Thursday, August 04, 2005

French women don't get fleeces

Claim: Americans--in particular American women--have no style. Someone, I think it was Diana Vreeland, was quoted as saying that Nan Kempner (!) was the only American woman with style. A recent article in Vogue about socialite-fashionista Coco Brandolini claims that she started the disheveled, rich-hippie look that's so popular in NYC these days. I'd always assumed this style had been around for a while, with waves raising especially high maybe every three years, and that this latest wave had been set off by the Olsen twins. Well, no. Vogue gives the credit to Brandolini, and even goes so far as to print a quote about how she knows how to put this look together better than New York's young women.

Brandolini's Parisian, which means, as goes the cliche, that she knows how to messily tie scarves and not brush her hair in such a way that Americans who see her sigh enviously and muse on how darn fashionable Europeans--in particular French women--are. Every last one of them.

Here's what happens: American women, coming from well-off pockets of the nation and accustomed to seeing the same old combination of North Face, quilted Lands End jackets and Seven Jeans, all of a sudden find themselves face-to-face with a look entirely different from their own. To them (and I include myself in this "them"), France is a crazy place where people who are quite concerned about their appearance nevertheless have unbleached teeth and non-blown-dry hair. French women look so... different, so refreshing. So American women decide that their French counterparts have style.

Reality: What American women are missing is that just as there's a look common to most appearence-conscious women in NYC's SoHo or in Chicago's Lincoln Park, the women of Paris also tend to have the same look as one another. The tousled hair and just-so scarves are no less ubiquitous in Paris than are North Face fleeces in Chicago or the cowboy boot-miniskirt combo in NYC. It's a good look, an attractive look, but it's everywhere, and the only thing that makes the look interesting to Americans is that we don't see so much of it over here.

The few American women who do try to look this way end up seeming either pretentious or just plain disheveled. Minus the context of a Marais cafe--and the assumption that the woman in question is legitimately French--the look loses its power.

But what American women need to understand is that there's nothing inherently less interesting or attractive about the way we put ourselves together. While cosmetic surgery is probably more common here than there, otherwise we don't have so much to be ashamed of. Mainstream, upscale American style (think shiny hair, designer jeans, and hair color lighter than skin color) is no less pleasing to the eye, no less creative, than mainstream, upscale French style. Neither look is creative--creativity requires transcending your country's current fads. Neither look is inherently unattractive, either. I happen to like bits of both, and wear a combination, along with various things that are shiny or neon-colored...

There is a point to all this, and here goes: These oh-so-witty remarks about how chic people are the second you leave America are, in effect, revelations that the wit in question has no idea what it means to be chic. It's knee-jerk anti-Americanism, but need not be replaced by knee-jerk pro-Americanism, by an all-out denial that the women in Parisian cafes look good. What's needed here is a bit of good, old-fashioned cultural relativism. We think they look good because it's not what we're used to, but when it comes down to it we'd rather dress as we do. We think that the 14-year-old Parisian girls clustered around their schools are fabulous, but that their American equivalents filing out of Spence or a well-funded suburban public school look bitchy and conformist. They, in turn, scoff at our lack of style, all the while appropriating large chunks of it. And good-looking, stylish women everywhere--whether in scarves or in Intermix--will turn heads, male and female alike.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

No! Stylish Parisian women are infinitely more beautiful than their fleeced up American counterparts. The examples you cite--monied girls in NY private schools or from posh suburbs--are more cloned than Korean afghans. Who wants to see what GAP trickles down from. It's the idiot expressions too. Chic Parisians look like they've got longer attention spans, maybe from looking at cheese.

Phoebe said...

If you're fluent in their language, you'll find junior-high-school kids obnoxious.

The cloned look is near-universal for kids at this age, and awfully popular among adults as well.

Anonymous said...

The thing is, what's cloned is key.

Anonymous said...

I know you don't get into the heartland much Phoebe but if you were to visit say any of the midwestern states you'd see that women dress quite badly. Parisians may not be well dressed in comparison to your upper east side milieu but they are very well dressed compared to the rest of america.

Phoebe said...

Anonymous--I've visited plenty of Midwestern states, as it so happens. But the logic here doesn't work--Parisians should be compared to NYers, and non-Parisian French people to non-NY Americans.

Anonymous said...

I think if you were to compare the "non-Parisian French" to "non-Ny americans" you'd still find the former are far better dressed.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. I think when Parisian women let themselves go they're forced to move to Brittany.

laura said...

clothes are part of it, but i have always thought that confidence has more to do with it. Parisian women carry themselves much better than their american counterparts. I saw much less slouchy bad posture and stooped shoulders when I was in Paris..

Phoebe said...

Laura,

Posture may be part of it. Also the expectation that they're supposed to be the most fashionable people in the world may turn French chic into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whatever Frenchwomen do, however they dress, that by definition is style.

Archaic Rhz. said...

Anyone who sees anything inherently stylish in French dress would be hard pressed to explain the mania for A & F knock-offs and Diesel jeans. What the French do pull off is a sense of put-togetherness, and posture probably has a lot to do with it. Not wearing flip-flops helps.

Anonymous said...

What's all the fuss about French women? The blog has started with Coco Brandolini: she's Italian and more precisely from Venice!

Anonymous said...

Coco Brandolini is hal french (her mum) and half italian (her dad) but she grew up in Paris, so that makes her a "Parisienne"...