Sarah Caden: Are chic French women 'Les Miserables'?
So French women trump the 'vulgar' English, writes Sarah Caden, but what about the joie de vivre?
Given her comments last week on her fellow Englishwomen's dress sense, actress Kristin Scott Thomas might be wise to revise her reported plans to return there from her adopted France. Following the backlash to her observations, she'd be as well off staying put with the French, among whom she has lived since her teens. By now, she would seem to have more in common with the French, not least in her mastering of passing judgments and assuming a position of superiority.
"French women make getting dressed seem simple," Scott Thomas said, "and they can be attractive without abusing their sexy side. There's no vulgarity, it's all about subtlety."
Perhaps, it's not so much what Scott Thomas said, but the way she said it, with that classic Gallic high-handedness that rubs a person up the wrong way. It's that irksome imperiousness that annoys everyone about the French but also succeeds in intimidating everyone. It causes us to accept their truth that they are universally chic as a people, while the rest of us are clodhoppers. It causes us to accept that they know best about beauty, attractiveness and ageing, while the rest of us are crumbling into decrepitude.
As far as the French are concerned, they're all right and the rest of us are all wrong and that's that. And, thanks to the characteristically French scolding attitude, we accept that truth like chastened children. "I think the French are more natural," Scott Thomas also said, in the interview published last week, which, it should be said, was with a French interviewer. "The English are much more concerned with what is fashionable. They follow all the latest trends, even though they all look the same. Right now, for example, English girls are all wearing buns on their heads! And they love tanning, especially fake tan, which means, by summer, everyone is orange."
Mon dieu, l'orange! Now, not many people are going to take Scott Thomas to task on her abhorrence of fake tan, and bad fake tan in particular. The rest of it, though, is not only pious, but also extremely selective in how it sets up the French as sartorially perfect.
For one thing, when people such as Scott Thomas talk about French women, they're really not talking about all French women. They're talking about Parisians, and well-got Parisians at that. And these types will make you feel mightily inadequate when you go there. Part of that is just the fact that they don't smile - hence the book, French Women Don't Get Facelifts, because they don't move their faces. But it's also that there is a certainty and surety in how they dress, which you gradually understand comes from the fact that it's a uniform.
And, to a huge extent, Parisians are, like the UK women Scott Thomas complains about, all dressed the same. It's just that she likes the French uniform, and abhors the one back home. The trousers are fitted, the jeans are not their staple wear but a statement of being off-duty; flats and kitten heels are de rigueur and you're no one without a knee-length skirt.
They don't go mad on colour, they know the value of good tailoring and they don't, for the most part, feel the need to wear their clothes body-revealing tight. And the idea of a uniform works when it works. But the French have sold us on this idea that they only wear what suits them, but the uniform doesn't suit everyone. Not even in Paris, where, once you get over your Paddy Irishman sense of inadequacy, you realise that not everyone looks amazing.
In Paris, just like anywhere else, there are women with bigger calves that aren't the friend of kitten heels or ballerina pumps. They don't look much good in the sheer tights, and while the miniskirt may not be their friend, neither is the French-beloved knee-length. These are the women who look like they're dressed in someone else's clothes, who, when they are young, look like they are dressing like their mothers.
But these are the women that the French-women-are-uncontestably-chic brigade don't talk about. Think about it. When you read about how chic French women are and how wonderful it is, for example, that they shun the GHDs in favour of a more natural, sexy hairdo, they'll use former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld as an example. Who is no more an example of an average Frenchwoman than Victoria Beckham is a good example of an Essex girl.
Which also points up that when Kristin Scott Thomas talks about bed-head buns, fake tan and too-short skirts as a look, she's not describing the way women dress all over the UK. She's describing a certain type who is, for the most part, not a London girl.
And if you hold up regional UK to metropolitan Paris, of course there will be no comparison. And have you ever been to rural France? They may not be sinful slaves to fashion, but they'd have more in common with 1970s Mullingar than spring/summer 2016 Paris.
Take a walk down a London street and everyone seems to be dressed out of a magazine, and Ireland seems very dull by comparison. Everyone seems to have bought the right trend, right now, and they're wearing it, no matter what. This is a complaint Scott Thomas makes about the English, that they are trend magpies. But fun, Kristin, where is the fun? It was not for nothing that an Irishwoman I know, who lived in France, called them "Les Miserables". If you've ever holidayed in a resort favoured by the French you will understand how wedded they are to the rules. At first, they seem so soignee and well put together, but soon you realise that they are all wearing the same things, wearing them the same way, nodding at each other in mutual approval of their toeing of the line and seeming very discombobulated if anyone rocks the boat. It's wearing - in the wearisome definition of the word.
Fundamentally, though, one has to wonder if Scott Thomas's issue is so much with how her fellow Englishwomen are dressing as how they behave. French women, she said, can be "attractive without abusing their sexy side . . . French women would never get drunk on a Saturday in a miniskirt in November."
And that, perhaps, is the real issue. It's not so much the miniskirt or the inappropriateness of one in November, it's the drunkenness. French women really don't do that. And on that score, they might just have the edge.