That’s me – I have to admit. I like a good fairy-tale, and I’ve bought into the myth that French women do it – that is, live more elegantly, and dress better than the rest of us. And, I’ve bought almost all the books, and borrowed the rest from the library, to tell me how I, too, can aspire to this state of grace.
My home library includes Parisian Chic: A Style by Ines de la Fressange to keep my look contemporary and modern (not to forget a little bit “rock’n’roll”).
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The classic tomes of wisdom by Genevieve Antoine Dairaux – A Guide To Elegance For Every Woman Who Wants To Be Well And Properly Dressed On All Occasions, The Men In Your Life (a must read – this is sheer genius), and the surprisingly practical range of French Women Don’t Get… (Fat or Facelifts) books by Mireille Guiliano.
Then there’s the plethora of books written by ex-pats, such as Tish Jett’s Forever Chic, who claims to have absorbed Gallic style secrets by osmosis, having lived in France for more than two decades.
One of the most recent publications to hit the bookshelves is How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are by not one, but four, French women, Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline Maigret and Sophie Mas. Admittedly, although I have bought this book, I have not read it, nor taken a peek at the 80 black and white and colour photographs, because I gave it as a gift to the Sophisticette.
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A 26-year-old PhD student, the Sophisticette will undoubtedly indulge in this charming, witty and tongue-in-cheek book as a diversion from her more serious studies. This quartet of authors, who are described as bohemian free-thinkers and iconoclasts by their publisher, heralds a new generation of 30-something femme fatales, who undoubtedly put their own spin on the series of style commands that one needs to undertake in order to be truly chic.
Where does the truth lie? I’ve got some of my own insights, based on some very imprecise research undertaken when I was roughly around the Sophisticette’s age. I was not in throes of a rigorous research PhD but grappling with some very open ended concepts in a mail-order Arts degree, and found my first clue in a pop song.
She reads Simone de Beauviour in her American circumstance
The line is from the song Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, who had penned quite a few tunes with lyrics that were dear to undergraduate Arts students’ hearts.
Being a late starter, although I had heard the name Simone de Beauviour before, I really didn’t know who she was – so I went to the library to find out. Simone de Beauviour is the author of The Second Sex – a work that is regarded as a major work of feminist philosophy, and the starting point of the second-wave of feminism, but I was yet to learn this because I went to the fiction (rather than the non-fiction) section of the library.
I discovered Simone de Beauviour as a novelist first. After ploughing my way through She Came To Stay, The Woman Destroyed, Les Belles Images, and Les Mandarins (which won the Prix Goncourt prize in 1954), I discovered quite a bit about Simone de Beauviour. Les Mandarins is a roman à clef, so is perhaps the most telling of all the novels, and the key to her American circumstance.
Put bluntly, in her novels, Simone de Beauviour was pretty similar to most of us – quite neurotic to the various foibles of womanhood. She (her characters at least) worried a lot about ageing – because by the tender age of 30, a woman was past her use-by date! They were also concerned about being “beautiful” enough, the sometimes fickle nature of men, and how to deal with betrayal and remain dignified.
In Les Mandarins, the character Anne Dubreuih (SdB) is a French psychoanalyst in her 40s, who falls in love with an American writer, Lewis Brogan (supposedly based on her real-life love, Nelson Algren). This couple, who find happiness and compatibility both physically and intellectually, decide to meet up in the States and go on holiday together.
And what does Anne do to prepare for her holiday? She starts thinking about her vacation wardrobe – not very existential of her, but quite normal. Her stylish friend convinces Anne that, along with the shorts (it was a summer holiday) and jaunty scarves, to pack something very luxurious and seductive.
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So Anne dutifully includes a vial of scent in her luggage – the brand name is not mentioned but the narrative tells us that it is the most expensive perfume in the world – and given the time period, we can assume that it is Patou’s Joy. And what did Lewis Brogan (aka Nelson Algren), the American social-realist writer, think of this landmark example of the floral genre in perfumery that takes 10,000 jasmine flowers and 28 dozen roses, not to mention the other flowers such as ylang ylang, michelia and tuberose to create?
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He thought it stunk, and forbid Anne/SdB from wearing it, saying he preferred the natural scent of her under-arms – perhaps this was the beginning of the end. The “real” relationship between SdB and NA soured when he read an English translation of Les Mandarins.
Initially, Algren had been proud of SdB’s achievement in winning France’s most prestigious literary award, but he was unable to speak or read French, and while he knew there was a character in the book based on him, he had no idea of how he had been portrayed. Suffice to say, when he found out, he didn’t like it one bit.
The Truth About Frenchwomen
But for those of you who want more rigour in your research, freelance journalist, Marie-Morgane Le Moel undertook a two-year project to try and pinpoint where the idealised French woman stereotype, as the slim, designer-clad, sexually sophisticated free spirit originated, and whether or not this archetype is, in fact, true. These insights are well documented in her new book, The Truth About Frenchwomen.
To truly understand the French woman, one must understand French history, culture, and the role of the Catholic Church. For a country whose national motto is Liberté, égalité, fraternité,(liberty, equality, fraternity), France took its time in giving women the vote – they finally got it in 1944, and the preamble to the Constitution of 27 October 1946 included this as one of the basic principles of the Republic: “the law guarantees women equal rights of those of men in all spheres”.
But despite this official tardiness, French women have defied societal norms and created their own destiny. Heroines such as Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc), the teenage girl who led the French army to success, and the legendary femme sans-culottes, who were instrumental during the French Revolution.
Madame de Pompadour might have been the official mistress of Louis XV but she was also his valued aide, advisor and patron of the Arts. The writer, Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known by her pseudonym George Sand, often dressed in men’s clothing, and lived as she pleased.
In bygone centuries, Paris was fashion and intellectual capital of the world. Literary, political and philosophical groups called Salons spanned the city limits. Women were the hostesses of these highly sought-after, cerebral get-togethers. These women were les Grandes Dames des Salons Parisiens, the Great Ladies of the Parisian Salons. The guest lists of these meetings were as infamous as they were celebrated, including some of the greatest minds and personalities of the Enlightenment – Volatire, Molière, Madame de Sévigné.
Le Moel says this kind of daring, and the formative role of salon culture that soon opened to women also, have created a culture in which both genders are always expected to play their ever-evolving roles. “So much of who and how we are is related to the salons, particularly our preference for mixed events and mixed everything,” Le Moel said.
The 20th century had its share of French women who invented their own rules. Coco Channel, revolutionised women’s fashion in the 1920s by introducing a looser, more comfortable silhouette that freed women from the corsets and frills that then dominated the apparel industry. I have already mentioned the philosopher, Simone de Beauvior, earlier in this post, and as well as authoring The Second Sex, she made Brigitte Bardot into an extistentialist pin-up, and described her has the ultimate free-spirit – “She is neither perverse nor rebellious nor immoral. That’s why morality does not have a chance with her.”
And, what of the contemporary Frenchwoman? Le Moel provides the reader with her observations and anecdotes of her countrywomen, some of whom are quite like the stereotype, and others not at all.
The truth is very simple, very complex, and sometimes contradictory!
Want to learn more?
Avid Reader and Alliance Francaise will host Marie-Morgane Le Moel in conversation with Susan Johnson discussing The Truth About French Women.
- Time: 6 to 8pm
- Date: Tuesday 26 May 2015
- Venue: Avid Reader Bookshop, 193 Boundary Street, West End, 4101
Want to hear more?
Listen for she reads Simone de Beauvior in her American circumstance…