Sunday, July 23, 2017

The French Girl vs. The Frenchwoman

Despite thinking the whole thing is silly - and despite knowing, about as much as any American could, that the whole thing is nonsense - I've never quite been able to avoid falling for the whole Frenchwoman thing. I get - and have long since gotten - that the entire thing is based on a myth. It's subtly racist, classist, and more. It essentializes French women, who are real people, not objects for Anglo tourists to gawk at as fashion references. I know - believe me, I know! it's what my degree is in! - that there's more to France than ballet-flat shopping.

And yet.

The women in the posh parts of Paris do have great style. Yes, this is circular - "great style" is defined, in much of the world, as looking like a rich Parisian woman. But I was reminded of this last year, when I was back in Paris for the first time in several years. Gosh but did these women look fantastic. How boring of me to think this, but there it was.

I left feeling inspired to dress like the women I saw there... all the while realizing that this would have to involve clothes purchased elsewhere (because my Canadian dollars add up to 1/16th of a consignment blazer), and that once assembled by me, once on me, nothing particularly Parisian would result. It's not as if taking inspiration from French classmates and professors during grad school (one, in particular, of each, now that I think of it) left me looking Parisian. But was that ever the point?

My thinking is, the appeal of looking like a French woman is really two different things, depending on your age. When I was younger, it was about the gamine look. Not that I ever looked all that gamine - I was, and am, the wrong build for "gamine" - but the idea was to look understated, elegant, not trying too hard. It was a way to look nice but not sexy, which, day-to-day, especially when you're in your early 20s, has its practical advantages. "Gamine" is also a way of tricking yourself getting excited enough about dressing in work attire that shopping for that sort of clothing doesn't seem like a chore, or like a reminder that you're no longer a young person. (Without the myth, without the belief that you're somehow channeling a New Wave actress, you're just a grad student buying used J. Crew ankle-length slacks.)

As I got closer to 30, Frenchwoman style started to be something else: the promise of getting older but not, I suppose, giving up. To me, at almost-34, it seems like a way to look good that doesn't involve trying to look younger. Which is immensely appealing because looking younger is not a thing that's going to happen. Not for any of us. While French women hold no secret where DGAF-ness about aging is concerned (witness the skincare industry of that country), there does seem to be a thing where women of all ages look glamorous. It's an aspiration, even if the reality is, I'm an American with the collection of sweats (school-name-bearing and generic) to prove it.

This is what I think is happening: Younger women and even teen girls in that bit of Paris dress what would seem in the US (and, as I understand it, the UK) to be sort of middle-aged, but the look works for them. Older women dress... exactly the same as younger women, and it works for them, too, at least as well. There isn't, in those neighborhoods, much of a youth culture, at least where clothes are concerned, but nor is there an assumption that The Elegant Uniform is for daughters, not mothers or grandmothers.

My own vision for Older Frenchwoman Chic, for the look I aspire to/to age into/to wear if I can sustain Effort for long enough, is a bit different from the gamine uniform. Fewer Breton-striped shirts. More... black boots? Skirts rather than cutoffs? How far this project goes beyond my imagination, we shall see.

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