It’s difficult to think of a more mythologised style trope than that of the “French Girl”. Who is she?
Well, she’s model Caroline de Maigret with her perfectly undone hair and skinny jeans. She’s va-va-voom like Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve.
She’s Jane Birkin with a basket bag (Birkin is of course English, but practically more French Girl than an actual French Girl), and a French Vogue editor smoking between shows during fashion week.
Her only make-up is a perfect red lipstick . She wears ankle boots and a little top she found in a flea market while cycling with a baguette. She reads Proust over dinner and carries her grandmother’s vintage Chanel bag.
She’s all of these things. And none of them. As a French fashion designer once told me, he’s “never met this so-called French girl”.
Of course, anybody who has been to France knows that not all French women look, act or dress the same.
The stereotype of the French Girl pays little mind to the melting pot of races, cultures, body shapes and sizes, ages, hair textures and more that exist in Paris (and beyond!). Also, taste is subjective.
And yet the French Girl looms over business, fashion magazines and pop culture like the ghost of Coco Chanel.
Look at poor Emily Cooper from Netflix show Emily in Paris, who made the catastrophic error of trying too hard to look French, which is pretty much the worst thing you could do (other than attach an Eiffel Tower charm to your bag).
Even so, the trope exists for a reason, and much of its appeal goes beyond the clothes.
Take the effortless French style so perfectly captured in the French show Call My Agent (Dix Pour Cent).
While the show has attracted megawatt guest stars such as Charlotte Gainsbourg and Juliette Binoche, a style star is powerhouse celebrity agent Andréa Martel (played by Camille Cottin) with her perfect knits, skinny jeans, sharp blazers, excellent spiky ankle boots and sexy little dresses for partying, hard, at night.
According to global shopping platform Lyst, the show has sent searches for skinny jeans rocketing up by 49 per cent, those for sharp blazers by 36 per cent and for cashmere pieces by 144 per cent, in the weeks since the fourth and final series debuted on Netflix.
As an aside, the style of the charming and dapper “gentleman thief” Assane Diop in French crime series Lupin is driving searches for Nike Air Jordans, three-piece suits and flat caps.
Back to Andréa Martel, and what really makes her so magnetic (and occasionally galling) is her attitude – she’s tough, blunt and could not care less what people think. Her clothes – stylish, easy, cool – never wear her. She always looks exactly like herself.
Martel’s innate confidence speaks to why Judith Milton, founder of the quintessentially Parisian brand Maje, believes French style has such a hold.
While that oft-touted effortlessness is mostly an impossible myth (those tousled waves rarely happen by simply rolling out of bed), Milton says French style is about dressing for yourself and letting go of ideas about perfection.
“Parisian style is released from codes and trends … she doesn’t like total looks, it’s much more about balance. [It] isn’t about perfection and control, where each piece goes with another, where all colours are coordinated. It looks effortless and sober, it’s more about having a personal attitude and knowing what suits you well, sometimes even basic but always with a twist,” says Milton.
“The Parisian girl can be whoever she wants wherever she wants. She is free to play with her style according to her moods. She has no limit, she can stay herself.”
Evelyne Chetrite, founder and artistic director of fashion e-shop Sandro Paris, says for many French women it’s less about what they’re wearing, and more about how they feel.
“[French women] love timeless, minimalist and elegant pieces, in which they will feel comfortable and self-confident. It is also about attitude and how you wear your clothes. Sometimes, a bold choice of shoes, scarf or handbag will highlight the rest of your outfit and suddenly turn something very classic into a tasteful look,” she says.
This sense of individuality, personal style and balance is at the heart of the popular Instagram account Parisiens in Paris. Launched in late 2020, the anonymous account is run by a fashion insider who posts snaps of stylish people on the streets of Paris, as well as submissions from others.
Its resonance has taken its mysterious founder by surprise, although anybody who’s ever tried to copy the style of French “It girls” such as influencer and founder of the brand Rouge Jeanne Damas, with mixed results, or dreamed of moving to Paris (hi Emily!) can see how it is total fashion catnip.
“The reaction has been insane – I’m at 150,000 followers [now more than 200,000] in the space of four months. I get about 10 submissions a day, plus all of my own images,” its founder writes over email.
The account was started to highlight the “real” style of regular Parisians.
“During the fashion weeks, I constantly saw girls/influencers dressed perfectly from head to toe, with designer clothes and impeccable hair, whereas every day in the streets of Paris, in the metro, in the parks, I met strangers that inspired me. I wanted to pay tribute to people for whom fashion is not necessarily their profession, to show that the Parisian style really exists, naturally.”
So what are the criteria for making it onto the account? According to Parisiens in Paris, it’s very spontaneous.
“A good look is often an oversized coat with cropped jeans and boots. I like that the looks are not too worked on, not too fussy, I like the everyday looks. It is very rare that I take a picture of a woman in high heels, who does not represent the ‘working girl’ that we know in 2021.”
Maud Barrionuevo, buying director at 24S, the online portal for French department store Le Bon Marché , says French style has changed in recent years – a sense of ease has become paramount.
“French style has evolved from the elegance of key figures like Gabrielle [Coco] Chanel and Christian Dior towards a new approach to style, like Yves Saint Laurent’s, who notably brought ready-to-wear and traditional French dressing into a more modern and all-encompassing lifestyle ethos, and a more minimalist vision of fashion.
“The current context has also paved the way for a strong loungewear and leisurewear trend, which has increasingly started to appear in designer collections,” she says.
Top-selling brands for 24S include Isabel Marant, one of the first French contemporary brands, and Celine. At Net-a-Porter, Isabel Marant and Isabel Marant Étoile are bestsellers in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as See by Chloé and Jacquemus. As Libby Page, senior editor at Net-a-Porter , points out, while all have a very different aesthetic she sees French style as “not overly fussy”.
“[It] gives off the appearance of minimal effort for maximum impact,” she says.
Barrionuevo is also of the opinion that French style, while it may not be one narrow and super idealised version, is a lot about attitude. “So much of it has to do with the way one carries oneself, beyond the clothes themselves. Of course, it’s oftentimes actually very deliberate and considered, but it always looks and feels very spontaneous,” she says.
“I would say the opposite of French style would be over-the-top dressing. Dressing à la française is also a very specific approach to mixing designers, combining styles which at first glance may not appear to match: for example, military-inspired boots with a very feminine embroidered dress, as spotted on Dior’s cruise runway. The key to French style is that balance of chic and cool, the perfect mix and match.”
So if it’s ultimately about balance, attitude and being yourself, then little wonder the world can’t stop idealising that French Girl.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.