It’s 1979, and a handful of American women living in Paris meet for a pseudo-support group. The women’s husbands have been relocated to France, so they chat about their new lives, how to navigate the culture, and other expat concerns. The chief item on the agenda? How to be as chic as the French women they see in their new city.
Acting as a fly on the wall in that group was Joan Juliet Buck, the former French Vogue editor, who was doing research for a screenplay that included Americans in Paris.
“These American women all wanted to know how to tie their scarves like the French women do,” Buck said. “This thing has been going on forever.”
That “thing” Buck is referring to is the desire to achieve that perfect French girl style, the perpetual ideal to which non-Parisians are to aspire. There is the just-so effortlessness: tousled hair, lips stained by what looks like natural rosiness, and the great sex. And, lest we forget, the art of tying your scarf just right.
It seems Americans can never get enough of this. A quick search for “French girl” results in myriad how-to guides, as you’ve surely seen: “How to Dress Like a French Girl,” “The One-Minute Makeup Tip French Girls Swear By,” and so on, each of which is meant to sell you that idea of easy French sensibility. Most everyone says it’s “impossibly chic,” which makes this writer launch an Oscar-worthy eye roll. (If it’s impossible to achieve, why bother trying?)
“Fashion bible” Vogue‘s got an entire section on its site dedicated to “French Girl Style,” and recent headlines include “6 Perfumes Every French Woman Has Owned at Least Once in Her Life,” “The History of French Girl Hair: From Marie Antoinette’s Pouf to Bardot’s Bedhead,” and “How To Do Valentine’s Day Like a French Girl.” Even English and American men try to compete with their Parisian counterparts on the fashion front.
While there are variations on the look, the uniform for women is most identifiable by a Breton-striped shirt, a red lip, and skinny jeans. Never too far away are a pair of ballet flats or a trench coat. All you’re missing, it seems, is a baguette and beret (though Dior seems to have addressed that in its most recent runway show). Quel ennui.
Despite the wave of nationalism across the American heartland (see: Make America Great Again), there’s still demand in the U.S. for all things French in style and beauty. So too, then, are those cashing in on the Parisian dream.
There are the bestselling perfumes by Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, the cosmetics by Dior, and the lingerie by Aubade. There are the countless book titles with the intimate rules all French women supposedly follow: French Women Don’t Sleep Alone: Pleasurable Secrets to Finding Love; French Women Don’t Get Facelifts: The Secret of Aging with Style & Attitude; The French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook.
My Little Paris, an editorial and e-commerce site, has 1.5 million subscribers signed up for its weekly newsletter, and “has blossomed into a mini-lifestyle empire and creative agency.” In January, the company launched an English version of its newsletter, tailored to Americans itching for more “French” content. There are monthly subscription boxes, designer collaborations, and the company’s very own beauty brand.
If you’re looking for someone to blame for it all, you likely won’t find a single source from the cultural archives. It could have originated with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in the 1920s and ’30s, after American Vogue said Chanel’s little black dresses are to fashion what Ford was to the automobile industry. The obsession could have come a decade or two after that with Christian Dior himself, who reimagined the feminine silhouette in 1947. Or the shift could have come later still, in the ’50s and ’60s, during La Nouvelle Vague, when the Bardots and Birkins reclaimed feminine sexuality. As for the striped shirts, perhaps the inspiration was Jean Seberg’s character in Breathless.
Worth noting: Reducing all French women to a singular, idealized Parisian is like saying all American women live like New Yorkers. What’s more, Parisian women aren’t all slender and white. Of Paris’s roughly 2.2 million population, nearly 15 percent are immigrants, many of whom come from North African countries such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
As for the women who do live in Paris, some find the guides trite, and none I’ve spoken to find them groundbreaking. As one Parisian working in fashion marketing puts it, “Those pieces are kind of overwritten and always basic.”
Another said, “it might be a bit cliché, but I can understand it is easy to sell the French lifestyle. As a regular person, I do not go to Fauchon or Ladurée to buy my macarons, and not everybody is actually wearing Chantal Thomas underwear.”
For all the culture’s allure, it’s not like American girls have a great public track record being “French.” There are the failed (fictional) attempts by Carrie Bradshaw and Frances Ha, of course, but beyond television and movie sets, there was Buck, the only American to edit French Vogue, whose Parisian dreamscape abruptly ended when she was sent on a two-month “sabbatical” for a drug problem she didn’t have, effectively ending her tenure as editor. (For what it’s worth, Buck was raised in France but said she’s American at her core.)
If the last century is any indication, though, the French-girl style mythos isn’t going anywhere — not as long as it’s selling books, clothing, and cosmetics. As the French say, it’s not au revoir, but à bientôt.
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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style & Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.