The myth of "How to Look Like a French Woman"

I have noticed a recent backlash against the exalted position French women hold in the universe of style. Increasingly peevish comments are left on blogs that discuss "the secret of the French woman's style" or "how to dress like a Parisienne".

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.

The reasons?

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.

Ça suffit!

I say, enough of books and boards of French wardrobe essentials, style secrets and how not to get fat—an endless recycling of hackneyed "advice". 

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.

1. Alice

2. Christine
3. Marie

4. Eleanor

5. Laura

*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.


Thanks for the mention, and for posting something with which I agree so thoroughly. One's appearance is much more driven by personal choices, and much less by their country/region or origin. And I haven't a CLUE about your friends, except that they all look like they'd be well worth knowing!
Susan B said…
I think the globalization of style has even escalated since our first visit to France in 2007. But as you say, the world has become our shopping cart. When we were in Paris earlier this year and trying to find cute tee shirts to bring home for our son, everything in the shops was "Brooklyn" and "California surfing" themed!

I also sometimes scratch my head at what gets passed off as "typical French" style. Fussy, complicated scarf knots, crazy stiletto heels...those are someone's fantasy of what Parisiennes actually wear.
LauraH said…
I like your warm hearted, inclusive take on this subject. Following you, une femme and Vivienne Files has given me a new outlook on choosing clothes and building a workable, attractive wardrobe. Thanks to all. I must admit that my strong preference for bright colour sometimes makes it a bit difficult to relate to the dark neutral colours I see in many style posts. So I try to take the essence of the message and then apply 'me'.
Madame Là-bas said…
It seems to me that French women look comfortable with themselves. They don't need to be coiffed and they feel free to choose a personal style. All of your friends could be French or not. I really can't tell.
materfamilias said…
I won't play the guessing game, but will say that you're obviously lucky to know these women -- their photos show an enviable sense of self that's manifest in their sartorial and grooming style but must be even more enjoyable IRL over lunches and dinners and girlfriend shopping afternoons. Love this post overall!
LPC said…
Excellent post. I don't want to guess either, since I abhor failure, but I am in the camp of ça suffit around the "la femme Française est parfaite" creed. Actually, I'm OK with French style - after all, we can see it. But the apotheosis of French parenting? Merci mais non.:).
I have no idea which of your friends are French! I think they may all be French Canadian!
My good friend Jane, who spent years in Paris says that the women she knew who were dressed in a typical french chic way did not wear much jewelry and avoided and sequins or sparkles. I find this subject fascinating and plan to do a study when I am in Paris. My Parisienne French tutor is so "typically french" that I often pay more attention to what she wears and how she comports herself than those son at hand.
It will be fun to see which of your friends are Parisienne.
Eleanorjane said…
I vote for either Marie or Alice, with a slight lean towards Marie for her name and Alice for her 'look'.

I do think often people from different countries have a common look, for example I can often guess an Australian from a New Zealander. Also, speaking different languages shapes your face differently. French has got a lot of pursed lip 'ooo' sounds, I think.
Anonymous said…
Great post! This is something that I've given a fair bit of thought this global "market" do we really look that much different? I have never been to France and am only going on what I see in the media/online.
What strikes me about the idea of French style is its "artfulness"'s not just any ole thing thrown on, but it's also not obsessively seeking an artificial perfection/making a good impression. It seems very personal and although it sounds a bit cliche really does seem to reflect feeling good about oneself and living well.
Cathy Wong
Anonymous said…
Thanks for another thoughtful post. As a bit of a Francophile from food, style to deco, I sometimes wonder if in trying to emulate a style from another country that I'm not being authentic. I'm proud to be Canadian and a North American especially the more I travel. Perhaps what we should try to emulate from the French is the focus on quality versus quantity and the appearance of elegant ease. Another element of French style that I admire is the natural elegance -- not too much makeup, fake nails and breasts, moveable hair, etc. However, I still like a bit of bright colour especially in the dead of winter so will continue to wear my colourful knits -- I feel it is my civic duty to cheer people up (sort of like the flowers in the window boxes)!
Those Parisienne guides are channelling very specific style tribes, in certain arrondissements.

I disagree with anonymous 1:58; it is normal to emulate the traits one most admires from different cultures (where I live is francophone in any event). People across the pond are also emulating dress and social attitudes they find admirable in parts of North America, and in other societies. Jeans, and perhaps more social fluidity?

Too many bright knits are hard on the eyes! Some colour lifts our spirits in wintertime, especially rich, deep colours, but garish colours can be very aggressive in the cold.
Anonymous said…
Well, the timing of this couldn't have been better because I have been wondering about why the fascination with French fashion continues. Of course I mean among 'some' and not all your readers. You cite many factors that make french fashion accessible to
those of us who wish to copy it. It can easily be copied given, as you point out, the widely available distribution of goods and media coverage. What is not so easily copied or transported, acquired or lived is the culture in which the mode lives. I would never say it's for everyone in North America. Never. However should one wish to choose a specific mode and go out to the local mall, market or theater you will never feel "french" because the culture, and appreciation for it doesn't exist here.
I dress in somewhat the French way frequently, and, l have to say, there's not a lot of love for it. My friends generally think that my style is a bit drab. No daytime sparkle, too little color.
I love all your beautiful examples and can't guess
which side of the pond anyone of them hails from.
I want to thank you for giving us so many chic choices. Sometimes, I've seen and loathe the guess which country pictures and they are silly.
White sneakers, girl scout shorts and a fleece, ummm she must be North American. Thank you
for widening horizons.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous 1:58 again. To add to my comments, the point I was trying to make was that we should incorporate style advice that resonates with our personal preferences and lifestyle or not. North American style is sometimes dismissed but as Lagatta pointed out many staple wardrobe items such as denim, jean jackets, plain white t-shirt have become global wardrobe items. I also agree that some of the advice on how to dress like a French women appeals to a certain tribe. I've borrowed the elements that appeal to me and my lifestyle (neutrals of navy, grey and Bordeaux) but still retain a little bit of my WASP preppy side. When I referred to bright colour I was thinking of jewel tones such as ruby red, sapphire blue, emerald green and turquoise in hats, scarves, gloves and cardigans. Similar to how we eat now, certain cuisines will appeal to us and others not so much. We are fortunate that we are exposed to a variety of influences and can pick and choose what suits us best.
Anonymous, agreed, but North America is a big place, including three sovereign states, three official languages (not even counting the Indigenous ones) and many regional cultures. And denim/jeans, born in Mediterranean ports (Nîmes and Genoa: Gênes in French), perfected in the California Gold Rush and upgraded from workwear to cool status, have become global.
Anonymous said…
After years of trying to attain some french chic in my wardrobe, I am now trying to remove some of it! I feel I have too much of the stereotypical parisienne look: trench coat, neutral base, ballerinas, breton top, red lipstick... I feel I am one big cliche' and it's almost embarrassing how involved I got in it. I almost feel I lost some of myself in the whole process.

Also, there is so much contradiction in the advice out there (not yours though):
breton top = horizontal stripes not flattering, cropped pants ala A.Hepburn = shortens the look of the leg too much,
red lipstick = too harsh at my age, makes me look older ... and on and on.
Anonymous said…
As an incurable preppy (at around sixty)I find myself drawn to the typical light beige jeans, loafers, vests and shirts. I suppose I look like my social middle class self and that's ok. Personally I find women around the mediterranean to be very chic:italian, greek, spanish and yes, french. There might be something like a european style, not overdone but a relaxed elegance that I love. I took the advice that was offered by style blogs like Mai Tai and Vivienne gladly and have since become a much more thoughtful shopper.
Do I look like a parisienne ? Probably not, but I think I can manage relaxed elegance whenever and wherever it's required.
Duchesse said…
Anon@4:09: Ah, you have identified a key attitudinal difference in one phrase "...manage relaxed elegance •whenever and wherever it's required•." A middle-class French woman would not use a "whenever/wherever" qualifier; a certain standard is always required by ones' self and socially, whether implicitly or explicitly.

There is also a visible French prep contingent (a subset of "BCBG"), who wear immaculate striped Alain Figuret shirts (that never seem to show a hint of a wrinkle), loafers, jeans or tailored, narrrow trousers, headbands. I think you would be admired!

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