Americans tend to idealize French style, because it sums up what we want – natural beauty, effortless cool, mystery, allure. Je ne sais quoi translates to “I know not what” – it’s that thing you can’t put your finger on, the thing that can’t be nailed down to 5 Easy Steps, that something that your coolest friend has. Not just confidence, not just physical beauty, but an indefinable draw. Cards on the table, I can’t really try that on. It is beyond me. But there are aspects of French style that I love and I am traveling to the south of France in the fall, so I am definitely in the mood to give it a try!
Black-and-white striped top, black skirt, black flats. Pretty classic. For this week, I tried to go by Coco Chanel’s rule of “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I tried to simplify each outfit. If an accessory didn’t have an impact, I didn’t wear it. Even with the simplest outfit, there are ways to give it personality and make it unique.
I decided to wear my glasses, because glasses are an accessory with an immediate impact. They have the ability to completely change a look. It’s very French to work with what you’ve got. What makes you look like you? Glasses betray that I have a weakness – I’m genuinely nearsighted. But that weakness is a part of who I am and what makes me me. I like my glasses, because they help me see and I like how they look. We don’t have to look physically perfect. Beauty isn’t pretending we have no weak points. Beauty is simultaneously telling the truth and concealing the truth. Being honest and keeping secrets.
The shirt has a boxy fit, so I tied it up and changed the shape to suit me. French women know how to wear clothes well. They don’t let clothes wear them. They will alter the clothes and make sure everything fits.
Your lifestyle affects what you wear. One major logistical aspect of French style is that French women walk everywhere – it’s something that they take into consideration. It’s about a thirty minute walk from my house to where I work, so I decided to walk to work one day and pick a cute outfit that would stand up to it.
A few thoughts that went through my head during the picking process:
- It needs to be comfortable for the whole day – not just for walking, but for work as well. The outfit needs to be multi-functional, because athletic clothes would be very comfortable for walking, but inappropriate in a professional context. No matter how comfy sweatpants are, they would make me uncomfortable at work.
- It needs to be cool and breathable. Otherwise, I will arrive at work a complete sweaty mess. It’s hard to maintain a cool and mysterious aura when completely drenched.
- Shoes. I can’t walk very far in heels. Even comfy ones. French women can, but I know my limits. Flats, then.
Going by that criteria, I picked out one of my favorite dresses. It was one that I actually wore a lot when I was in France. Stretch jersey, a neutral print, a couple of details (ruffle sleeves, tie waist), and a great fit. Light enough to keep me cool all day, pretty enough to make me happy all day. That’s why it is one of my all time favorites.
I only had accessories that helped me out. Sunglasses – pink ones that make me think of la vie en rose and that line in Sabrina (“Only in Paris, where the air is pink, does that song make sense.”) Shoes – compact black Nike sneakers that transitioned well from the walk to the office. I’ve heard the NEVER WEAR SNEAKERS IN EUROPE advice a lot, but it really depends on the sneakers.
The walk was wonderful. Contemplative, unhurried, a good time for sorting through thoughts and planning out the day. Appreciating often-overlooked processes is a beautiful part of French life. Enjoying meals and making the meals, enjoying the process of getting ready, enjoying walking to work and walking back home from work. In The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a wise fox tells the little prince about the importance of ritual:
“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you… One must observe the proper rites…”
“What is a rite?” asked the little prince.
“Those also are actions too often neglected,” said the fox. “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours.”
There are sweet rhythms and rituals to life – enjoy them and make them into something beautiful.
French style is sexy. Undeniable fact. But it’s more complicated than a see-up, see-down, see-through sexy. It’s a mix of covered and uncovered. It’s the allure of having a secret. On a date, you probably don’t want the whole restaurant and your date to have the same reaction to your outfit. A sliver of shoulder that only your date can see is just as alluring and has the added allure of mystery. To quote The Little Prince again, “It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” There’s always more to be discovered.
I wanted to create a low-key mix with this covered/uncovered feel. The color scheme was neutral again, but the lovely light neutrals that you see all over France in the summertime. French women love their neutrals, but they also dress seasonally. Black in the winter, cream and navy in the summer. Black might make an appearance in a linen summer dress, but it isn’t the predominant color scheme.
For this look, I chose a cream lace shirt and layered it over a gray camisole. I love this top – it combines the sheerness of the lace with a very classic shape (high neck, short sleeves, a structured fit). I wanted to wear linen at some point this week, so I brought out my tan linen shorts. They are loose and comfortable, with a natural ease to them. Mushroom-colored heels that cover the foot finished off the ensemble.
I didn’t wear any eye makeup on that day – not even mascara. I wanted all the focus to be on the lips, so I put on foundation, then mixed red and bright pink lipstick for a really bright lip. The whole look made me feel very beautiful.
This day wasn’t much of a clothes day, because I got to work and immediately started feeling sick and dizzy. So I came home and got into pajamas. But before the pajamas, I wore a new favorite dress – an oversized denim shirt dress that is the perfect blank canvas for bold accessories.
Spikey shoes and hammered silver earrings and a textured ponytail. Mascara and eyeliner. Cool look. But when you feel sick, you just don’t care.
When I get sick, I get dizzy and faint. Then I get scared to drive, because I am afraid of passing out and crashing and generally being a danger to myself and others. It’s best for everyone if I just get back into bed and sleep until I feel not sick. Kind of a waste of an outfit, but again – I just didn’t care at that point.
Day 5: Femininity
After spending Thursday in bed, I got up on Friday and felt like a new woman. To celebrate, I put on one of my prettiest dresses. It’s an ultra-feminine little number in a blue and white floral pattern, with a fit that makes the world a better place.
For all my confidence, I kind of steer away from this dress, because it’s so girly and pretty. Just writing that down makes it sound stupid, but it’s the truth. It’s easier to wear something quirky/interesting and be the person in the background. This dress gets noticed.
In movie costuming terms, this is a romantic lead outfit, not a quirky best friend outfit. Maybe that is part of the indefinable beauty of French women – maybe they naturally step into that lead role without thinking too hard about it. I do tend to shy away from anything that seems romantic, because I’m perpetually single. Sometimes it seems like a waste to wear pretty things, but it isn’t. Life is short. Wear the pretty things. Wear them in celebration, wear them in confidence.