Why Is Everyone Obsessed With French Style?

Here we go again… another headline raving about the endless allure of dressing “Parisian Chic.” I’ve more than noticed that there has been an influx of headlines reading, “How to Dress Like a French Woman” and “10 Style Tips from a French woman.” You can see examples here, here and here. Admittedly, I clicked on these headlines because like many ladies in my generation, I loved the Madeline illustrations and the dreamy world of Paris as a kiddo. Add to the mix my eternal adoration for Coco Chanel and her plight for pants-clad women circa 1920, and it’s easy arithmetic for style. However, this madness has been going on for far too long, and I’m so sick of seeing the same redundant headlines that I’ve built up a major case for why my wardrobe won’t be characterized as French (the style — not the condiment).

So, I decided to email a small group of friends regarding my current mindset. The subject line was: “How do you feel about dressing French? Yes, or Nah?” I didn’t know if I was looking to validate my current mood, but I was genuinely curious as to what my small sample size had to say about the headlines currently flooding the fashion community, and if they were truly alluring. I received a mix of responses, ranging from “No, it’s annoying. New York women do it better” to “I’m secretly obsessed with anything French” to “It’s too proper, and I’m not a prim bitch.” Although admittedly a little too sassy, it does say something about what women are really inspired by, as well as serving as a catalyst to further my research to why these headlines are so fixated on French culture.

One of my friends had pointed out that the French economy is at an all-time low, and after doing my research, I stumbled upon an article written by Economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times which confirms this. Despite using the Euro, France’s current economy means that jobs are far and few in between, and a French woman I met at in a hostel confirmed this (I can barely remember what she was wearing). This woman revealed that her style was actually a result of her lack of funds, and the few decades-worth of clothes that she did own were collected during her more exciting years prior to losing her job due to Chinese manufacturing. Perhaps, you could call this French style? Being picky, living on a budget, savoring a few silks, washing out your knickers, going makeup free, repeating your favorite jeans? As you know, style is a result of your environment. Does dressing French equate to dressing with a snobby mentality (as one email response suggested)?

Could one pull this off with today’s offerings from retail? Cue J.Crew, H&M, Gap. Or to better the question, do you want to pull this current mentality off in your everyday look? A fellow colleague insisted that her boots were better quality because she got them in her hometown somewhere on the countryside of France. I curiously asked her if she knew the type of leather, but she couldn’t tell me. Nor could she recall the designer. To my dismay, I really wanted to know so I too could confidently stand by the quality of my shoes.

If the difference lies on the manufacturing of how American clothes are made versus French clothing, than the lines may be more blurry than I thought. Carrie Mantha, Founder and CEO of Indira, a US clothing company which adopts French style techniques, claims that there’s only a slight difference in French ready-to-wear clothing since the whole trickle-down effect starts with the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which is officially regulated by members of the Fédération Française de la Couture.

Unofficially though, the rest of the fashion industry in France does its best to maintain certain techniques within small-scale businesses. Once the production level becomes too big to run in a small studio space, to China the designs go for larger profits and influence. Similarly, the same scenario occurs within US manufacturing, leaving space for what Carrie says more “heritage-based” ready to wear clothing like sweaters and children’s clothing made “locally.” That’s why her business, focused on eveningwear with French techniques, may be one of the reasonable exceptions where French customs are actually beneficial in achieving “attainable couture” for special occasions.

But these how-to guides aren’t special. If anything, these headlines as a call to action, digestible for only the cool kids, are perceived to be arrogant. Furthermore, as one of my survey respondents so passionately put it, these headlines suggest that dressing alike is to say you are a step above the rest, as well as disguised as something less obvious. We live in a culture where style isn’t exclusive to one vertical, where classy doesn’t mean French and furthermore, where speaking a language doesn’t default to pristine culture. Berets or nah?