how to dress like a french woman (or, you know, the beauty of different)

Excuse the framing: I snuck this photo before she turned around & caught me.

Excuse the framing: I snuck this photo before she turned around & caught me.

I don't generally write about fashion or style here on Chookooloonks, nor do I think about either very often.  In fact, I don't remember the last time I've looked at a fashion magazine -- it has seriously been years.  But nonetheless, while I was in Paris, I became enthralled by the way Parisian women dress.  (Men, you might want to skip this post for the next one, unless you're interested in doing a bit of research for your wives, girlfriends, or girl friends.  In that case, by all means, please stick around.) 

Parisians have a reputation, of course, of being incredibly well-attired; however, even though I've been to Paris before, I always assumed it was simply because the women who live there have access to clothing created by some of the world's finest fashion designers. This trip, however, I actually paid attention, and I figured it out:  it's not the haute couture.  In fact, I saw very little high-end fashion that wasn't on a mannequin in a boutique or museum.

As I watched the Parisian women I came across -- on the streets, in the Métro --  I started to realize that while they're all well-dressed, they're also all differently dressed.  Some are conservative.  Some dress more creatively.  Some lean toward a gothic bent, while others are clearly bohemian.  Many combined colours and patterns in ways I would've never expected, and I suspect were never dictated in any mainstream fashion magazines.  And if any of them were wearing fine designers, I wouldn't know it:  I didn't see one label or brand on any Parisian woman I saw.  ("Nous sommes discrètes," confided one young woman, when curiosity finally got the best of me -- leading me to believe that any display of high-end brand loyalty would generally be considered rather crass behaviour.)  So given this, I wondered (and I'm speaking in gross generalities, of course -- there are always exceptions), what makes Parisian women so stylish, so attractive?

And when I finally figured out the one thing, for all their diversity, that all the French women I noticed have in common, it suddenly seemed so obvious I felt completely stupid that I didn't see it immediately:

The French women who caught my eye all seemed to viscerally understand that there is beauty in their differences.

For example:  I never saw fads while in Paris.  I mean, you know how when something comes into vogue in the United States -- maxi dresses, say -- then everyone seems to wear them?  I didn't see this in Paris:  everyone dressed their own way.  Everyone looked different.  They simply each put together their own, individual "looks" -- conservative, bohemian, gothic, a combination of genres -- whatever worked for them.  The beauty of this, of course, is that each person looks stylish, and no one looks outmoded -- after all, when you're putting together your own look, it's very hard to look anything less than cutting edge, right?  Also, while Parisian women wear makeup, of course, it seemed incredibly subtle:  I get the feeling that doing so is more for the purpose of enhancing the facial features that they loved -- their eyes, say, or the shapes of their lips -- rather than minimizing pores, or wrinkles, or lines, or anything else they might perceive as an imperfection.

In other words, the French women I saw seemed to view clothing and makeup as artistic tools to enhance (but not be the sole means of) self-expression, rather than act as shields to hide perceived flaws.

I can't tell you how refreshing this was to see.  It was like being surrounded by artists, all day long.  I couldn't help but be entranced.

Still, I did notice a few other things that nonetheless seemed universal in the streets of Paris:

1. No sweats.  I didn't see any French women walking around in sweatpants, or indeed, anything that might be labeled "athletic wear."  Still, that's not to say that I didn't see any clothing made of fleece -- it's just that the fleece wasn't purely designed for working out, but rather -- get this -- it was cut to be flattering, clearly intended for places other than the gym.  Which brings me to my next point ...

2.  Everything fit.  This, I think, was my BIGGEST epiphany:  it's all about the fit.  Without exception, no matter what size, or shape, or height any woman was, her clothes seemed to fit.  I have no idea if it's because French stores cater to more body types, or because tailoring is more common, but I just didn't see anyone wearing ill-fitting clothing -- and that's including fleece, or clothing that was made of any other comfortable material, or designed for casual wear.  Nothing looked like it was being forced to lie flat when it clearly wouldn't, nor was there gaping, or pulling, or sagging, or anything.  Even flowing fabrics fit.  I saw tons of vintage shops everywhere we went, which leads me to believe that shopping vintage or second-hand and having it tailored is common.  There were all types of jackets -- again, conservative, creative, gothic, bohemian, you-name-it -- and they all fit.  Everything just fit properly.

3.  Clothing and accessories, even the most casual ones, were in great shape.  There were many women I saw who were wearing casual clothes, shoes and jewelry, or carrying totes made of canvas or burlap or other inexpensive fabric -- even bags that were clearly simply designed for grocery shopping! -- but they all were in good repair and clean.  Even sneakers (usually worn with jeans or even skirts -- again, never sweats) were clean and sound, even if well-worn.  Again, I don't know that I saw lots of expensive clothing, so much as I saw clothing that was clearly well cared-for.

Unsurprisingly, this has inspired me to cull my closet -- getting rid of everything that isn't in service to my new French-inspired sensibilities.  In fact, I am challenging myself to do so and therefore update my closet without buying a single new item of clothing for the rest of the year -- simply shopping my closet for the items that already work for me, and coming up with new ways and combinations to wear them, in a way that feels not like "it's supposed to look," but rather, in a way that feels like me.

How's that for a challenge?

Anyway, all of this really feels like a style epiphany for me, and I'm feeling very energized by it.  And to be honest, there are already things I do that are sort of quintessentially me:  no matter how long I grow my hair, I always return to a very short haircut, and have since I was a child (for example); also, all of my close friends recognize my perfume, since it's one I've worn every day for years, no matter what the occasion (Ginger Essence by Origins, in case you're wondering).  So I'm curious:  what have you figured out really works for you -- makes you feel most confident, most you?  Is it a haircut? A certain type of clothing?  Your grandfather's old watch, or a piece of jewelry that has particular emotional significance?

In fact, while we're at it, what's the best, most timeless bit of advice you've ever received when it comes to personal expression?

I'd love to hear your thoughts, below.  Because I feel like Paris taught me a lot, and now I want to learn more.

SongSupermodel by RuPaul. Because, please.  RuPaul's fabulous.