Parisian Style in the American Imagination

Posted on August 9, 2011 by

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More than any other city, Paris evokes a very specific ideal of timeless, romantic clothing: Breton shirts, straw hats, scarves around the neck, all accessorized with a bicycle basket stuffed with wine and baguettes. Paris is not alone in this; most cities are epitomized by a certain type of style. In fact, men’s style blog Put This On is buying into that idea right now with its search for cities in which to shoot their next season. In my mind, Helsinki is epitomized by quirky brightly colored knits, Milan by impeccably cut suits, so perhaps reducing a city to a singular recognizable style has its merit. Yet the supposedly quintessential Parisian style is held up as the Holy Grail of women’s fashion. In romantic films, ladies’ magazines, and style blogs, the way of the Parisian is held up as superior to all others, a look to aspire towards, a look that makes one a lady. Unsurprisingly, I think this is a load of bull. Beyond of my skepticism over cities being crammed into sartorial corners, what I want to know is: why is Parisian style considered superior?

What is Parisian style?

First, we must figure out what Parisian style means – beyond the bicycle basket. For this investigation, I will be using several style guides which caught my eye on websites frequented by women, such as Pinterest, Gala Darling, and Lonny Magazine. According to these guides, the Parisian aesthetic is characterized by a sloppy chic vibe coupled with a seemingly contradictory obsession over appearance. In her style guide, Jill of Good Life for Less describes this as “strong attention to detail, always gorgeous, simply effortless, painfully chic”. The style has a certain coyness, a calculated “I don’t care” vibe, what Jill calls “that certain je ne sais quoi”. Parisian style plays hard-to-get, basically. These writers cast Parisian women as almost deceptive in their labor to look lazy. According to illustrator and editor Badaude, Parisians drape their cardigans “oh-so-unintentionally” with a brooch pinned “just-so”; they wear blouses that are “warm-ish (but not too warm), light-ish (but not too light)”. Jill continues: “They have a way of stepping out the door looking amazing and something tells me that if you stopped them to ask the details about their outfit they would slyly respond: ‘Oh, this old thing?’ whether they just stepped off the runway or not.”

Casting these women as deceptively coy points to one possible benefit of Parisian chic. Playing hard-to-get is still prized in women, if the same media outlets that post Parisian style guides are to be trusted. Working to the point of anxiety at letting a man know you don’t care for him (spoiler warning: you actually do!) is a cornerstone of the kind of Scarlett O’Hara femininity much of women-centered media endorses. In this case, revealing how many hours you spent arranging your scarf is akin to having sex on the first date: it’s shamefully overt and thus decidedly unfeminine. Gala Darling sums up the philosophy thus: “Parisian women don’t want to look [perfect] . . . It’s about looking effortless, not being effortless!”

Born that way or bred that way?

This contradiction between hard work and effortless appearance is compounded by the idea of Paris’ innately superior style. Style writers characterize Parisian women as dressing chic almost by instinct. They dress for the between-season transition with automatic ease: “Turns out they just don’t see it as a problem…” They wear expensive clothing like skin: “'[You must] feel good in what you wear’”, Parisian Chic author Inès de la Fressange is quoted as saying in Lonny Magazine.

Yet the characterization of Parisian style as innate necessarily contradicts the myriad style guides aimed at Americans. If Parisian chic is innate to Parisian women, then why encourage American women to try to replicate it with their inferior sense of style? This becomes even more confusing in light of just how style writers assert Parisian superiority. They do it by placing Paris in contrast with the United States, casting American women as being obsessed with looking like Barbie dolls. Gala Darling says, “The major difference between the look of Parisian women & American women that I can see is that Americans want to look absolutely perfect, with not a hair out of place. It’s very pageant style, very shiny teeth.” American women are baked orange in tanning beds, slathered with makeup, and overaccessorized.

Darling scoffs that Parisian women would never have such poor taste:

[W]hile they may spend just as much time getting ready in the morning, it’s not so that you could blast their head with a leaf-blower & have no effect. . . Parisian women seem to manage to avoid the temptation to load on accessories & gee-gaws. Maybe they all subscribe to Coco Chanel’s old adage of ‘take one thing off before you leave the house’, or maybe the overdone look just doesn’t appeal as much. Regardless of the reason, it’s much easier to look chic & polished if you have fewer elements fighting for attention.

De la Fressange’s guide in particular couches Parisian style choices as inherently going against the overperfection of American convention, as choices that Americans would never think of themselves. Suggestions like wearing “an evening dress with ultra-plain, open-toed sandals (not with the gem-encrusted evening variety)” or “a chiffon print dress with battered biker boots (not brand-new ballet flats)” point to the calculation implied in Parisian style, a careful cultivation of contrasts that goes against the “panty hose at all times, no white after Labor Day” American style rules. Evening shoes go with evening gowns? Nope! Keeping dress shoes looking new and neat? Nope! Fight your tacky American urge to be a matchy-matchy pageant princess! Too bad you’ll never do it as well as Parisians do – but then again it’s in their DNA!

Americans define Parisian style by what it is not. For American women, Parisian style is defined as not-tacky, not-obvious, not-Barbiesque, not-American. And therein lies its last contradiction. Though American women are told repeatedly that chicness lies in everything they are not, they are still encouraged to strive for it.

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