Thursday, January 05, 2012


I must confess that I rolled my eyes when I saw that the latest Target designer collaboration "takes [...] direct inspiration from French New Wave films and the actress Jean Seberg." Which fashions of the last half-century haven't taken their inspiration from French New Wave films and the actress Jean friggin' Seberg? Sure, sometimes we hear instead of Gainsbourg, Birkin, and their two effortless, nonchalant, insouciant, insert-other-word-used-to-describe-generic-young-rich-Frenchwoman daughters. Sometimes it's Audrey Hepburn. But the Breton-striped shirt, the  pencil-fit slacks, the dainty flat shoes, this we've been hearing about I'd think continuously since the 1950s or early 1960s, when gamine as we now know it first emerged.

There's a strong case to be made for the gamine look, and I, your massively fashion-hypocritical blogger, lean on "gamine" as my go-to uniform. I often insist that nothing is "classic," and I maintain that "investment piece" is overused and used as a way of justifying high-end purchases headed straight for the back of the closet. Yet gamine never seems to go out of style. Dress as you imagine a Parisienne would have in 1962, and you're all set. You will look all of the following: conservative, classy, chic, feminine, adult. Yet you will not look: stuffy, preppy (aka Ralph Lauren, fantasy WASP lifestyle), trendy, frilly, girly, matronly. You will be underdressed if going to a formal gala or a corporate job, overdressed if biking through mud, but otherwise, you're good.

Sure, there's the obstacle of no one in the States is built like a "gamine." There are thin women in America, yes, but not gamine thin, a look that can only result from that special combination of having gobs of money and hand-me-down Hermès but also having been an underfed chain-smoker since age 11, traits not typically found in the same children in this country, not these days, at least, but altogether normal in the finer Arrondissements. But it is a minor deterrent - the secret genius of "gamine" is that it actually works on more robust-looking women as well. Consider the stripe-happy What I Wore blogger - slim, yes, but in a wholesome-Midwestern way. Consider the direction taken the last few years by Jenna Lyons at J.Crew. Lyons's specific genius was to ignore the (mostly) unspoken requirement that any body fat whatsoever ruins the proportions of French-sailor-chic. Not being proportioned like the Birkin-Gainsbourg heritières hasn't stopped me from risking horizontal stripes. Sticking with one inherently put-together look means you buy less new stuff, and that you look un-slob-like even on days when you put in no effort. Nothing wrong with that.

My ambivalence towards gamine-chic comes in part from the fact that even if it's relatively accessible, it's fundamentally yet another case of fashion as denial of how most even slim women, even French women, are built: for gamine-chic, it is traditionally optimal to look like a little girl, or better yet a little boy. But I also find it unexciting, in this day and age, to define "dressing well" as "dressing French." And this is what gamine-chic is about. That eternal question - why are Frenchwomen so stylish? - could be readily answered: Because we have defined "stylish" to mean "Frenchwoman-like." It's a construct, folks! Anyway.

What ought to replace gamine isn't, I think, a silhouette that outright celebrates the womanly form, both because women with "curves" don't necessarily want to go out dressed like Snooki, and because some women do have the "gamine" build. The goal isn't to switch over to excluding the only women fashion currently includes. And there should be a place for androgyny, without "androgyny" being code for "yay, let's cast skinny men to model womenswear, finally a way to avoid those pesky hips and breasts, all while giving the industry a reputation as progressive." We need to rethink this. Gamine had a lot going for it, but we can do better.

Despite being utterly unqualified to do so, I'm in the process of coming up with what this new look might be. For starters, some inspiration. My own plan is to build a look with these as a starting point. To be continued.


Britta said...

I have a question, what do you call someone who is slim-ish, curvy-ish, not tall and not short? I'm not complaining, but more wondering about terminology. If someone is too curvy to be gamine, too slim to be "curvy" or "athletic," too short to be "statuesque" and too tall to be "petite," is there a term for that?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Lucky," I think. Or "average" if one removes the negative connotation. It's the look that by all accounts appeals most to men, or at least to the most men, and that's best for buying clothes in this era of mass-production. It's not what runway models look like, or men's-mag covergirls, but it's a build that means your build will never stand in your way.

Or: "petite." In America today, if you're below-"normal" weight and not noticeably tall, you are probably sometimes referred to as petite, even if you're well over 5'4".

Anonymous said...

There are many fashion styles to choose from in life. If one is not slim, petite and boyish one should simply NOT CHOOSE GAMINE as their style! There is no need to try to change the gamine look in order to fit a different body type. And there is nothing particularly mischievous and boyish about a trench coat. PS--not all Americans are big--have you been to New York? There are many slim women there!