“Mummy,” a voice piped up as I got out of the car, “you are doing quite well at looking French today. That is until I look at your feet. The boots are just right but the socks are too English. Next time it would be better to wear plain socks”.
After two years of living in France, my eight-year old daughter has a very precise idea of how a person should be dressed and, it seems, views looking “French” as synonymous with looking good. Whereas I used to despair when she got herself dressed – invariably in hot pink and orange stripes for her bottom half and red and purple spots for her top half, topped off with a baby pink cardigan with a frill and a pair of light-up trainers – now I feel rather envious as she emerges from her room clad head-to-toe in coordinated navy and grey, and I look down at my smeary jeans and glittery heart jumper and realise that she makes me look like an ill-thought-out scarecrow.
When we first arrived in France, I fiercely resisted the notion that French females were any better dressed than their British counterparts. I would appear at the school gate wearing my jolly layered array of patterns in a gesture of open contempt for the (faux) leather jeans and Breton stripes of the other mothers. I sneered at the obnoxious articles written by French women, proffering glib style tips and preening insights into la touche française. Yes, they may have been in good condition, but did any of them know how to smile? Of course not. They were too busy pouting.
Then, just a fortnight ago I found myself queuing at passport control in Charles de Gaulle and realised that I had spent the previous five minutes comparing the two young women directly ahead of me in the queue. One of them wore skinny jeans, a baggy taupe jumper and coordinated ballet pumps. Her long dark hair hung down her back in a vaguely tousled way. She didn’t appear, at first glance, to be wearing makeup, but if you really stared at her you realised that she was. She didn’t have many accessories, but those that she did bore the discreet logos of names that even I recognised. She bore the delicate aroma of something citrusy and fresh. There was no doubt about it (grrrrrrrrrrrrr): she was chic.
The second woman wore skinny leather trousers that were two sizes too small for her, a baggy black jumper that was sufficiently holey to enable me to see her entire bra, and a pair of vertiginous faux-velvet black peep-toe heels, through which her sore-looking toes were crammed. Her long hair had been ironed ram-rod straight and dyed crow-black. Her face was absolutely plastered in make-up and her eyelids drooped under the weight of sparkly black eyelashes. She had diamante earrings the size of dinner plates and was dripping in ostentatious (but probably counterfeit) designer accessories. If you sniffed you ran the risk of passing out from the fumes of her cloying perfume.
Neither woman needed to open their mouths for me to determine that the first was French and the second was not. It was obvious. Although at a superficial level the total effect could not have been more contrasting, if you stared that them as hard as I was doing, you would notice that they were adhering to precisely the same fashion formula (skinny trousers, baggy jumper, long, loose hair). The French person was wearing the same as the other person, just minus the unkind adjectives.
However much I may resent those smug Frenchwomen who assume that their nationality gives them a certain je-ne-sais-quoi compared to us Brits, or everyone else for that matter; standing in that queue, I realised – forlornly – that there was a grain of truth in their gloating-disguised-as-advice. French people (men are not exempted) all seem to be educated in the art of looking good. At some point between the ages of zero and eight, they suddenly acquire the ability to emerge from their room wearing a stylish little scarf at their neck, and to choose a pair of boots that makes them look more like Emanuelle Béart than Jo Brand. Attempts of women of other nationalities in airport queues to imitate this look invariably fall flat because they quite simply do it trop.
In actual fact, the French look is very simply achieved. Setting aside the chain smoking to retain one’s figure, all one has to do is to buy a few simple quality items: skinny jeans, Breton stripes, the odd taupe item, a chiffon scarf or two, some ballerina pumps, some ankle boots, and a shapeless black summer dress. Throw them together and, voilà, you have kitted yourself out in French uniform.
Acquiring these items is not exactly difficult. In most clothes emporia you have no choice (Shop assistant: Qu’est-ce que vous voulez madame ? Hapless shopper: Je voudrais un pull violet. Shop assistant: Pas possible Madame. Peut être une marinière ?) Even better news, for that effortless look, there is no need to scour the catwalks for the latest trend. Oh no, fashions will come and go, but your red patent leather pumps will keep you looking good for at least the next fifty years. Another aspect of French life where the thinking has been done for you.
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