International Fashion: France


Last spring, on the cusp of beginning my dissertation on fashion theory, I found myself spending three months in the most fashionable city in the world. I had agonized for weeks over what clothes to pack so that I could easily blend in with the locals, but it only took me one day in Paris to realize that as an American, I could never project that “je ne sais quoi” that French women so effortlessly possess.

In fact, one particularly cold and rainy April day, as I was sniffling through the streets trying to salvage some shred of my sartorial dignity, I kept noticing the beautiful French women walking by me, one after the other after the other – each one with perfectly rosy cheeks, exquisitely painted eyes (the cat-eye was very “in”) and clothes that seemed exactly to fit the rainy urban background.

It dawned on me, in one of those annoying moments during which an academic person “discovers” something completely obvious, that fashion (and by extension, femininity) is truly so very culturally informed. I realized that even if I spent the next three months doing nothing but observing the fashion and styles of French women there’d still be certain things I could never emulate.

So I just want to write very briefly about a few of the traits I noticed in those months in Paris which provided me with a glimpse into the many ways that the French have affected fashion.


Historically speaking, France and fashion are very closely wed. Marie Antoinette is seen by some as the very first fashionista (all the way to the guillotine!). Read Caroline Weber’s fantastic book, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution for more on the original shop-o-holic herself. And of course France introduced Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Christian Lacroix to the fashion world (among many others).

But despite the longstanding relationship between France and fashion, in modern times Parisians seem surprisingly anti-trendy. That is, if we understand trendy-ness to be part of an inclination to wear anything and everything “cool,” with a total disregard for what looks good. French women, on the contrary, seem to have completely cornered the market on “what looks good.” Yep, the ability to re-interpret style and elegance in way that is neither gauche and trendy or cheap and crass is precisely what defines the unattainable essence of the French style maven.

Take for example some of the photos Garance Dore has captured on her site: Sexy elegance and confident individuality. Although she has started traveling a bit to photograph women in other cities, Garance highlights many of these qualities in the stunning French women she photographs. Her French subjects never over do it. They always manage to showcase one or two unique pieces against an outfit of complete elegance. When I realized that the Monoprix (the French equivalent of Target) sells more sophisticated and classic pieces of clothing than many high-end stores in the US, I understood that the French fashion default is always elegance. And yes, they do wear a lot of black. And always, always perfume.

As Paris Fashion Week winds to a close, and the question of collapsing couture houses is on everyone’s lips, it seems apropos to take a moment and ponder the role of the different “centers of fashion”: Paris, London, Milan, and New York. I’ll be exploring some of the ways that these cities (and a few others) play a unique role in the fashion world and how fashion is really defined in each of them.

But, there will really only ever be one Belle de Jour. French style icons like Catherine Deneuve embody the timeless chic and femininity (not to mention the sex appeal of Brigitte Bardot) that one can detect in almost every French female.

For more on French fashion in general see Fatale : How French Women Do It by Edith Kunz or Parisian style in particular check out Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, by Valerie Steele.

While some have argued that French style is a little lackluster in its refined sophistication, I think in the end French women must be doing something right if it was ultimately a French songbird – Vanessa Paradis – who stole the heart of Johnny Depp.


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  • faith July 23, 2009 09.23 am

    exquisite article. thank you for sharing and putting into qualifying terms the “je ne sais quoi” of superb french fashion.

  • Meg July 27, 2009 09.37 am

    I think that it is undeniable that there is a French look that has been the envy of women in recent years however I would be wary of generalising about the state of woman-hood and fashion through-out the whole nation just from a study of those very chic Parisians. As in any country there are those who embody the sartorial stereotype/ideal and there are those who don’t. When I was a French exchange student in the late 80s the must-have item for French teenagers in the provinces was florescent surfer shorts (I bought two pairs); probably very trendy globally at the time but hardly the understated, devil-may-care, nose-thumbing at fashion that is described in the post.

    I am also wary of holding one nation’s particular style up as some-how better than any one else’s. What’s wrong with the sharp dressing New York socialites, the quirky London artist, the child-like Tokyo ingénue? Nothing. These are all generalisations along with Parisian-chic and they all have their place, but we shouldn’t feel inadequate because we can’t embody a particular one.

    The French have done a great propaganda job over the years on many of their cultural traits; they have the best cuisine, the best fashion, the best lovers (!). I wish I could say that I could verify that last one, but for the other two they are no better or worse than any other country, just different. (Oh yeah, but I do think their wine’s the best. No wait, Germany wine’s quite nice, mmm, or Italian!)

  • J. Davis August 03, 2009 08.47 pm

    These are some great old school fashion photography pics. Thanks for sharing really cool style.

  • Melina August 13, 2009 12.47 am

    This is also a great and well-researched article 🙂

    I’ve just happened to write a series on French women on my blog. You can find them here;

    Learn How to be a Most Desirable and Ideal Women


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