In my last Letter From
Paris, I talked about the raving success of "Amélie",
the French film that has so delighted audiences on both sides
of the Atlantic and is a leading candidate for best foreign film
at the Oscars March 24. It's obvious to anyone who's seen the
movie, which just triumphed as best picture at the Cesars, the
French equivalent of the Oscars, that no one but a French woman
could have so luminously played the role of the puckish, whimsical,
touching, tender, clever,and absolutely charming Amelie.
Thinking about " Amelie
" got me to thinking about just what makes French women
so special. But first, I should qualify " French woman ",
by stating that I'm referring to a very special breed - la Parisienne.
She's the one we think about when we say "how do those French
women eat so much and stay so slim?" and "how can they
have so few clothes and look like they have a thousand different
outfits ? " and "how can they look so incredibly chic
when they wear hardly any make-up and their hair is all tousled
For the answers to these and
other questions about the intriguing French woman, read on!!
Why so special ?
For most people, the Parisienne
represents the quintessential French woman. She is slender, feminine,
self-confident and, especially, has a certain je ne sais quoi
that leaves everyone wondering what it is she has that other
women can't seem to get no matter how hard they try.
It is, in fact, this mystery
which makes her so special and why it is so aggravating not to
be able to capture what it is about her that makes her the way
she is. Even if you try to deconstruct the Parisienne, analyze
her make-up or her hairdo or her outfit, you still won't get
to the heart of it. You won't be able to take all the various
elements, apply them to yourself, and become a Parisienne. For
the Parisienne is a combination of everything she puts together
in her own personal way.
She is, of course, part myth.
You only have to ride the metro or take the bus in Paris to conclude
that this mythical Parisienne is not to be found everywhere.
You can find Parisiennes in the metro but the metro is definitely
not filled with Parisiennes.
Still, all in all, the aura projected
by the Parisienne, the air of self-confidence, the way she has
on everything right even if " everything " is mussed
hair and blue jeans (the " right " mussed hair and
the " right " blue jeans) is a source of endless fascination.
Why does one woman spend a fortune on a new dress and expensive
jewelry and look ordinary when the Parisienne looks terrific
and interesting - in a simple (but oh so well cut) black
dress with a shawl thrown negligently over her shoulders ?
We foreigners would love to find
out and this isn't recent. In the mid-nineteenth century
English writer and people-observer Fanny Trollope wrote in Paris
and the Parisians : " That manner, gait, and carriage
that expression of movement, and, if I may say so of limbat
once so remarkable and so impossible to imitate, is very singularIt
is in vain that all the women of the earth come crowding to this
mart of elegance. "
So what are her secrets ?
She's got plenty of them. In
no particular order, she's got the seven s's :
: Every foreigner who travels to Paris
asks the same question : how do the Parisians get and stay so
slim ? (Remember : large sizes here begin at 14 and even
a size 12 is definitely not petite). There's a quick answer to
this one. They smoke a LOT and eat next to NOTHING. Simple, n'est-ce
pas ? If you think I'm kidding, check out two Parisiennes lunching
together. There are approximately two lettuce leaves on their
respective plate and they are sipping tea while puffing away
like fiends. They refuse dessert and opt for a small strong expresso
(no sugar). They also RUN a lot, and I don' t mean " jogging
". Parisiennes either take the metro to rush to work (miles
of walking the corridors of the metro does WONDERS for the figure
you don't even need to jog on week-ends) or they drive-
like maniacs. All that adrenalin burns calories.
Sensuality and sexuality : celebrate the body ! it's all great
: perfume, bubble bath, oils, fine-smelling soaps, facials, massages,
pretty lingerie, sexy shoes. No matter whether the Parisienne's
budget is Monoprix or the rue Faubourg St. Honoré, all
Parisiennes are vitally attentive to every item that makes them
look good and smell good.
High-heeled shoes ? The higher
Would a Parisienne not buy something
which is pretty because it's uncomfortable (for example, the
high heels) ? Of course not.
Why ? " Il faut souffrir
pour être belle. " (" You have to suffer to be
beautiful ", as the mother of a Southern girlfriend of mine
often told her as she was growing up. Just an aside, but I find
that Southern women and Frenchwomen have many things in common
including and especially their steel magnolia approach to life.)
Garter belts ? Alluring bras
and lingerie ? You bet, and, I found to my surprise, they are
not reserved to pretty young things. More years ago than I'd
like to tell, I had an operation at a French hospital. I was
the young thing then and in a room with two women who are the
age I am now (let's not be coy I was in my twenties and
they were in the fifties). And who looked better than whom ?
My French roommates had on lovely chiffon sleeveless nightgowns
which contrasted jarringly with my long-sleeved warm flannel
pyjamas. I was horrified and astounded. Astounded because it
never occurred to me that one didn't dress for comfort,
especially in a hospital. Horrified because I looked sooooo bad.
That long ago experience was,
I believe, lesson number one in how to approach being a Frenchwoman.
Look chic, even when lying on
a hospital bed.
Savoir-faire : it's one thing to buy pretty clothes,
shoes, and accessories and another thing to put them together.
The Parisienne has perfected the art of chic. Writes fashion
editor/journalist Susan Sommers in her book French Chic, How
to dress Like a Frenchwoman : "Frenchwomen have something
special. They're feminine, sure of themselves, and seem to delight
in breaking all the fashion rules, yet making it all work. "
At one afternoon tea party in
Paris, I focused my attention on a lively Frenchwoman of an indeterminate
age. She was dressed in a mixture of classic and highly-off-the-wall
: high heeled black and white tennis shoes, short white
socks with ruffled tops, classic black pants topped by a well-cut
short cream colored vest with black-lined pockets trimmed with
gold and pearl buttons. On it she wore a big gold brooch studded
with what looked like black pearls. It was obviously a well-thought
out outfit she had taken great care to assemble but she wore
it as if it were a second skin. After my initial inspection,
I forgot about her get-up and became interested in what she had
to say. But first impressions count, and she'd certainly made
Subtlety : Just as their dress bears a certain subtlety,
so does their way of speaking and listening. Even if you get
past stages one and two and look like a perfect Parisienne, you'll
still have to learn Parisienne-speak. Good luck ! A Parisienne
can insult you without your ever knowing it. Two weeks later
you suddenly understand what the comment was all about and where
the arrow was pointed ; three weeks later you figure out your
response. Too late. You have to be on the ball to deal with a
Parisienne. Here's an example of an exchange at my local boulangerie
Very stylish lady talking to
herself : "Now what was it I wanted ?"
Salesgirl ( a tad impudent) : " If you don't know, I can't
Very stylish lady in a condescending tone with a glacial stare
: "You'd better believe you can't. "
The subtlety in that exchange
came from the change of tone of voice. This is why Parisian-speak
is hard to imitate.
Street sense : For the Parisianne, the street is theatre.
Everyone's watching everyone. She knows that. Whether she's sitting
at a café or boarding a bus, she's watching other people
and wants to be watched as well. If someone catches her eye,
she'll decide whether she wants to hold the gaze or not. If no
one looks, it's a bad day indeed. Parisian plastic surgeon Dr.
Fréderic Serfati, whose life is devoted to beauty, told
me that he admires la Parisienne and her way of "
showing what she has ". " It is ", he concedes,
" a complicated game. The Parisian woman needs to look at
others to see how they are, all the while hoping that they aren't
seeing that she's looking but are looking at her ! "
Self-confidence : Even if she let you in on every single
secret she has, from the scent she is wearing to the way she
ties her scarf, you won't end up looking like her. Her "
look " is a result of her self-confidence, the way she sees
herself. She's put her personal stamp on herself. No admittance.
Says one Parisienne admirer : " The Parisian woman is conformist
but likes to have that little something that makes her stand
out from everyone else. " In addition to that, she's in
the habit of frank self-appraisal. What can I emphasize and what
can I hide ? Many years ago a French woman I worked with asked
me if I thought she looked better in pants or skirts. I really
had given no thought to the matter but she obviously had.
I wasn't much help to her then but I certainly would be now
thirty years of exposure to this kind of frank self-appraisal
has rubbed off !
Every once in a while the
new face of Paris forms a stunning contrast to the old. I was
thinking about this as we strolled around the Bastille area on
a cool May evening before meeting a friend for dinner at Bofinger,
one of my favorite "Belle Epoque" restaurants. After
gazing at the Opera House, a modern cement and glass affair which
is definitely not one of my favorite buildings in Paris (unlike
the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay, two of the late President
Mitterrand's other "grands projets"), we crossed the
street to have a drink at the Café Rey. The café
had obviously been re-done with a new paint job and all the modern
comforts - I thought - until I excused myself to go to the ladies
room where I was amazed to see...a Turkish toilet. For those
of you who have never seen or used one of these contraptions,
let me explain. A Turkish toilet is very simply a hole in the
floor with two raised platforms for your feet. Until 1970, Turkish
toilets were what you got in almost all Parisian cafés.
Fortunately, they have gradually been phased out and so your
chances of stumbling upon one aren't all that great - of course
it had to happen to me! A man using this can manage quite nicely,
I would think - for a woman it is an incredibly complicated process.
I couldn't believe that one could remodel a café and actually
retain this equivalent of the outhouse. Quelle surprise!
After the Turkish toilet experience,
I was glad to find myself in Bofinger, an establishment which
seems to have been around forever and which is as well-known
for its choucroute as for its Belle Epoque decor-mirrors everywhere,
flowered lamps jutting out of the walls, waiters in black and
white hovering like hummingbirds over a room full of chatty,
happy people at tables covered with immaculate starched white
tablecloths. Our visiting American friend ordered lamb chops
while my husband and son tucked into a marvelous choucroute,
the Alsatian specialty of delicately cooked sauerkraut with all
kinds of sausages surrounding it. To my friend's horror, I ordered
a steak tartare, raw hamburger meat seasoned with an egg and
various spices. "You've gone native!" he laughed.
Well, yes, I thought. I guess anyone who can get out of a Turkish
toilet situation with a certain amount of aplomb and then go
eat raw meat and consider it just one more ordinary day in Paris,
has probably definitely gone native, indeed.
A bientôt. (June
Of course the French woman's
got a little help from history here - in fact thousands of years
of French history in which women were wives and mistresses and
powers behind the throne. Frenchwomen trace their female forebears
all the way back to the Merovingiens and beyond. Ever see Merovigian
jewelry ? The woman were very coquettish, even then. Our present
day Parisienne is just naturally following in their footsteps.
In addition to her history, the
Parisienne, c'est logique, has something else : Paris.
Here's how one Frenchwoman, Mady Serfati, who describes herself
as an unconditional Parisienne, feels about the relationship
between Paris, the feminine city, and the women who inhabit it
: " I feel like a woman the minute I am in Paris. Being
in a city with such beautiful architecture and surroundings makes
one want to be beautiful, to shine, to radiate, to please at
any age. Paris creates an osmosis between itself and us. "
At 67 Mady is a wonderful example of the chic dynamic well-dressed
Parisienne. The day we speak she's dressed in a leopard spotted
jacket, perfect fitting gray pants, and stylish flats. Not an
" outfit " but something she put together in her own
way. Like the real Parisienne she is, she looks terrific.
An American woman who has lived
in France for eight years and who is the very portrait of the
independent liberated woman, told me how surprised she was by
the influence of Paris on her vision of herself: " Living
in Paris is like being in a room of wonderful furniture. You
want to dress up and look good to fit in with the surroundings
Different Types of Parisiennes
They may all look the same to
you, universally disgustingly slim and put together, but within
the universal Parisian type are many sub-groups, easily recognizable
when you get the hang of it. There's the
chic bon genre)
This Parisian lives in the chic
neighborhoods of the 16th and parts of the 7th and 15th. So many
of them are found in the tony arrondissements of Neuilly, Auteuil
and Passy that they have been dubbed " NAP's. Her clothes
are well-cut, but not daring. The emphasis is on being proper,
not showy. The most severe type of BCBG may sport padded headbands,
kilts and deck shoes ; the more relaxed type will try to be a
bit more à la mode but never flashy. All have a tendency
toward dull, toned down colors such as bordeaux or bottle green
(for this description and some of the following, I was inspired
by Hélène and Irène Lurçat's handbook
" Comment Devenir Une Parisienne Editions Parisgramme,
unfortunately only in French). (read more
The Intellectuelle Rive
On the other side of the Seine,
in St. Germain de Près, you'll find the left bank type,
generally an intellectual working for a publisher, a university
professor or journalist. She too is chic but her look is more
casual. But don't be fooled : She may wear flats and look teacherish
but check the details for the tailoring of her jacket. It's probably
a ready to wear designer like Kenzo, Miyake, or Yoji Yamamoto,
perhaps Rykiel or Strelli, something combining classic and slightly
(but not too) eccentric.
" L'Artiste "
Her stomping grounds are the
artsy east end of Paris around the Bastille or in a loft near
the Canal St. Martin. Sports an original gypsy look. Wouldn't
be caught dead in a BCBG suit and wouldn't be caught dead
in the 16th arrondissement !
Show-Bizz, Jet Set, Nouveau Riche
Lives in Neuilly or the 8th or
16th but unlike the proper BCBG adores flashy pricey clothing,
and wearing handbags and T-shirts with the designer's name splashed
all over them. Spends holidays in Deauville with all the other
nouveau riche. Does her errands and trucks her kids around
in one of those awful 4 4's just what one needs for
a safari en ville. Bawls YOU out if she's double parked
and you can't get out. Hair is dyed blonde. (I wax eloquent on
this type of Parisienne as I have many a time been boxed into
a parking place by them). Fascinating, but definitely not endearing.
How to Dress, Talk and Look Like
a Real Parisienne
Now here's a challenge : even
if you pass the test on the dressing and speak like a Parisienne,
assuming you have an impeccable French accent and know all the
nuances, one very real problem in looking like a Parisienne is
that you don't have a French face. This is very important
because the French face goes with the French look. And the French
face is closed, reserved, composed and cool. No clean-cut spontaneous
California girl look here.
In terms of your " look
" which the French pronounce " Louk ", here are
a few things to pay attention to should you wish to pass for
a Parisienne or at least not look too much like the tourist
Number One : Shoes. Yes, number
one. You may be dressed in an everyday suit or skirt and blouse
or slacks but if your shoes are wrong ie if for example
you've got on tennis shoes " to be comfortable " you're
disqualified. Some Frenchwomen do wear tennis shoes but
is this a surprise ? they are extremely stylish and just
right with whatever else they have on. Whether tennis shoes or
high heels, la Parisienne spends an inordinate amount
of time finding exactly the right footwear. Shoes and the
handbag (but not matching) are probably the two most essential
elements in her wardrobe.
Number Two : When in the streets
of Paris, leave your sweat pants, polyester pants suits and practical
shoes at home. When the French say, " il faut souffrir pour
être belle ", they mean that you can't look nice if
you put comfort first. In fact, none of them have polyester pants
suits in their closets. Actually many Parisiennes do search
for comfort as well. They just manage never to look like comfort
was the first concern.
Number Three : The little basic
black dress can also be the little basic black pants suit. But
very well-cut. Wear it, like the Parisienne does, with
different scarves, shoes, and jewelry. You're on your way. But
you can also totally ignore that advice and put on what you
like in your own way. I think of my Parisienne friend all decked
out in her platform-heeled tennis shoes, dressy well-cut vest,
and big costume jewelry. She carried it off and she's in
her sixties. If you've got a sense of style and the guts to try
this kind of look, you'll be très parisienne indeed.
But only, of course, if you succeed.
Number Four : Forget the first
three items. This one is capital. The Parisian dresses well all
the time, not just when she goes out. In the States, we are
much dressier when we get decked out for a formal occasion but
when we're at home, we're casual very casual. The Parisian
woman might not get as dressed up for the dinner party (because
she already looks great !) ; on the other hand, even if she's
just going to the market to shop, she'll still put on a pair
of pretty earrings or a special scarf. In all situations, she'll
make an effort to look as good as she can (following the axiom
: you never know who you'll meet).
All of the above is of course
a discussion of the Parisienne as seen by foreigners. It goes
without saying that there are Parisiennes who don't fit into
any of the above categories (or don't think they do). We, though,
are talking about our ideal Parsienne, the one we all refer to
when talking about the French woman, the one we equate with style
It's a hard act to follow and
some foreign women don' t want to be Parisienne. One gaspingly
beautiful statuesque graceful American woman told me that it
was " really painful " for her to try to fit into an
environment where seduction is life or death. Her advice : "
You can emulate being a Parisienne but I would suggest just remaining
who you are. " (Hey, I'll agree on that although I
always make an effort to look decent and then some, I know I
could never begin to compete with a real Parisienne it
would take centuries). Many foreign women live in Paris
for years but never acquire that je ne sais quoi either
because they don't have it and never will or they don't want
to work at it or they find it futile.
Naturally, there is more to the
French woman than style and chic. What makes her interesting
is the combination of steely determination, femininity, self-confidence,
and sheer manipulation. (I always thought it funny that the American
women is very often perceived in France as a blatantly bossy
creature when in fact Frenchwomen yield so much power in their
homes. The proof ? Many, perhaps even most, Frenchwomen, hold
the family pursestrings. As Sanche de Gramont wrote in The French, Portrait
of A People the French woman needs no lessons when it
comes to thriftshe is an ant disguised as a butterfly ".
The French woman generally ends up getting what she wants. In
the end, perhaps the only difference between French women and
other women is in how they pursue their goals. In a nutshell,
French women speak softly and carry a very big stick.
So take another look at our Parisienne,
whether she be a BCBG, an " artiste ", an intellectual
or just herself.
She's has style and chic
but she's also got grit. That chic, charming, subtle Parisienne
is a real steel magnolia or in de Gramont's words, a woman of
" iron and velvet ".
Can we emulate her ? Is there
any hope for all of us non-Parisiennes out there ? Mais bien
sûr ! Says one Parisian sophisticate : " No one
is more Parisienne than a foreigner who's understood what it
is to be a Parisienne. " "
Finding out just what it's all
about and pulling it off, however, could take nothing short of
a lifetime. (from
Letter From Paris, March 2002)