Apart from dwindling finances squandered in the pursuit of trends, the only consistent thing in the fickle universe of fashion, at least according to general-interest fashion and beauty magazines, is the notion that French girls do it best.
This Gallic dream girl wears “wardrobe essentials” like no one else, favors “a minimal aesthetic of neutral tones, simple lines, and effortlessly chic footwear”, sports “clean, bare skin” and “flawless red lips and perfectly-imperfect lobs”: these phrases are just a few one can easily find by typing “French Girl” into Google News. Anglophone countries observe this trend with stars in their eyes, and it would be one thing if it actually focused on French designers, fashion houses, and the fundamentals of French-based fashion but, as a European (I’m from Italy), I’ve watched with a mild sense of horror and despair as this obsession with French Girl Fashion endures. You see, the problem with buying into “How to dress like a French Girl” gospel is that you should not want to, because the whole idea is bullshit.
French Girl Fashion rests on a certain je ne sais quoi, in theory achieved through a sum of style codes that are meant to convey elegance, culture, and sexiness. The basics, such as well-tailored jeans, striped boatneck tops, blazers, flats, frilly dresses, seem attainable enough, but they’re far from democratic. Let’s just say it once and for all: those wardrobe staples only pull their own weight if they’re made with high-quality materials, meaning only when they veer to the expensive side. “What lends minimalist dressing its gravitas is its price,” stated a sometimes cringeworthy essay on the illusion of wealth through clothes that appeared on Elle in 2014. “It can't be imitated on the cheap, at least not easily.” Tough, but fair; we can all agree that the pricey blazer from APC will yield very different results than the one from Uniqlo, H&M, and Forever 21. The low-cost varieties with their risk-averse cuts will make the wearer look like a dull seventh-grader during a school trip or a receptionist at a trade show. Inès de la Fressange’s latest collection of “simple and timeless basics” for Uniqlo claims 1920s Montmartre as an inspiration. All I see are the dwellers from District 12 in The Hunger Games during the “lottery.” Would these looks work on less conventionally attractive people and without the heavy use of a soft-focus, warm-glow filter?
And that’ assuming you can even find low-cost knockoffs in your size (good luck on the “good knockoffs” front, by the way, but Depop loves the tag #frenchgirl): Rouje by French it girl Jeanne Damas has a size cap at FR 42 (US 10), the largest pants size for Uniqlo by Inès de La Fressange is a 34 and the “XL” size for French-inspired brand Réalisation par is a US 10. The French-inspired aesthetic may involve carrying a baguette, but never, it seems, actually eating one.
Would these looks work on less conventionally attractive people and without the heavy use of a soft-focus, warm-glow filter?
Besides, these overpriced items for which you are paying a premium in service of a Gallic allure, are in actual fact, sourced from all over Europe, stylistically speaking. I can’t help but feel a pang of indignation every time the “quintessentially French Girl” decides to sport staples from all over the continent and magazines call them “French.” Let’s examine the “French Girl” summer look: espadrilles are shoes that became popular in Catalogne, the Pyrenees, and the Basque region; whereas the body-hugging, midi-length dresses that Jane Birkin cosplayer extraordinaire Jeanne Damas so proudly showcases in her label Rouje are pretty much the definition of Mediterranean womenswear: the Italian Sophia Loren sports similar styles in Two Women, and so does, 35-years later, her lookalike Maria Grazia Cucinotta, who, in Academy Award-winning Il Postino, plays the belle of the small island of Salina, Sicily. As an aesthetic, it looks more like a generic Mediterranean fantasy, and it’s all too common to see the “French Girl” on Instagram traipsing around a Mediterranean village with its bleached low-rise houses decked in bougainvillea flowers, or fondling citrus fruits in a woven basket. Pretty imagery, sure, but it’s not French, as there are 21 countries bordering the Mediterranean sea.
As a corollary, if you embrace “French Girl Fashion” as an aesthetic, you are likely to imagine that France is an all-white enclave. Rather, France is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nation, with a large North-African, Middle-Eastern, and West-African population. And French fashion personalities like Fatou N’Diaye and Gaëlle Prudencio display a degree of creativity that, of course, make Inès de La Fressange, Caroline de Maigret, and Jeanne Damas as mundane as can be. Among ‘civilians,’ a quick glance through Radiographie d’un style, a column written by journalist Geraldine Dormoy for L’Express shows women such as Laetitia, who loves patent-leather shoes and ‘50s-style dresses that suit her body shape, or Audrey, who mixes post-apocalyptic utilitarian uniforms with flashy makeup and accessories. This is not to say that all white French style icons are mediocre Jane Birkin wannabes: just to name a few, famous French fashion bloggers with a longstanding online presence, Alix Bancourt promotes an aesthetic halfway between Sofia Coppola and Studio Ghibli; Louise Ebel has the flair of a world-class, theatrical retromaniac; Betty Autier has what can be described as a haute-hipster look. But it’s their individual sense of style, and not their allegiance to their nationality, that makes them stand out.
Perhaps the saddest thing about this whole “French Girl” bullshit is its blatant yet silent aspirational core. By buying into the aesthetic, one doesn’t so much attempt to nail down the “perfect wardrobe” — having a good rotation of staples is a respectable goal — but to emulate class. By channelling the (made-up) style codes of a nation Americans still associate with some ancien regime, one can slyly conceal the fact that all they want is to look old-money rich. It’s the same problem with GOOP. Customers don’t spend hundreds of dollars for yoni eggs and energy-clearing kits because they secretly like The Craft. Most likely, they want to experience what it’s like to walk in the shoes of an old-money, genetically-blessed and orthorexic actress with beautiful feet. And just like Shiva Rose-recommended products won’t give you an immaculate home with an efficient “house manager,” overthinking high-waisted jeans, white tees, and artistically-cut blazers won’t actually make you look rich and worldly. Most likely, they’ll make you look basic. So, you might as well ditch the impractical ballet flats or knockoff ZIZI shoes for a comfortable pair of UGGS. It’s getting colder anyway.