The Problem With "French Style"

Photo: Everett Collection/REX USA.
"I don't understand the obsession R29 has with dressing like a French girl."
"The romanticization of France/French people is nauseating already."
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"How. Many. Times. Are. We. Going. To. Talk. About. French. Girl. Style. Holy crap."
As much as we love the French approach to personal style, we know that R29 readers have some opposing viewpoints. And, for those of you who have expressed your frustration with style that looks like a million bucks but is "effortless," we totally hear you. In fact, we'll eye-roll right along with you, because there's no doubt that French style is romanticized. However, we're also not convinced that's such a bad thing, or even that it is accessible only to those who hit the genetic (and monetary) lottery. But, we had to get to the bottom of the obsession first to figure that out why it inspires so much passion from its devotees and ire from its haters.
"The real French style is not only about clothes, it’s more about a behavior," says Parisian street style photographer Frédéric Vielcanet. "Having a personal look is only one of the aspects besides a certain kind of easygoing [attitude] toward life in general. I would say that French girls dare things and they assume to be free. I wonder if, besides fashion stuff, it’s not the reason why they are like a mystery and object of fascination for so many people."
Photo: Courtesy of Balmain.
It's easy for anyone to fill a Pinterest board with images of Brigitte Bardot, but the Western world's obsession with French style is much more complicated. As fashion historian and author of PANTONE on Fashion: A Century of Color E.P. Cutler tells us, it can be traced back to the World War II era. "Paris was occupied [in 1940], and [that's] when America really started to take over with fashion and get their own sense of fashion," she says, going on to suggest that, "In order to assert American fashion and style, they stepped on Paris fashion."
It didn't stay like that forever. As Cutler believes, it was Carmel Snow, the editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar in the mid-1900s, who was famously responsible for bridging the gap between French and American fashion after the war. "When Dior had its New Look, she just went crazy for it. And, it was really essential — having an American tastemaker say, 'Paris fashion is back.' It was an idea that was packaged and sold, and America bought it." Almost 60 years later, we wonder if Snow could have predicted that Americans — and of course, the broader world of fashion-lovers at large — would continue to buy. "Are people still talking about that?" asked Gaelle Drevet, owner of New York's Pixie Market, when we told her we were looking to get to the bottom of why there were so many French fashion haters. For her, the "selling" of the style is something as literal as sales for items that are recognized as "French": the striped T-shirt (thanks, Bardot), scarves, boyfriend blazers, pleated pants, and "anything that's menswear." But, as a native of France herself, Drevet expressed that she does understand why there may be some frustration among her international counterparts. "First, there was that book, French Women Don't Get Fat, and I was like, c’mon now, that's not true."
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Photo: Kirstin Sinclair/Getty Images.
But, there are others who continued to be sold on the idea that French women do hold the secrets to life somewhere in their charmingly unkempt hair or Chanel flats. And, perhaps there’s no more relevant example than the popularity of the current New York Times best-seller, How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are.
"The idea is to find the real you, and to not be a product of what society wants you to be," says Caroline de Maigret, one of the book’s authors. She also tells us that as far as the French style naysayers go, it’s not really something that concerns her. "A lot of people are interested, and that's what matters to me. The idea of the book is not to lose your identity to become French — it is to give tricks of how we live our lives as mothers, lovers, at work, at parties, etc., and to inspire the ones that are interested in our way of living.” And, flipping through a few of the chapters — "Parisian Snobbism," "Yes. But No. But Yes.," and "A Mother With Flaws" — it becomes pretty clear that these lifehacks are as simple as a grain of salt, and way less expensive than a Saint Laurent blazer.
"It’s a lot like [the way] Middle America women think of New York fashion," says Cutler, comparing French-style obsession to the Sex and the City-ization of NYC. "I thought that I would just be wearing five-inch heels all the time, but then a lot of the Paris streets are cobblestone, the way that a few of the streets in the West Village or Soho are cobblestone," she says, adding, "French women aren’t wearing heels all the time." Sure, it's demystifying the unrealistic fantasy, much like de Maigret's book, with a chapter dedicated to the French woman's 6 p.m. struggle to go to the gym for fear of inheriting a saggy butt — a struggle that’s lost to wine.
Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images.
"I’m not saying no one else is chic, but like, they’re the ones," said Andrea Linett, of I Want To Be Her and French-inspired line Jolie Laide. The unapologetic Francophile named her brand after the French term for "pretty ugly," which has been used to describe women who don’t fit the norms of conventional beauty. (She gives Anjelica Huston or Charlotte Gainsbourg as examples.) But, while we love the idea that the term describes a person who’s "cooler than perfect," as Linett says, it also ties in quite perfectly with the allure of French fashion in the first place.
"There’s like an obsession with blown-out hair and perfect makeup and head-to-toe matching perfect outfits," Linett points out, adding, that French women are "the polar opposite of that. Even if I tried to look, like, really put together, it wouldn’t work anyway. They make me feel better." Essentially, instead of assuming that a woman has the desire or will to be perfect, French style aims for practical, comfortable, and beautiful, especially as seen through the eyes of those who appreciate the same values.
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As Cutler explains, the stem of haterade could be brewing from a "you think you’re better than me, so you’re worse than me," attitude. "You feel it a lot in fashion, and it’s just this sort of unnecessary fighting. I’m not going to totally discount a human being based on her clothing, so I don’t understand why we would vilify fashion as an entire country because it’s great." As for the over-romanticizing, she’s all for it. After all, "A lot of fashion is all about fantasy," she says. And, it’s a fact that can be as commonplace as window shopping through your favorite boutique, or as unique as the Decora girls of Harajuku. But, thing is, haters, we see where you're coming from when you ask us "How. Many. Times." we can talk about the topic, especially when there's an entire world of Style Out There to be celebrated. But, we also can't promise this is the last time you'll hear about French style from us. Hey, we're not perfect. And, isn't that kinda the whole point?
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