ICONIC STYLE: THE COMPLICATED MYTH OF 'THE FRENCH GIRL'
It is probably the most stereotypical fashion trope: French girl style. Just those three words alone instantly spark incredibly specific images of undone hair, nonchalant makeup, most likely a red lip, cigarettes and wine, impeccable tailoring, and blasé (yet totally enviable) styling. It can be so intoxicating - the thought of somehow adopting this elusive Parisian je-ne-sais-quoi. It's an aesthetic to spark a thousand Instagram "#mood" posts. The style and lifestyle of Frenchwomen is arguably the most desired in the world, becoming a multi-million dollar industry in its own right through cosmetics, clothes, fragrances, and even books. The pursuit of the Parisian dream has become, for many, a full-on obsession. But what fuels this French girl obsession and what is wrong with how we think of the French look?
Of course, a cultural zeitgeist is nothing without its icons and, oh, does France have plenty. The European country has steadily cultivated and created sartorial legends, stretching all the way back to the days of Marie Antoinette and her glamourous excess; however, modern “French style” began with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. At a time where women, particularly French women, saw glamour and femininity in fussy and restrictive corseted dresses, Chanel’s instinctual, minimalist approach shattered societal norms. Her poor rural past influenced this laissez-faire, 'profitez des bons moments' attitude. She would wear a bowler hat and three piece suit to dinner parties, or a naval tee, trousers, and pearls to the beach. While women kept their long hair in strategic updos and their skin very pale, Coco sported a bob and a sun tan. Involving traditionally male garments in her unique personal style, she wanted women to feel as comfortable as men in their clothes. Fully understanding the thoroughly modern female rising up in the midst of World War I, she designed trousers, knits, suits, casual dresses, and tees for them to wear in their everyday lives - which have endured almost 100 years on.
If Chanel laid the foundation of what is now that stereotypical “French girl style,” then the icons of the late 1950s/60s full-on built the house. Brigitte Bardot, with her off-the-shoulder tops (forever christened with her namesake), bedroom choucroute hair, custom ballet flats, sultry cat-eye, bikinis, and affinity for leather, catapulted onto the world’s stage as muse to filmmaker Roger Vadim in And God Created Woman. Famously saying, “I grew up during the war, and fashion didn’t mean anything to us.. I hated makeup.. I just did what I felt like doing,” she single-handedly gave French style its underlying sex appeal and French press called it “the Bardot Effect.” Fellow blonde and Roger Vadim muse Catherine Deneuve matched Bardot’s fearless vixen-vibe with girl-next-door touches - hair bows, Mary Janes, tailored coats, and pencil skirts.
The French New Wave brought on both a revolutionary form of filmmaking and a new breed of French muses. In films like A Woman Is a Woman, Pierrot le Fou, Vivre sa vie (My Life To Live), Le Petit soldat, and Made in U.S.A., Jean-Luc Godard's wife and muse Anna Karina popped from the screen with her expressive cat-eye makeup, wide headbands and bangs, knits, Peter Pan collars, vivid reds, and tartan. Then there is Jean Seberg. An Iowa-native, she became a French style legend with her role in Godard’s landmark 1960 black-and-white film, Breathless. With her pixie haircut and girlish features, she stole the film in her striped top and dress, cigarette pants, rounded sunglasses, and New York Herald Tribune top.
Then there are Jane Birkin and Françoise Hardy, arguably the most influential women in the modern “French girl” style domain. They alone practically define it. Birkin’s ability to make the most basic basics - a plain tee, a minidress, some denim, a peacoat, even a wicker basket - undeniably cool is endlessly attempted but always unmatched. It’s so easy to forget that she’s not even French. Her partnership with Serge Gainsbough only heightened her style; their outfits riffed off each other, not so much coordinated but always complemented. One’s look made up for what the other’s lacked. Hardy’s style is equally as cool, though her’s is fuelled by sharp, strong patterns, glistening silver metallics, and intense primary colors. Clad in leather jackets and pants, sleeveless mocknecks, boots of every height and color, and statement sunglasses, she’s one of the muses of her epoch.
French “it-girls” are still at large today, like Jeanne Damas, Camille Rowe, Lou Doillon, and Caroline de Maigret, all drawing from the same sartorial framework created by their predecessors, and each fitting perfectly into the stereotypical mold that continues to be perpetuated by the mainstream fashion industry. A couple have even monetized being a Parisian; Damas has her own clothing line of “quintessential” French pieces, while de Maigret literally wrote a book called "How to be a Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits." Don’t misinterpret me, these new French influencers do have great style - best believe that I’ve turned to their Instagram pages or looked them up on Pinterest for some outfit inspiration, but I am also very aware of two hegemonic beauty ideals that the Frenchwoman archetype perpetuates: whiteness and thinness.
And this is where the problem lies. I was completely baffled when my research on French style icons of color honest-to-goodness lead me to list after list and blog post after blog post full of thin, white women. I find it incredibly hard to believe that after all this time, the French fashion industry hasn't turned to the nation's women of colour for inspiration. Why hasn’t our modern, supposedly more inclusive and diversified industry, embraced and elevated incredibly stylish French women of color like influencer Didi Stone-Dlomidé, blogger Fatou N’diaye, and editor Julia Sarr-Jamois as they have others? And is having a size 0 waist really a pre-requisite for occupying the space of an icon?
Around 30% of France’s population identifies as an ethnic minority, and as many as 40% of the female population wear a size 14 (US). The mythic image of the Frenchwoman is perhaps not an accurate one, but rather one that is limited to a very small segment of the population, or one that reifies an un-diverse part of France's geopolitical history. After a highly divisive presidential election where ethnicity was such a contentious touchstone, there is a critical need for a more broad understanding of what it is to 'look French.' French style is so much more than red lipstick, ruffled bangs, a blazer, and jeans. French style looks Julia Sarr-Jamois’s afro. French style looks like model Johanna Dray. French style looks like the young girls of the Paris Gucci Gang.
So as the eyes of the industry shift to Paris for fashion week, the narrative of the “French it-girl” must be expanded to include all shades and sizes, but - maybe more importantly - the mainstream fashion industry needs to quit perpetuating and fetishizing the same redundant, one-dimensional image of such a multifaceted country of women. Because the endless “7 secrets to dressing like a Parisian” piece we've all seen a thousand times is still missing the point.