Ever wondered just why the French look so good? After her people-watching expedition to the style capital Hadley Freeman offers a DIY guide
Friday March 5, 2004
So, are the French still chic? It is a question that does niggle. Well, it occasionally niggles the French, because they have constructed their national identity around it (that, and smelly cheese, which might explain why they are so keen to defend the chic element). And it often niggles the rest of the world which, from time to time, has said unkind things about the cheese- eating surrender monkeys, and their much-vaunted sense of style.
Certainly Paris fashion week beats the bejesus out of everyone else (New York, too furry; London, too silly; Milan, too Footballers' Wives), but what of the French themselves? Stereotypes and gentle xenophobia aside, yes, they are a cut above the rest of us. From my exhaustive research into the matter - standing on a street corner in the city for two hours - I bring you the secrets behind Parisian chic. But remember, as Mulder and Scully told us all along, just because the truth is out does not guarantee you acceptance among the aliens.
1: Always wear sunglasses
A Parisienne without her big, chunky sunglasses would be like Chris Moyles without his team of flunkies - a sad and lost specimen, divested of the props against which to bounce her personality. Ditch any fears about what others will think - a true Parisienne would rarely bother with such worries (see 10). Sunglasses make even Johnny Halliday look cool (sort of) and cover up puffy eyes caused by too many Gauloises. But, please, no coloured lenses. These are only excusable if you are in Atomic Kitten and then only out of pity
2: Your bag should be no bigger than your dog
And your dog, obviously, is one of those yappy little things (currently being popularised by various American heiresses on TV, although you, of course, pay no attention to the Americans). They are perfect for sitting on your lap while you sit decorously in a cafe, sipping your cappuccino, arguing with Bernard-Henri Lévy about how the 21st-century soul has lost its passion. Or something.
Bags should be hand-held, quilted if you are over 50 (that's right, we are talking Chanel, and we are talking lots of) or plain for the younger ones. Absolutely no rucksacks - such slobbiness is reminiscent of French exchanges, which is one facet of the country that probably did not inspire you to exalt Gallic chic.
3: Coordination is a beautiful thing
An English woman sees a skirt with a big floral pattern and thinks, "How sweet! I'd love to have that pattern on my new sofa, but, in the interim, I'll wear it on my legs. Sod the fact that I've got nothing that goes with it." A French woman would not even notice the skirt. A French woman coordinates her entire outfits days in advance, ensuring her socks match her hairclip, which matches her top, which matches her coat. Frightening, yes. But, dammit, they do look better than Britons dressed in loose covers.
4: The effort is always worth it
That means no outfits for bad-hair days/fat days/can't-be-arsed days. The irony about those outfits is that they actually make you look worse: no matter how fat you feel, wearing a big kaftan is going to make you look 10 times bigger. So, instead, slip into your little cropped trousers and pair them with ballet pumps. Yes, you will probably feel so miserable that you may have to crawl into a loo and break a mirror but, hey, at least you look good.
5: Pancake or au naturel
If you are over 35, slap on the full face of makeup, including lippy, before even your husband sees you in the mornings; if you are under 35, just keep it plain, with lipgloss. As in so many areas of life, boys have it even easier. Theirs is a choice between the shabby, unshaven man who resembles an extra from Jean de Florette and who, perhaps, is an occasional friend of absinthe, and his more groomed, handsome-to-the-point-of-silliness counterpart, best epitomised by Mr Kylie Minogue, Olivier Martinez. Happily, for any boys after the true Parisian look, both make one look like a character in a Truffaut film.
6: Think helmet hair
Not only in shape (although you should definitely bear this in mind after you blow out the candles on your 50th birthday cake), but colour. Parisian ladies favour the solid block of colour, not the streaky-bacon look that Americans prefer, with highlights strewn about, party streamer-like.
This epitomises the differences between the two countries: both are equally high-maintenance and arrogant, but whereas one revels in its nature, the other denies it is so and gives off the impression of chic simplicity. Ultimately, both are just as fussy as an uptown Manhattanite with extensive food allergies and a fondness for Egyptian sheets with a threadcount of 240.
7: Men wear scarves
There must be some law about this in Paris. Of the 37 males I counted in 15 minutes, 35 were wearing scarves and the other two had polo necks. Maybe they all have mucky necks. Or maybe they are so Frrrrrrench and sexy that the women cannot control themselves and cover them in lovebites. Whatever, it is a most dashing look in a Charles Lindbergh kind of way. But, um, French, naturellement .
Silver? Pah! But gold? Ah, ma cherie, c'est bon! They are quite right. Wear too much silver and you resemble a rock star's 16-year-old Sloaney daughter, or a Hell's Angel, or both. Yes, a knuckle slathered in gold will bring back memories of Joan Collins, but may I just take this opportunity to say that Joan's style tips have heretofore been underrated? Look at how well she has done: a handsome young man called Percy, regularly featured in the Daily Mail as a "style icon" - what more could you want?
9: Fur! Glorious fur!
Even in the summer, you love your skins. Think mink, think fox - do not think hamster. And remember, the bulkier your coat, the better to push people out of the way (see 10).
10: Be rude as hell
Stereotypes aside, I think we can all agree that the French have, shall we say, a fluid concept of manners. So be sullen, pushy and never let the words excusez-moi pass your lips, except in a sarcastic tone. And why not? You look great and you damn well know it. Plus, of course, smiling causes wrinkles.
VOGUE Italia September 1995
photographer: Walter Chin
model: Helena Christensen
VOGUE Italia September 1994
photographer: Arthur Elgort
model: Helena Christensen
VOGUE ITALIA SEPTEMBER 1991
'UN GUADAROBA DA EREDITIERA'
photographer: Michael Roberts
model: Carré Otis
The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour - by Joan DeJean
French Chic by Susan Sommers
Harriet Welty Rochefort's column on life in Paris...
Five Secrets to Great Style
Stealing French Style by Rita Wilson
The Secret of French Chic do’s and don’ts
French chic. What to wear in Paris.