In Depth

That… je ne sais quoi: why French women are so stylish

French women seem to be born with the knack of effortless style, but American in Paris Janine di Giovanni may have cracked the code of chic

The French babysitter was 20 and a student, with a limited income. She arrived at the house where I was staying in the South of France with a tiny bag of clothes. Over the next four days, I watched in amazement as she pulled out ensemble after ensemble, each more lovely than the last. She did not have a lot. It was the way she put it together.

It wasn’t that she was that beautiful. She was young and fresh and lovely, of course, in the way that 20-year-olds are. But at 20 I wore corduroy Levi’s and button-down men’s shirts.

She wore a long green dress that skimmed her ankles (‘Zara on sale.’) and topped it off from a belt that she bought at Monoprix. She wore tiny high-waisted orange shorts (‘H&M.’) paired with a lavender chiffon T-shirt (‘Etam.’).  She wore a simple black bikini (‘Tati.’) and a sarong she picked up on her gap year in Morocco.

Yes, she is young. But her style is something that all my French friends seem to have. It is not a matter of having a cupboard stuffed with clothes, as many of my Anglo friends do. It’s about having the few perfect pieces. It’s about fit and also having a look of being comfortable and at ease.

‘There is something about French women that no one else can replicate,’ says an American friend who came to France to rebrand a major high street fashion chain (‘I didn’t have much to do.’). She spoke of how ‘original’ the women she worked with were – how they could pair a simple black skirt with a blouse, but pick a perfect accessory to make it work. And pin their hair in a messy chignon and wear minimal make-up, ‘but look lovely. No matter how pretty they were, they could pull it off.’

There is a kind of sex appeal in Paris that is very different from the kind you see in New York – hard, toned bodies, cutting-edge fashion and lineless faces – and Beirut (false breasts, eyelashes, hair extensions – like something out of Maxim magazine). When I walk my son to school in the morning in Paris, the mothers who are not rushing to offices in suits and high heels are wearing tight jeans, ballerina slippers and a fitted trench. The wealthy ones (Inès de la Fressange, Laetitia Casta) have real Burberry. But many just have the great Zara copy.

The main rule of the French woman is weight. ‘There are rules,’ one of my friends told me, ‘and the first is: you can’t be overweight.’ But while this is true in the world of fashion – where Givenchy or Lanvin look better on stick insects such as Charlotte Gainsbourg, it doesn’t work in the real word where men go crazy over the curves of 49-year-old Monica Bellucci, who is married to a French actor and lives in Paris. (Her uniform: tight jeans, high heels, Dolce & Gabbana jacket with cleavage spilling over.)

It doesn’t mean you have to stop eating. I’ve been a US size six or eight since I’ve lived in Paris – and I don’t diet fanatically. But my figure changed when I moved here – I think because I walk everywhere, and the food has fewer preservatives. Also, people don’t drink as much. But do I eat croissants and drink champagne? Yes.

After nine years in France, five of them as a French national, I’ve learnt the main motto is that confidence is key. If you can’t make an entrance bien dan sa peau, it doesn’t matter if you look like Brigitte Bardot. There is a self-confidence French women receive, if not with their mother’s milk, then with their first bottle of Chanel No. 5. It is something passed on, like the number of a favourite hairdresser. (It took me five years to get that out of one of my best friends.) The other things you learn by watching. Or you can always buy Inès de la Fressange’s classic fashion book about how to wear a white shirt and look like a goddess.

Janine di Giovanni is an award-winning author and journalist who has been covering global conflict since the Eighties. She writes for Vanity Fair, the New York Times and US Vogue, among other publications.

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