Calling time on the reign of Paris

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By Leonore Carron Desrosiers

True French style is instinctive. It stems from an unconscious response to the pressure of social norms, from the need to comply with the imperative chic, with the “indemodables a la francaise”. It appears to me a very English thing to carefully explore the different trends of the season and select eccentric items, hoping above all to be unique. In France, one dresses to avoid the judgmental stares of passer-bys, to blur into a homogenous crowd of Repetto pumps, cashmere jumpers and cols Claudine. The ideal French femme fatale, her magical sensuality and impeccable taste, seem rather inaccurate products of a romanticised vision foreigners have of us Parisian girls.

I was at first puzzled by the clash between my own perception of our conservative national style and the provocative image YSL’s perfume gave of a liberated Parisienne (a la Kate Moss). Even Miss Dior Cherie would choose some suggestive Gainsbourg song to portray the falsely naïve and seductive French girl. This contrasted so harshly with the reality I knew, where wearing shorts was a sign of vulgarity, where any blunt exposure of one’s bare shoulders or legs would be frown upon as inelegant and unsubtle. Eventually however, it all made sense. French women were forbidden to be tacky or daring, and learned instead a different sense of seduction, more suggestive, depending entirely on the viewer’s imagination. Roland Barthes once said that sensuality is the intermittent flash of skin between two articles of clothing, between two edges. It is an ephemeral experience, a transient element of the French woman’s attitude, of her graceful-yet-teasing posture.

The best example is the classic oversized man shirt, slightly unbuttoned, carelessly gaping: androgynous at first glance, it becomes more and more feminine and radiates the confidence of the woman who wears it. Overly short dresses are known in Paris as “trop anglaises”: revealing an insecure girl, who has failed to achieve that key balance between restraint and suggestion. However, in England, I discovered a world much more exciting than strict French fashion: there was a sense of play that made style above all fun. One would indulge in it as in colourful macaroons from Laduree, exhaling freedom and unexpected creativity. It combined a cosmopolitan merging of patterns and palette, a taste for anachronism, for the absurd shapes of towering stilettos and wedges!

France knows elegance but it has lost its youth. It has become contrived under the fear of a faux pas. English fashion takes risks and, if it often produces some horrid experiments, it also achieves a more progressive vision of style as an experience to be lived, rather than a static postcard of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.

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