The pout is one of the French women’s greatest weapons,” explains the heavily Frenchaccented Kevin Kline’s Luc to the uptight American Kate, played by Meg Ryan in the 1994 rom-com French Kiss. “It is provocative. It puts the man in a constant state of excitement and anxiety,” continues Luc as he coaches Kate in the art of French seduction so she can win back her ex-fiancé from the arms of a French temptress. She succeeds, having adopted just enough of the French joie de vivre to come out of her rigid North American shell. This tale about self-discovery is not unlike countless macaronhued bestsellers written on the impossibly chic and wise lives of French women, spawned by the success of Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat, published in 2005. (False! According to the 2014 study conducted by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the obesity rate in France is on the rise, with one in eight adults considered to be obese.) Guiliano, who quit her job as a senior executive at LVMH to expand her French-women-know-best genre with four more titles, including the self-satisfactory account on graceful ageing with French Women Don’t Get Facelifts. (Also false! France is number 10 on the list of surgery per capita study conducted by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons earlier this year.)
However, most of the genre’s authors are American women in search of some Gallic ideal they concocted over the years, which is often a composite of Coco Chanel, Catherine Deneuve and Jane Birkin (who is British) or one of her two famous daughters. American author Jamie Cat Callan went on a French journey to discover her “ooh la la” in France and subsequently wrote three books about it: Bonjour, Happiness!, French Women Don’t Sleep Alone, and – you guessed it – Ooh La La: French Women’s Secrets to Feeling Beautiful Every Day. Jennifer L. Scott left her home in California to live and study in Paris for a year, an experience that resulted in the 2012 bestseller Lessons From Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris (her first lesson was “Snacking is not chic”) and two Madame Chic sequels. Within the genre even French babies are better, according to Pamela Druckerman’s bestseller Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting and Catherine Crawford’s French Twist: An American Mom’s Experiment in Parisian Parenting.
Françoise Hardy/CP. All other photos/Getty Images
Callan, Crawford, Druckerman and Scott are certainly not the first American authors to be seduced and spread the knowledge on the French l’art de vivre. Edith Warthon did so in 1919 with French Ways and Their Meaning, a love letter to everything French. In it she writes, “French people have taste as naturally as they breathe: it is not regarded as an accomplishment, like playing the flute.” No one will deny the importance of France’s cultural achievements, especially in Wharton’s time when North America still looked like the Wild West and France was in the last legs of the magnificent Belle Époque era. Wharton also discovered the French woman’s je ne sais quoi as she wrote: “Compared with the women of France, the average American woman is still in kindergarten.” We can give Wharton a contextual pass, but why are we having the same dialogue a century later?
“There are cultural differences between French women and British, or Canadian women, much in the same way there are differences between any cultures,” says Paris-born, London-based lifestyle journalist and MademoiselleRobot.com blogger Laetitia Wajnapel. “It doesn’t make [the French] better than anyone else and it certainly doesn’t mean there should be a prescriptive ‘French’ behaviour dominating how women from other places should live their lives.”
Last fall, France’s most valuable fashion multi-hyphened expert Garancé Doré penned her first book Love Style Life, a part memoir and part style guide for her particular brand of effortless chic. While Doré’s book features many useful and amusing observations on life, it suffers from the predictable France versus America formula, with two chapters dedicated to the vast cultural differences: Paris vs. New York and New York vs. Paris. Doré writes, “In France, we’re not supposed to stand out too much. Wanting to show off is suspect,” while a New Yorker is painted like an attention-seeking fiend. “That’s why you won’t see so many colors, crazy hairstyles, or exposed body parts on the streets of Paris. Fashion is a quiet, personal matter.” (Doré’s description of French style unintentionally reads more as bland, rather than effortless.)
The aforementioned books read like grad–school research in comparison to click-bait nonsense such as Vogue.com’s Slouchy, not Spandexed: How to Dress for the Gym Like a Parisienne (no sports bra!), The Secret Art of French-Girl Lingerie (always matching!), or The French Way to Wash Your Hair (never blow-dry!). What’s next? Parisienne and the Toilet? These how-to-French-yourself guides do nothing but perpetuate clichés and stereotypes, an insult to millions of French women who don’t prescribe to this restricted idea of what they should be.
So, mismatched underwear: quelle horreur or an individual style choice? Says Wajnapel: “It is so much easier to think that there is a manual to be better than you are rather than trying to figure out who you actually are and develop your own personality and style.”
THE CHIQ CINQ
To live la vie en rose, Parisiennes and their devotees look to a few particular items to characterize their fab femme cred
Illustrations by Emily Isabella for The Globe and Mail
De rigueur social media posts from Paris include a box of these pillowy treats, often purchased at famed patisserie Ladurée. During the holidays, the sweet shop, which opened in the late 1800s, sold macarons in gift boxes for upwards of ¤86 euros. As synonmous as macarons have become with living a decadent French lifestyle, they are rumoured to have actually originated in Italy.
To add savvy to any Instagram account, one should post a quote from the doyenne of French fashion, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. To do the same to a wardrobe, Chanel’s iconic boxy boucle jacket – a mainstay of the fashion house since its creation in 1954 – is a must-have. Lauded for its timeless appeal, current Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld still includes versions in every collection.
Is there anything more fabuleuse than fragrance? If you believe Vogue, mais non. The bible recently had French fashion muse Inès de la Fressange list her rules for wearing perfume, including the tip to “Keep it subtle.” Beautiful scents by Guerlain, Dior and Frédéric Malle consistently line the shelves of the world’s most chic women. Ah, the sweet smell of success.
Another Italian import that consistently tops French beauty writers’ lists is Marvis toothpaste. After all, a proper madamoiselle knows working little luxuries into self-care routines is paramount. With its elegant retro packaging and indulgent price tag ($12), it certainly makes for one pretty smile. Linda Wells, ex-editor of Allure magazine, even tapped this tube as one of her favourite finds in a French pharmacy.
Originating as a motif for the French navy, the Breton stripe top is a quintessential piece of the Paris fashion uniform. Implying a jejeune attitude when paired with slim trousers and ballet flats, it was made an icon of by Brigitte Bardot and other cinema sweethearts such as Jean Seberg in Godard’s Breathless.