The myth of "How to Look Like a French Woman"
Though hordes of females still salivate over the latest images of chic françaises, the world has changed. A woman in Saskatoon might go out with her soignée French cousin, and you can't spot who's Prairies, who's Parisienne.
1. A woman anywhere can build her eye via blogs, online merchants' pages, and street photography like The Sartorialist— even by news coverage. She can parse Christine Lagarde's pearls or Ines de la Fressange's shrunken blazers, and is indirectly supported by abundant examples.
When Janice Riggs of The Vivienne Files encourages her to wear navy with black, she thinks, "Well, OK!" All of these exposures lead to a different aesthetic than the more-coordinated North American look with which many of us over-50s grew up, and I still see in most upscale mall display.
2. Much wider distribution of goods that were once available only in world capitols. In the late '80s, the only way I could get Eric Bompard sweaters was to travel. Now, a click and the package from the happy goat drops onto my doorstep within days.
And jewelery! Vintage treasures once discovered in the tiny salon known only to locals can be ordered from online sites; Beladora's B2 is one of my favourite haunts. Susie pins a Victorian seed pearl snowflake on her blazer, rafinée as a Rive Gauche gamine.
Saskatoon Susie is now limited only by her means, but so is Parisienne Paule. Susie may be paying shipping and duty, but that's cheaper than a plane ticket.
No longer captive of her town's limited stock, she too can leave the top with the badly-matched pattern on the rack. Unless she truly lives in the back of beyond, she can find a good tailor to have her dress fitted precisely.
3. As a result of the preceding factors, Susie is as savvy a consumer as her French cousin. She looks askance at fads and follies, from $300 gold-dust-flecked face creams to the dominion of the skinny jean.
Susie knows, as certainly as French women, what looks and feels good on her, so buys bootcuts because they balance her silhouette, and smiles indulgently when European fashion editors dub Sorel boots fashionable; she is on her eleventh pair.
She, like Paule, has established a consistent wardrobe palette, hair style, grooming routine and irresistible temptation (Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar).
The distinction is not between French women and everyone else; it's between women who make considered choices and those who buy from boredom, insecurity, or the belief that they need to wear something different every day.
Thirty years on
Thirty years ago, there was way more visual evidence about country of origin: the North American women I saw in Paris were more obviously made-up and coiffed, and interested in head-to-toe designer ensembles. Now, it's harder to spot the differences, thanks in part to those YouTube scarf-tying videos.
Even the body sizes have come closer together. Younger Frenchwomen have grown taller, and the average French dress size is edging up toward 12. Sometimes I default to whether she is smoking; about 30% of French women do (versus 20% of American and 17.5% of Canadian women), and the habit is on the rise among youth in France.
Attitudinal differences endure, however.
My French women friends are less likely to buy as much (there are defined periods for sales, twice a year only, and they live in smaller spaces) and don't turn over their wardrobes as often. For her daughter's City Hall wedding, Danièle wore a midnight blue velvet blazer that I remembered from a dozen years before.
Dressing well is considered a kind of civic duty, like planting your window boxes even if you can't see the blooms from inside your apartment.
But I am equally annoyed by the reflexive, defensive dismissal of everything French-style-related. I suspect those francophobes are sick of being told, implicitly, that they don't measure up. Their rationale is usually, "I saw some badly-dressed women in Paris." Given the city contains over 2.3 million residents and 7 million visitors a year, some are bound to look less than appealing.
There is room for appreciation of Hermès and the The Gap, for the allongé and the double-double. We can applaud the verve of the woman from elsewhere and celebrate our own estimable qualities; the world is big enough, and so are we.
Now for some fun! Here are five friends, all "of a certain age". Who is French and who is North American? I'll post the *answers on Tuesday Dec. 16, at the bottom of this post.
*Answers: The Frenchwomen are #1 (who now lives in Toronto), and #4, a lifelong Parisienne. #2: a Brit who has lived for the past 25 years in Texas and North Carolina; #3 and #5: native Montréalaises.