Véronique Hyland is the Fashion Features Director at ELLE and the author of Dress Code: Unlocking Fashion From the New Look to Millennial Pink, a collection of essays about the intersection of fashion and our everyday lives, out on March 15, 2022.
For an industry that’s built on seasonally reinventing the way we see the world, fashion has a dirty little secret: it relies an awful lot on clichés. The little black dress. Day-to-night dressing. The much-vaunted “investment piece.” And, when it comes to its human equivalents, there’s the never-changing paper doll that is fashion’s image of the “French girl,” the muse of Pinterest boards and aspirational listicles the world over.
When I set out to write Dress Code, I knew that I wanted to devote a chapter to the global fixation on “French girl style” and look at what that undying myth really says about our culture at large. As ELLE’s Fashion Features Director, I receive several pitches per week about how to emulate the aesthetic. But the appeal goes far beyond the fashion bubble: Bestselling guides from French Women Don’t Get Fat to How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are promise to re-train us to live, eat, dress, and moisturize like those across the Atlantic, while hit shows like Emily in Paris make narrative hay out of the friction between the French and American ways of life.
While digging into its history for the book, I found that the modern French girl archetype was already in evidence by the 1950s, with actress Brigitte Bardot upending what it meant to be sexy and insouciant. The ’60s brought us the lissome yé-yé girls and French New Wave heroines who still clog every mood board on the planet. Every era since has had its own Francophone heroines, with current-day pinnacles of chic like Caroline de Maigret and Jeanne Damas parlaying their je ne sais quoi into everything from coffee-table books to beauty lines.
Writing about Bardot in Esquire, Simone de Beauvoir called her “a negligent waif” who “goes about barefooted” and “turns up her nose at elegant clothes, jewels, girdles, perfumes, make-up, at all artifice” (this, despite Bardot’s well-known love of thick eyeliner and a liberally hair-sprayed bouffant.) At various points in the story, de Beauvoir compares the bombshell to a “child” and a “creature.” Her 1959 account of Bardot sounds not unlike the way we talk about her compatriots today. As I write in the book, “They’re not calculating. They’re not trying too hard. Their innocence is fetishized long into adulthood. Almost every aspect of this feels sexist—these women aren’t a chore to be around, they don’t overthink, and they don’t have the tiresome qualities that adults do. At the same time, they know more than we do — about how to dress, eat, and live.”
This fixed idea of French girl style is not only regressive but classist, too. It pulls from the dictates of BCBG (bon chic, bon genre or good style, good class) which practically requires an ancestral line that amassed enough tweed jackets and strings of pearls for you to mix with your Levi’s to get the perfect street-style photo op. It’s largely centered on wealthy areas of Paris, as opposed to the slightly-smaller-than-Texas-sized expanse that makes up the entire nation.
And it remains static when it comes to race and body type. As I write in the book, you’ll see more baguettes and berets in these guides to French style than you will people of color. Plus-size French women exist, too, but they never seem to make it onto the mood boards. France has always been a diverse country, and as its demographics continue to change, the popular imagination still clings to the white, thin, aristocratic French woman as the sole model of “It” girl appropriate for lionizing. Rather than women like Yseult, a plus-size pop star of Cameroonian descent, who, despite being a bona fide celebrity within France, rarely shows up on American listicles featuring French girl style.
Our need to attribute the ease, languor, youth, and health of the French girl to some magical properties conferred by the contents of her closet and makeup bag feels like a form of consumerism-driven denial. When you look closer at why some aspects of life in France might be superior, they all boil down to things you can’t buy at a beauty counter or denim bar. The social safety net the country is famous for has ensured that people have more stability and free time, in the form of government-sanctioned work-life balance, universal healthcare, and ample vacation time.
If we really want to be more like French women, the perfect red lipstick and LBD will only get us so far. The most enviable thing about them isn’t their perfectly air-dried waves or haphazardly styled marinière shirts. It’s their less visible, less glamorous, but politically hard-won advantages. If we really want to live more like French people, we should start by calling our reps.
Véronique Hyland’s Dress Code: Unlocking Fashion From the New Look to Millennial Pink is available for purchase here.