Style à la Parisienne: Effortless-Chic or Self-Defense?

Are Parisians really the authors of the style zeitgeist, or have french women found a way to make oppression fashionable?

Around the world, Parisian women are looked to for their iconic style. Every generation has had it’s femme du jour from whom it could draw sartorial inspiration, from Coco Chanel to Charlotte Gainsbourg, and of course Gainsbourg’s mother, Jane Birkin. (Hermès doesn’t name its handbags after anyone, you know.) Parisian-style seems to be one paradox after the next. It’s causal yet elegant. It’s sexy, but not never vulgar. It’s effortless and somehow very put together.

It’s also a myth.

Having been brought up in Paris part-time myself, I can tell you that, one, not every Parisian woman (or man) dresses well, and two, “effortless” mon cul (re: my ass). What time Parisian women save contouring their faces to look like a Kardashian, they invest in finding the perfect perfume. Their priorities and standards of beauty are simply different, but try they do. If a French woman doesn’t wash her hair, it’s not because she doesn’t care, it’s because she’s trained her locks to follow a strict 3-4 day wash regimen to give her that perfect, post-coital coiffe, sans actual coitus.

The most perplexing aspect of contemporary Parisian fashion is how it accepts and often rejects, female sexuality

But perhaps the most perplexing aspect of contemporary Parisian fashion is how it accepts and often rejects, female sexuality and the female form. The French hold a strong monopoly on Western ideas of romance and sexiness, and yet Parisian women are much more conservatively dressed then their romantic reputations would suggest. Save for their lingerie, should you have the pleasure of seeing it anywhere other than the rack, French women dress comparatively unsexy by most American standards.

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Growing up amongst my Parisian relatives, I was taught that heels mustn’t be to high– same goes for my hem. Deep cleavage? Mais non! While we’re at, let’s forget about breasts all together. (Great news for my genetics, but not for women in general). But all these rules beg the question: Pourquoi ? The world has accepted Parisian women’s style and co-opting of menswear as irreverently chic, but I’d argue that what might appear as a sartorial middle finger to the patriarchy is in fact a protective mechanism against it.

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While Paris might not be dangerous in the way our Second Amendment-loving cities are, they way women are viewed and sometimes treated is in many ways much less progressive and often criminal. In the U.S., rape is notoriously under-reported, with only about one third of victims coming forward. But a recent study suggests that the situation is far worse in the so-called City of Love, where it is believed as many as 9 out of 10 rapes go unreported.This might come as a shock to those that have only visited Paris as a tourist, but having grown up there, I was always taught to be aware of my surroundings and eliminate the chance provocation, which of course meant dressing a certain way. This advice is of particular import when riding the Métro. Somehow, incidents of sexual assault are much more common below ground than above it. Don’t believe me? According to one survey, 100% of of the 600 Parisian women polled cited incidents of sexual harassment on public transport.

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It’s not only on the way to work that women suffer, even in the most esteemed offices, French women are being harassed with little judicial recourse. Back in May, France’s finance minister, Michel Sapin faced allegations of having snapped the elastic of a female journalist’s underwear. Despite outcry from female politicians and journalists alike, Sapin still holds his position. Perhaps it is no wonder that high waisted trousers and oversize sweaters remain permanently en vogue for French female professionals.

Suddenly, their “chic” and “effortless” style feels a lot less like a choice and more like a method of self-defense

It goes without saying that every woman should and ought to be able to dress however she pleases, no matter where she lives. What a woman wear (or doesn’t wear) should never be interpreted as an invitation or solicitation. But it’s these kinds of statistics that shed an entirely different light on French-girl fashion. Suddenly, their “chic” and “effortless” style feels a lot less like a choice and more like a method of self-defense. And it’s not just women’s wardrobes that are affected. The French prescription for bodily beauty follows an eerily similar pattern of defeminization. Thinness isn’t just a cultural value, it also makes you less of a target (There are also issues of race at play here, but that deserves its own analysis entirely.)

It’s perhaps a lucky twist of fate that French-girl fashion has liberated non-French women from their own unattainable and uncomfortable cultural beauty standards. Make up isn’t really my thing. I love a good men’s button down shirt, and I’ll never be the kind of woman that wears stilettos to the office or anywhere I’m not taking a cab to, for that matter. If I have my French upbringing to thank for all that, so be it. Merci beau-fucking-coup. But as a woman who has been sexually assaulted in public, and was later asked by the police, “What were you wearing?” I believe it is imperative that we don’t take things that seems as frivolous as fashion for granted.

Picture courtesy of Guillaume Lemoine (Flickr Creative Commons)

Julia Reiss is a Los Angeles-born writer and humorist alive and mostly well in New York City.
  • dazdza dadazdza

    It’s a bit shocking to read that Paris is a rapey town, coming from someone who lives in New York, in a country where Trump just got elected.

    As always, people spend 3 months in a town and think they know everything about it, when they don’t know jackshit.

    It’s not only on the
    way to work that women suffer, even in the most esteemed offices, French
    women are being harassed with little judicial recourse
    Read more: http://hereyoua.re/paris/style-a-la-parisienne-effortless-chic-or-self-defense/
    Follow us: @HEREYOUARE_MAG on Twitter | HEREYOUARE on Facebook”

  • Julia Reiss

    Hi there! It’s the author. Yes, it’s pretty fucking terrible to say the least. I’m based in NYC and dealt with more than my fair share of harassment and sexism, and I can’t say it’s gotten any better since Trump got elected. Criminal harassment and rape aside, the everyday sexism in Paris and French culture is much more discrete, which almost makes it more subversive.

  • Rubber Gauze

    Very interesting perspective! I’m from Chicago originally and have been living in Paris and suburbs for almost 3 years on and off. I think it’s interesting that the author has this perspective that Parisian fashion is a method of self defense (I think all fashion is an armor). I’ve never been cat called in Paris the way I’ve been in the US, I can wear miniskirts to work and not be sent to HR or treated oddly, I can wear stilettos and not feel like a hooker. I’ve found French fashion to actually be quite liberating ! I dressed very eccentric in the US and I found in Paris a new way to combine my own style and make it more ‘adult’. It’s definitely interesting to read that this is a topic that is so differently perceived. I will say however, that I miss dressing like a freak. Dressing too weirdly in Paris doesnt go over well, which after my OFII classes, I attribute to the French obsession with social cohesion and the separation of personal identities and the collective social identity. Anyway ! Very interesting article !

  • dazdza dadazdza

    I can only agree with that. Sexism, as other forms of discrimination, is very insidious in France. I wanted to react about rapes because, to us french, the vast majority of US cities seem way more crazy & dangerous than Paris. Even New-York.

    Without any sociologic analysis, I’d say that style depends a lot on where you’re from in Paris. I think girls in the center don’t want to be categorized as whores, maybe because they are more under pressure/feel less free than girls from the suburbs. That’s difficult to explain without going in great lenghts. And we know all the problems there are at work, and even in the government. In the end, that’s really more a societal question than a fashion one.

  • stonewondercloud

    When I moved to Paris from London I had to change COMPLETELY the way I dressed and even behaved because of sexual harassment literally just walking down the street to the grocery store. It’s ridiculous and it’s socially accepted. Paris is a horrible place to live and forces you to conform if you don’t want to be stared at, cat called and even physically assaulted in the middle of the street with no help at all from anyone (all happened to me).

  • MAU

    Wow, I am a parisian suburban and I had never thought about it like that, you are so right ! I always thought that parisian women were super elegant but lacked the “crazyness” you can find in fashion elsewhere, when i was living abroad my style was more “daring ” indeed, I even noticed how british or US brand change their styles completely for the french market. Now you just shed a new light to it. Thanks. I would also like to add that “le style à la parisienne” is not only a method of self defense but also very eurocentric, it just erases women of color completely. You were mentioning how being skinny makes you less of a target and I am thinking that many black women , being naturally more curvy are 1. Excluded from the “style à la parisiene” and the skinny elegance that makes it 2. Can be made more of a target because of it . Anyway, I am happy to have come accross that article.

  • Philippine Dlt

    Your article is a point of view interesting to know about, I habe been a parisian all my life and have not felt threaten in any way. I just feel that its completely unaccurate to compare Paris bloggers to Miami or Los Angeles bloggers simply because of the weather! When in winter, Paris is freezing so the style is adapting and we wear high neck knitwear… not really oppression just freezing my ass off!

  • Focusing on the weather is like denying part of the reality. The weather is not warmer or sunnier in London or New York but there is a tremendous difference that anybody who had the chance to live in Paris and one of these two cities could easily report.

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