What is “Paris Style?”
Over the course of the last year or two, you may have found your inbox overloaded with emails promising a “Guide to French Style,” or “How to Tie Your Scarves like a Parisian.” Some even offer a guide on buying the “essentials” for a French wardrobe, and this thinking has even taken over space on shelves in your favorite bookstore. So I ask myself, what is this obsession?
Having been living in Paris for more than a year, I’ve been here long enough to see the range of style that comes with each season, occasion, and also experience moments of adoration and loathing. So here I put before you a New Yorker’s understanding of French style and the world’s obsession with it.
Parisian style can be summed up rather briefly. Its core, typically, is navy, gray and black, oxford shirts, pullover sweaters, ballet flats, and an inconveniently small bag. It’s beautiful, simple, and classic right?
I have sincerely different view on this.
What comes from this extraordinarily narrow color palette and thinking is a sense of personal darkness that is difficult to support. What no one talks about is how sincerely sad and gloomy everyone tends to be, and may even be in part due to the Parisian uniform. Parisians, men and women alike, tend to lag around a quite depressing view of the world, and it may not be their fault! (Has anyone ever told you about the weather in Paris? Think London.) They complain about everything as a sport, which somehow becomes a part of the town humor, but their outward appearance only reassures the norm.
I can’t be the only one that finds this troubling. Fellow New Yorkers and inhabitants of cosmopolitan cities know how difficult it is to live the city life. As a New Yorker, all we’re trying to do is pick ourselves up, considering how rough and tumble life can be; there’s no time for self-loathing. So why is it so?
The French consciousness is intensely structured, and enshrined into a bureaucratic frame. The university system is a not-so-simple example of that. One’s metiers is determined by how well one does on an exam, and the number of spaces in a large selection of fields are reserved for the top graduates of the elite schools. Therefore, all prior schooling is an institution designated to shape the children into these formidable adults that must fill a very specific mold.
Despite the beautiful, sometimes experimental creations that we observe during Paris Fashion Week, it does not fit the image of the French. This is why a very particular silhouette exists as the uniform, with barely any deviation.
I think those of us in North America admire French style so much because we are so accustomed to observing expressions of individuality. We are looking to French/Parisian style is a breath of fresh air with bouts of sincere nostalgia, considering times past when everyone shared a uniformed, society-reflective appearance. Those days are gone in the US, and I think most of us are grateful. But those of us that look to fashion as a vehicle of expression can’t help the tugs of memory from the past that has provided us with a sense of community, understanding, and a sense of belonging to something bigger than our closets. Certainly, it’s a luxury to be able to wear what we like, with the colors and fabrics that please us, but I think we toy with the obsession over French/Parisian style because of that need to feel like we’re not alone in this game of dress.
Over the years with the increase in awareness of individual style, Americans have fallen off the horse. Yoga pants and velour hoodies became walking evidence of that with the swift beginning of the 2000s. Because people choose comfort over style, we lose a national interest in how we present ourselves. Let that happen to enough people, and suddenly those of us who are dressed well are immediately associated with the fashion industry, because the well dressed become the outsiders.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had sidewalk bonding with strangers because a fellow style-conscious person checks out my outfit, while I do the same, and we exchange smiles, a laugh and sometimes verbal compliments. Don’t expect that in the rues of Paris. The expectation is laid before all to dress well and fit the profile.
Very rarely does a major fashion trend find its way through to French style, but over the course of the last year, I’ve noticed the infiltration of the standard Stan Smith. It is arguable, though, that said shoe is revolutionary. Considering the anatomy of the Stan Smith, it is a very basic piece, which, actually at the end of the day, does reflect the traditional French style.
I can imagine that all of these countless “how to dress like a Parisian” guides have never once included a smile within the crucial elements of embodying French style. There’s a reason for that, and I personally don’t think any outfit is complete without a smile. Clothes are supposed to make us feel good, and that is supposed to rub off on those around you. At the end of the day, who wants to look great and carry around a poor attitude? No one wants to be around that person. Let us use style as a vehicle for community.
So my interpretation of the obsession with French style is that we’re all just looking to be a part of something bigger, but at the end of the day a smile get us there sooner than a beige trenchcoat and a navy ballet flat. If the sincere interest in French style is a minimalist approach, let’s just call it dressing with less fussy pieces. Style is not just dress, but attitude as well.
Style is not just dress, but attitude as well
There’s no denying that the typical Parisienne exudes cool girl style, and on many mornings I have found myself getting out of bed, eaten my croissant with a thick layer of strawberry confiture and reached for a navy uniform. But the beauty here and excellence observed in the architectural feats that surround Paris could be enough to uplift anyone. Parisians, just like New Yorkers, need a reminder — it’s okay to look up and realize what an extraordinary place you’re in. That’ll complement the oh-so well put together outfit far better, and hopefully brighten that color palette just a bit.