While the clothes of Paris Fashion Week are the topic on every fashionista’s lips,, Helena Frith Powell explains how to get in touch with your inner Frenchwoman.
There is an expression used to describe French women when they really are perfect: French to the tip of their nails. This means that everything is just right. The hairstyle is flattering, the clothes are stylish, the make-up is subtle and the nails, of course, are immaculately manicured.
When I first moved to France I was totally amazed by these superwomen. They seemed to glide along the pavements leaving a whiff of expensive perfume in their wake. How did they manage to look so perfect? Did they have nothing else to do but pluck their eyebrows and shop for exquisite outfits? When did they find time to live? Genuinely fascinated, I decided to uncover their secrets and write a book about them. I wanted to know how it was possible to be perfectly groomed at all times and still work, look after children and cook dinner every night. Then perhaps I could do the same. Images of myself looking stylish and trim while casually (but elegantly) knocking up a delicious and nutritious boeuf bourguignon motivated me to act.
The first thing I discovered is that for a Frenchwoman, being perfectly groomed means all over, all the time. There is not one millimetre of her body that she ignores or neglects. If you’re going to follow the French way then you need to set aside a little more time for your beauty regime than you probably ever have. My friends and family are used to it now, but when I first started behaving like a Frenchwoman they were baffled by the sheer amount of time I spent in the bathroom. Once, I was staying with a friend in London, and she came tumbling out of the bathroom screaming, “Tell me NOW all those creams aren’t yours.” Sadly, they were. I have to travel with an extra suitcase to fit in all the creams I need for my buttocks and thighs, not to mention my face.
But you don’t have to become quite as obsessive as me. Just a few small changes and you’ll find that perfectly groomed look in no time. Start with the basics – your skin. Obviously it needs to be clean. But we’re not just talking soap-and-water clean. You need to go deeper than that. You need to exfoliate. This must happen at least twice a week according to the strict rules of French grooming. You can use an exfoliating cream or a glove, and if exfoliating doesn’t appeal, try a body brush.
The French don’t do diets or exercise. They prefer to cheat. So they rely on creams. This means literally covering every centimetre of yourself in creams, starting with an anti-cellulite cream on the bits that need it (most of them in my case). According to one beautician I met during my research they do work, but only if you use them every morning and every evening for at least three months. One of the cheapest and clinically proven most effective is L’Oréal’s Perfectslim. Clinically proven it may be, but I have been slapping it on my thighs and bottom religiously for three months now and can see no difference. It may of course be the case that had I not used it, my thighs would by now be a mass of cellulite. But, I can’t help thinking a long walk up a steep hill is a more effective way to tone one’s body.
Do not neglect your feet. Again, cover them in cream every night (you can get foot creams anywhere, The Body Shop has a particularly good one). This cream is best administered in bed, as walking from the bathroom to the bedroom with greasy feet can be hazardous. Your husband might think it’s a bit odd the first time he sees you lying in bed with your legs in the air smothering your feet in cream, but mine was intrigued and asked for some as well.
When I first arrived in France I didn’t wear any make-up, so I didn’t see the need to cleanse my face. Big mistake. This is the single most important thing you can do to stay well groomed. If your face is clean you will always look good. If it’s not, you’ll look terrible. Obviously if you wear make-up then there is all the more reason to cleanse. A top French beautician also told me that sleeping with your make-up on for just one night ages your skin by eight days. Quelle horreur!
When I met the supermodel Inès de la Fressange, she told me she was amazed at some women who really seem to make no effort at all. “And it’s not a question of money,” she said. “Everyone can afford a bottle of shampoo.” Your hair is an essential part of your grooming effort. Chic Parisians go to the hairdresser much more regularly than anyone else for what they call a “brushing” – a blow dry. Some go three times a week. When you do wash your hair at home, do it properly. A lot of my friends complain that their hair never looks as good as when they have been to the hairdresser. This is partly because the hairdresser properly washes and treats it. Try washing it more carefully, taking a minute to massage your scalp. Then rinse and once you have put the conditioner on, put a shower cap on your head (a truly elegant look) so the conditioner heats up and works more effectively. I do this with my children who all have horribly fine and tangled hair. It works a treat.
Now that your body and hair are sorted, you need to focus on your clothes. For Frenchwomen this starts with underwear. Matching, of course. This is one rule a Frenchwoman never breaks. I asked one friend why they always wear matching underwear. “Is there any other kind?” was her response. Underwear should make you feel good. Perfect grooming is also about confidence and a glamorous set of smalls is going to give you lots of that. What does it matter if no one knows you’re wearing red lace underneath your grey suit? As France’s leading lingerie designer Chantal Thomass says: “Women wear underwear for all sorts of reasons, but mainly for themselves.”
To be perfectly groomed, your clothes must of course be impeccable. If you need some tips on how to dress to suit your shape then go to a professional stylist in a department store such as Harvey Nichols in Mall of the Emirates. This service is normally free. I did this at Galeries Lafayette in Paris and was amazed when the dresser came back with a purple top. “This is your colour,” she told me. It is not a colour I would ever have considered before but now I am always on the lookout for a little something in purple. My husband says it’s the first sign of a midlife crisis but I figure there’s nothing wrong with growing old colourfully.
Accessories are an essential component of a chic wardrobe. In fact the aforementioned stylist told me the single most important thing to do when putting together a stylish look was to invest in a really good handbag. This will cost you a fortune but can last five years or more, so go with something classic that won’t date. The same rule applies to shoes. There is that memorable line in The Silence Of The Lambs when Clarice Starling first meets Hannibal Lecter and he says, “You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes, you look like a rube.” Ever since I heard this, I have doubled my shoe budget. And finally, if all of the above is just too much like hard work, there is the Frenchwoman’s secret weapon: the scarf. Frenchwomen are born knowing how to tie a scarf. The trick is to start from the front and then bring it back around your neck before neatly tying a knot at the side. Try to avoid strangling yourself while practising, which, if truth be told, is what I felt like doing to the impeccably chic Frenchwoman I encountered when I first arrived. But it’s easier to copy them.
? Even if you don’t have time for a manicure, make sure your nails are clean and covered in clear polish. ? Always remember Coco Chanel’s quote “Elegance is refusal.” Don’t pile into unnecessary calories. ? Move at every given opportunity; if you’re asked to get something from upstairs look upon it as an excuse to tone your thighs. ? Stay mentally groomed; keep up with the news, latest exhibitions and films. ? Always sleep on your back to avoid wrinkles on your face and décolletage. ? Don’t neglect your feet. It’s the attention to detail that sets Frenchwomen apart. ? Think about your posture. Standing up straight makes you look better groomed immediately. ? Always carry a natural-coloured lip gloss. You look and feel better groomed if you have glossy lips. ? Carry a breath freshener or some mints to freshen your mouth. ? Clean your bags and shoes regularly. Nothing lets an outfit down like a pair of scuffed or dirty shoes. ? White teeth are a must if you want to be perfectly groomed; use a whitening toothpaste and if you can afford it,get teeth whitened professionally.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019