Ah, the eternal allure of French style. Catherine Deneuve in chaste-sexy Yves Saint Laurent in Belle de Jour, Bardot in a gorgeous fitted shirtwaister, Juliette Gréco, face framed by a black turtleneck. French style is confidence in the classics: belted macs, pencil skirts and sharp tailoring. It’s having an Hermès silk square and knowing what the hell to do with it. It’s elegant, sure, but isn’t it a bit boring? Even “rebellious” Gallic dressing is strictly codified: think Emmanuelle Alt in tight jeans, spike heels and a masculine shirt, long hair carefully tousled. Would a little originality hurt?
This, French-style devotees argue, is precisely where the British go wrong, with our love of quirky prints and “fun” jewellery – our sense that caring about grooming is a bit naff, really. Classicism and restraint is precisely what gives French women their mystique – when clothes don’t distract your eye, you’re intrigued by the woman within (sounding like a bad Charles Aznavour song is an occupational hazard of writing about French style).
As a lifelong Francophile and failed Frenchwoman, I’m torn. I ache to look French – I can’t walk past Agnès b or Comptoir des Cotonniers without wanting everything in the window – but, on my English face and body, understated elegance just doesn’t work. A crisp white shirt that would look ravishing on Charlotte Gainsbourg turns me into a middle manager in a provincial accountancy firm with a strict dress code and carrying off this brand of chic seems impossible above a C-cup. Nevertheless, I owe French style a lot – indeed, I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
As a lifelong Francophile and failed Frenchwoman, I’m torn. I ache to look French but, on my English face and body, understated elegance just doesn’t work
As a small-town teenager, I discovered a stash of French Elle magazines in our school library and they stole my heart. French Elle went one better than mere cool – it was chic. The women in its pages – well-read and fearless, as well as devastatingly sexy – seemed impossible to emulate, but I could at least try to dress like them. When I discovered French cinema, my shopping list lengthened; I wanted a Breton top like Jean Seberg in Breathless and Jeanne Moreau’s fisherman’s sweater from Jules And Jim. French dressing – Frenchness itself – encapsulated everything I aspired to and, aged 18, I signed up for a gap year teaching English in Normandy. On arrival, I bought a Chanel lipstick, acquired a French boyfriend and prepared for my transformation.
It didn’t quite work out like that. Provincial 1990s France was a style wasteland, all boxy jackets and garish pastels. The pickings were slim; I bought a belted camel overcoat and discovered Sephora, but inexplicably failed to turn into Inès de la Fressange. Back in the UK, things started to fall apart. University was lonely – I missed France and my boyfriend, and our stormy long-distance relationship was hugely stressful. I developed alopecia, losing all my hair, and became depressed and obsessed with my weight, starving then bingeing in my college bedroom.
But French fashion provided a lifeline. Every day, to the obligatory Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack, I would get up, put on a Bardot-style headband and carefully line my lashless eyes. Then I would pick out a neat black sweater, Capri pants and ballet pumps and feel fit to face the world. I was quietly, violently miserable a lot of the time, but creating that illusion of icy Gallic insouciance allowed me to feel my unhappiness was somehow glamorous and cinematic. Channelling my French heroines, I could believe I was a strong woman with a complex inner life, not just a floundering twentysomething dithering over a fat-free yoghurt.
Life got easier and my devotion to French dressing slipped, gradually. A spell in Paris, where everything I wore was vocally disapproved of by my Chanel-clad neighbours, put paid to my illusions of “passing” as Parisian, and life as a dog-owning freelancer in a Belgian suburb with that same French boyfriend and our two semi-feral teenage boys has allowed my inner scruffy Englishwoman to get the upper hand. But the fantasy never quite dies – my reward to myself for finishing my memoir on failing to be French was a pair of black patent Repetto Mary Janes. I hope Inès would approve.
Emma's book, We'll Always Have Paris, is available to buy now.