The Problem With The French Girl Aesthetic

Illustrated by Axelle Rose ZWARTJES.
Whether your understanding of the term is informed by an Eric Rohmer boxset or a picture of Brigitte Bardot – stumbled upon years ago and subsequently revisited in anticipation of any summer holiday, be it Brighton, Broadstairs or Biarritz – the French Girl aesthetic is familiar style territory for most of us. It's garnered so much publicity over the last decade – read her insider tips on Breton stripes; watch as she shows us how to achieve the perfect red lip – that it’s become a ubiquitous visual performance, as habitual as donning florals come spring.
While versions of the look may once have inhabited poster space on your bedroom wall, or perhaps filled the style quota on your Tumblr, today’s interpretation is most likely all over your Instagram explore page. Invited or otherwise, the French Girl's particular je ne sais quoi is no doubt penetrating the peripheries of your sartorial game as we speak. Which is no bad thing – it’s a strong look, and one Refinery29 has championed – however there’s something unsettling in the widespread popularity of an aesthetic that, in 2019, remains strictly Caucasian and especially slender.
For all the industry’s talk of diversifying – and the progress on this subject to be found elsewhere on the ‘gram, across the web and via magazine pages – popular style tropes like the French Girl aesthetic remain prevalent on social media, upheld by influencers and their respective fans. Moreover, there is a wave of brands that define themselves by honing this look, marketing it in a tone that taps into consumers’ social interests (read: packaging it in a bold mission statement that proposes a feminist approach) but, without employing the mechanics to support the sentiment, ultimately proves problematic.
A take on supposedly typically Gallic hero pieces, the current French Girl aesthetic is ‘90s heavy and highlights floral babydoll dresses, button-up camisoles and pastel knit cardies: pieces that complement a wicker basket bag and have a good thing going with a kitten heel. Infiltrating the mainstream for the past few seasons, the look has found its voice (and accessed its market) via Instagram, advocated most notably by contemporary labels like Rouje, Réalisation Par, With Jéan and Musier Paris.
Launched in April 2016 by Parisian Jeanne Damas, Rouje, which boasts 528k Instagram followers (Damas’ personal account attracts 1.2 million), notes in its online manifesto that it is "above all, a brand for women made by women". Elsewhere it flaunts its French Girl capital as a brand "of girls who apply lipstick with their fingers" and "who eat fries and drink red wine". The Rouje woman is carefree with her beauty regime and apparently rebellious (but French af) with her diet. She’s effortless, as per French Girl requirements.
Réalisation Par’s bio is similarly concerned with exhibiting its version of feminism. A Refinery29 favourite, founded by Australian design duo Alexandra Spencer and Teale Talbot in 2015 (current Instagram followers: 544k), fans should be encouraged by the pair’s inclusive sentiment that the label "represents the best of all of us, of all women" because, as they conclude, "together we are everything".
In a post-Women’s March, way past feminist-slogan-tee-as-legitimate-political-signifier climate, the 'women for women' styled tagline has lost much of its radical connotations and, used here, underscores a frustrating sense of disconnect: exactly how empowered is the average British woman (dress size 16) meant to feel when the bulk of these brands which claim to be celebrating them don’t produce clothes above a UK size 14 (European 42)? "The Musier woman is feminine, free and modern!" announces the Musier Paris site, glossing over the fact that she is also a size 34-40 (UK size 6-12).
The sizing problem is not a new phenomenon – shoppers have been calling out the 'different shop, different size' issue for years – but lately consumer outrage has been aimed at a much more damaging trend. As ASOS recently discovered after being called out on Twitter for labelling a UK size 14 as XL (apparently aligning its concession label measurements with its in-house size guide), the figures don’t make sense: how do you categorise a size 12 – smaller than the UK average – as large? As Yomi Adegoke pointed out in The Guardian, the real issue with this sizing system is not the letters themselves but the fact that brands are complicit in the shaming language commonly used to determine that big is bad and fat is purely negative. ASOS' label choices, Adegoke writes, "felt more like an accusation than a factual inaccuracy". The same could be read into the labels mentioned here.
Further disconnect between what these labels say and what they do – and by affiliation, what the French Girl aesthetic demands – is demonstrated elsewhere on Instagram. Main feeds and preserved story highlights are predominantly filled with images of white women, while those featured in tagged photos similarly fit the homogenous criteria; a number of pictures show women whose appearance closely resembles the women behind the labels – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that several were conceived as a result of the founder’s influential status (like Damas, Musier Paris founder Anne-Laure Mais has 400k more people following her Instagram than her label’s).
These observations are apparent in the comment sections too. Elsewhere on Instagram, amid heart emoji and would-be customers asking when the Isabelle dress will be back in stock, followers freely discuss sizes and question the homogeneity of the models. And when labels do come through and feature more diverse women, praise is poured out – though this does as much to highlight how inconsistently these women are represented.
While these issues are not exclusive to the French Girl aesthetic, in her they’re keenly sensed. Moreover, the reluctance of these labels to engage with a broader audience – and the wider fashion industry – feels like an oversight, dated and ultimately lazy. That they’re creating a space on Instagram that’s accessible to only a small group – and using feminism as a tool to promote it – feels fake and disappointing. At a time when more and more labels, especially those of a similar age and with similar platforms to these, are seeking out ways to be genuinely more inclusive, that a label would not follow suit is especially disheartening. 

More from Trends

R29 Original Series