@Goldivas said...

I have the WORST hair! Baby-fine, straight, and thin. I've grown it out long enough to put up, then have hairpieces to put on top. I still need to use curlers or curling iron to give it enough body to stay up. My hairstyle is NEVER too precise, because there are always flyaways, even with gels & hairspray. So, for now, I guess i'm fashionable. But the maintenance uses up a lot of time. Mater, I envy you.

bonnie-ann black said...

my mother, never a woman for fuss and bother, also gave us (some of us) the pixie-cut. i hated it. i started out until age 6 with long hair that my grandmother lovingly curled. when i turned 21 i decided never to cut my hair again and it did grown down past my behind -- i could sit on it. but then it was a lovely chestnut-red color. when it started to go gray, i bit the bullet and went with shoulder length hair. i've varied it a bit now and again, but the layered shoulder length works best for me. my hairdresser knows i hate "product" (makes me itch) and fussing (no more than 5 minutes with a blowdryer). i find it is much more me than either really long hair or really short hair.

when i was in paris, i felt very comfortable in my own skin. i don't think i stood out as a tourist, but wouldn't have denied being a "visitor" if asked.

La Belette Rouge said...

I love this post. It is so funny. I had an appt. this a.m. and I couldn't "do" my hair and I just had to wash and go. I did an intentionally pony tale. I said to myself "Just pretend your French." It works. That said, I am a woman who tries to keep my wild hair well under control.

Before finding my new and improved hairdresser I had to blow dry, flat iron and on special occasions add velcro rollers to the hour long routine. New stylist gave me a cut that takes my hair times down by half. I still am trying to keep it totally under control.

Duchesse, this is a great post and one that I will come back to and think a lot about. Thank you.

Mardel said...

Gosh my mom insisted on a pixie cut too as it was the only way my hair looked like I had combed it. I spent a good part of my 20's with all the equipment trying to get my hair perfect and finally gave up on it. Now I'm glad. I like the slightly mussed look.

Of course my hair has no curl and is very fine, straight and thin fly-away hair. Luckily I have lots and lots of it and it does wave in summer-type humidity if I keep it moderately short with lots of layers. Winter is a hair-killer though.

Karen said...

I know why our mothers all gave us pixie cuts!!! It was because the less time they had to spend brushing out their daughter's ratty messes, the more they could spend on their own elaborate, sprayed "dos." My own mother taught me very early how to curl the back of her hair and "rat" it afterwards. And the sprays!!

I saw Catherine Deneuve in "Place Vendome" over the weekend. It was from 1998. In the scenes, Catherine wore her hair down and loose, and it looked fabulous, though someone must have done her up for the film. In other scenes, she and her supporting actress had perfect French Twists going--pins and all. In yet other scenes, like when Catherine was at home, her hair was sloppily swept up in a banana clip (blended with her hair though) and smaller combs to keep the side pieces up. Her hair looked visibly highlighted, nice bold streaks against a darker blonde base. When her hair was up, it looked much darker.

Why not rent the film and see for yourselves the great simple, French dressing in this movie? They have Catherine in this very warm soft red much of the time-I would have thought she'd be better in cooler reds, but this works and seems to be her signature look in the movie.

Enough! This is not my post!Duchesse, thanks for getting the conversation sparked...

Karen said...

I know why our mothers all gave us pixie cuts!!! It was because the less time they had to spend brushing out their daughter's ratty messes, the more they could spend on their own elaborate, sprayed "dos." My own mother taught me very early how to curl the back of her hair and "rat" it afterwards. And the sprays!!

I saw Catherine Deneuve in "Place Vendome" over the weekend. It was from 1998. In the scenes, Catherine wore her hair down and loose, and it looked fabulous, though someone must have done her up for the film. In other scenes, she and her supporting actress had perfect French Twists going--pins and all. In yet other scenes, like when Catherine was at home, her hair was sloppily swept up in a banana clip (blended with her hair though) and smaller combs to keep the side pieces up. Her hair looked visibly highlighted, nice bold streaks against a darker blonde base. When her hair was up, it looked much darker.

Why not rent the film and see for yourselves the great simple, French dressing in this movie? They have Catherine in this very warm soft red much of the time-I would have thought she'd be better in cooler reds, but this works and seems to be her signature look in the movie.

Enough! This is not my post!Duchesse, thanks for getting the conversation sparked...

Julianne said...

Yes, I too loved this post. This is something I have been thinking about for some time. I am sure that one's hair looks best when you don't fight it's natural inclination. I don't know that there may be many stylists in the US that could do this. I am always on the lookout for pictures of french hairstyles.

I don't like my hair! It I let it dry by itself it looks really bad.
Any more pictures or discussion would be great.

WendyB said...

This "North American look" stuff doesn't apply to NY. To imagine what you're talking about, I have to think back to '80s New Jersey.

greying pixie said...

A natural French look? The secret is in the cut. And most importantly it must suit the shape of your face. I could never wear Catherine Deneuve's French twists as I don't have her lovely face.

I'm sure Catherine's look takes a long time, how else does she get the root lift.

I think the French way is to LOOK as if you don't spend a moment on your grooming, and that look takes just as much time as looking over-done, perhaps even longer!

Duchesse said...

Wendy: Indeed; two sisters I met in St-Germain who embodied this look were from present day NJ.

karen: Will get movie, thanks, I love Deneuve.

GP: Does take time. The cut and also colour, esp. highlights that somehow do not build up over time.

Karen said...

Oh good, Duchesse, see if you can see all the "Catherine Red" in the movie. I noticed they even had that color on her lampshades!

Can't wait to hear what you think about her hair...

Anonymous said...

I must have had the only mother in the 60s who did not give her only daughter the pixie cut. I had my first haircut at 7, and by then, my hair was long enough to sit on. I had very thick, fine hair and her solution was to keep it in braids 98% of the time. Every morning, she'd take out the braids and put them back up one at at time, which kept me reasonably neat and tidy (I was a little slob as a girl).