The Great Myth: Why French women aren

The most popular look with the French women in the village I live in is an easy one to copy. Take an old pair of slippers, preferably weather-beaten and worn as you have spent years walking to the bakery in them, a totally shapeless grey dress and a dirty old pinafore. For accessories you shun the Chanel bag and instead opt for the broom or the duster. So inelegant and unglamorous are the French women around me in the south of France that when it came to researching my book into the truth behind French style I had to go to Paris. And not just any part of Paris.

My interviews were invariably either in the first arrondissement where former supermodels like Inès de la Fressange hang out, or Saint-Germain, which since the beginning of the 20th century has been the chicest area in the city. Of course the women in these areas are stunning. Here you will find your classic perfectly groomed Parisian. She will be wearing designer clothes, beautifully pressed, her designer shoes and handbag will be matching, her Hermès scarf will be in harmony with the rest of the outfit; there is not a colour, a hair or a top of a finger-nail out of place. It is a great look, and one we would all love to have. This is the look I set out to copy. But it is not a look achieved with great ease. A lot of the French women I spoke to for the book seem to spend most of their time preening, exfoliating, going to the hairdressers, buying sexy underwear and having their eyebrows plucked.

Frankly it’s lucky they don’t eat more than a salad leaf a day; when on earth would they have the time to tuck into a great big lunch and a bottle of wine? They may look great, but at what price? Is this a woman you would want to go for a drink with? They rarely drink more than one glass of wine in an evening, hardly much of a drinking partner. Would you want to go to bed with them? They’re so perfect you’d be terrified of messing their hair up, or even worse getting carried away and ripping their underwear which probably cost more than your average bloke earns in a month. These women are the queens of style, there is no denying it. But like all queens they are difficult to live with.

So what is the alternative? Normal French women? When I started to research Two Lipsticks and a Lover I was acutely aware of the fact that I would be criticised for making it too Paris-focused. But to be perfectly honest, who wants to read about a lot of old trouts wandering around in slippers? The pinafore look was not one I thought a lot of British women would want to emulate.

I started to look at the younger generation outside Paris. But, with a few exceptions, I found they have about as much taste and style as Blackpool pier. All too often their hair is dyed an extremely strange colour, somewhere between aubergine and carrot. Not a good look. I mean there’s nothing wrong with dying your hair, but surely the point is to make it look better than it did before? They wear the most extraordinary clothes that look like something Dolly Parton might have made her stage debut in: all studs and denim, truly choice. Some of the colour schemes they go for should be banned by Nicolas Sarkozy. And a lot of them are overweight. The ones that aren’t invariably smoke. This is the French woman’s most powerful diet tool. A fag in the hand is worth at least two pieces of bread and a slab of Brie. As long as they can puff away uninterrupted they are happy to miss out on food.

Of course I have read the famous book about French women not getting fat. And yes, on average I would say they are thinner than British women. But McDonald’s in France is its most successful franchise in Europe. French women are catching on to fast food. I discovered there is no limit to its infiltration when I decided to visit the editorial offices of an extremely well-known fashion magazine. I am not going to reveal the magazine’s name in order to protect its reputation. Let’s just say it’s the French word for she.

I had a meeting with two senior writers on the magazine to discuss matters at the heart of the French beauty debate. These are women in the know, if anyone could tell me what’s going on, they could.

Of course I agonised about what to wear and how to lose three kilos before the meeting. I opted for black and no breakfast. I was a bag of nerves as I was shown up to the editorial office by a security guard. There were two women waiting for me. Both of them were overweight. One of them was carrying a bag of pretzels and the other was clutching a coke. Not even a diet coke.

“So as you see,” smiled the pretzel eater. “We don’t get fat.”

“Would you like a coke?” said the other.

I stood in stunned silence. How come these women hadn’t been fired? If they aren’t thin and stylish, what hope is there for the rest of the population?

The truth is that French women are not so blooming perfect. Of course there are some that are, and wouldn’t we just love to be like them? Catherine Deneuve versus Sharon Osborne is a total no-brainer. Although Shazza might be more of a laugh on a night out. Vanessa Feltz versus Vanessa Paradis? Ask Johnny Depp.

But the myth that French women don’t get fat, or ugly, or have bad taste is just that; a myth. There are practical things you can do to look more like the perfect Parisian icon. I have adopted some of their habits. I wear matching underwear and exfoliate along with the best of them. But most French women wouldn’t know an exfoliating brush if it hit them on the head. This non-fat, ultra-chic race is confined to certain quarters of Paris. There may be the odd one lurking in the classier districts of Montpellier, Toulouse and Bordeaux as well. However, head into the countryside and you will find that French women are not so very different to any other women. They eat too much, they wear tasteless clothes and they go out without washing their hair.

Of course French women see us Brits as a bit of a joke when it comes to style. One of the chic Parisians I interviewed said she envied my ability to look “eccentric”. Funny that, I was trying to look my most chic and Parisian. I almost hit her over the head with my designer bag, which of course I later realised wasn’t matching my shoes (pretty bloody eccentric, eh?).

I think as I grow older I will take my lead from the women in the village and go for the worn-out slipper and pinafore look. It may not be the sexiest image around, but at least I will blend in with the rest of them. And I can always wear my matching underwear underneath.

13 thoughts on “The Great Myth: Why French women aren

  1. I think english women don’t have any advice to give to french women, I mean english women are ugly, pale & have bad teeths. I mean, really, they are worthless.

  2. Helena, there are some great looking (read “chic”) in Aix too. And what I find fascinating is that they are in their 20s. Last time I was in the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris (2 years ago), I was struck by a 10 or 11 year old girl playing by the fountain, wearing a scarf as most French women wear wrapped a few times around their neck. I never understood how they can do that in the summer! Anyway, these were average people, not i the same league as Ines or the other tres riche tres chic Parisians you write about. One woman I met in the Perigord looked beautiful in a blue sweater that looked like a blazer except it was a sweater. We got talking about how the French woman look and how thin they are even in the land of fois gras. Her answer of course was ” bien sur. Il faut manger equilibre (sorry no accent). That little bit of French mentality of equilibrium, or moderation, does indeed reflect their mentality. One does not have to be of Ines’ social status to have learned this lesson. I hope you continue to write but look for the secrets also in the average person, not just the rich and famous.
    Jacqueline (USA)

  3. Anyone who imagines that the slim, suave and elegant are typical of French women ought to look at my mother-in-law. A ruder, more obnoxious creature never walked this planet. She was vastly overweight, had never heard of beauty regimes, and maybe washed her hair once a month. Her cooking was abominable, and her attitude towards life matched her disgusting cuisine. UGH! I am soooo sick of stereotypes!!

  4. It’s nice to hear someone being real about French women and all the myths about them. I lived in France and am a huge fan of the French but get really tired of hearing women of other nationalities being bashed. If the clothes one wears are an expression of that person’s life, feelings, or economic status than where do people get off insulting others? It’s heartless and shallow. At the very least they are missing the point. Which is to put on clothes that are going to make you happy, not give you superiority.

  5. Good article. Spot on. Rerg’s comments made me giggle, showing all the world where the french are truly ugly, in their souls.

  6. Overall though French women do have style, much more Style than most British women.
    British women´s typical behaviour – drinking like lads, getting fat, clown like heavy make up, no knowledge of etiquette and elegance and how to behave like a lady – can´t be found in France.
    French women have class. British women don´t.

  7. I’m pleased to read an article that breaks the myth of “Superior French Women” but maybe French women don’t drink as much as British women, but they drink all the same, and not only wine ! Gimme some Vodka and Jack Daniels” please^^

  8. Generally, the British are the most pleasant, most polite people in the world. Young French men can be the most charming. Young women in Rome are the most beautiful and best dressed. American women try too hard.

  9. There is a book about “an old trout in slippers” It’s called the Elegance of the Hedgehog. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. They made it into a movie. It was a bestseller in France, so there you are. Now I’m going to eat some more bread.

  10. I think what you are completely missing here is that Parsienne women are so god-damn enigmatic because they wear one thing much better than any other woman of the world; confidence.

    And not the “I can do anything” in your face confidence that’s practically in an American girl’s DNA, but rather the quiet self-satisfaction that she is better than you and most importantly she doesn’t feel the need to tell you why; you just know. And believe me, just begin to type “Parisian Women’s Beauty Secrets…” and Google can back me up on this.

    French women have mastered the art of less is truly more, and being generally more comfortable in one’s skin than any other Westernized culture in comparison. They aren’t spending thousands of dollars on plastic surgery and the latest fad out of Beverly Hills just to get one measly sip from the fountain of youth, they aren’t spending hours in the hot summer sun, baking their skin and frying their hair. And sure, they aren’t spending hours in the pub gathered around with their pints. They aren’t gulping down every last drop so that the lazy bloke who won’t pay attention to them’s jokes will actually become funny and perhaps she’ll gain more confidence than her pounds of makeup application have afforded her that evening.

    French women understand that natural beauty comes from good health and good self-esteem. Obviously there are always exceptions yes, there are loads of beautiful women in London, Madrid, Rome, NYC, L.A. etc. but I think the fact that their men and women support this mutual understanding of the two- this is the key component to the “je n’ai sais quoi” that basically the entire world is mesmerized by and has spent centuries trying to capture and emulate.

  11. I think you meant ARE MEN. All French women are MEN all french MEN are WOMEN. TRANNIES! That’s why you have the most seductive language EVER. To seduce us all English speaking people.

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