Is the image of French chic that abounds in popular culture nothing more than a misleading stereotype?
Picture a ‘French girl,’ and the image which inevitably springs to mind is that of Brigitte Bardot’s effortless beauty in Et Dieu créa la femme; Anna Karina’s mesmerising allure in Vivre sa Vie; Catherine Deneuve’s impeccable wardrobe in Belle de Jour.
The ‘French girl’ is the epitome of cool; she exudes natural perfection and sophistication. She has infiltrated our wardrobe (I am wearing Breton stripes as I write this), she has Pinterest boards devoted to her: she has captivated us with her “je ne sais quoi.” The media churns out articles on an almost daily basis instructing us how to wear our hair, which clothes to wear and what attitude to adopt in order to achieve ‘French girl style.’
Yet the ‘cool French girl’ maintains a sense of careless and effortless style while adhering to strict fashion rules. She is thin, but eats croissants for breakfast and is never seen without a baguette under her arm. She is elegant and casual, all at the same time.
The ‘cool French girl’ is a paradox.
This idea of effortless perfection poses problems: the pursuit of perfection is an all-consuming, and ultimately futile quest, and the stereotype of a thin, white woman does not represent today’s France. The image which we all recognise and idolise is not accommodating of other skin tones, body types or genders.
This is an issue fashion journalist Alice Pfeiffer has picked up on in her book Je ne suis pas Parisienne, in which she aims to deconstruct the myth of the ‘French girl.’ Through the book, Pfeiffer shares her experiences of being held to impossibly high standards, expected to maintain a simultaneous image of carefully cultivated perfection and insouciance. She shares insulting comments made about her weight and her style, and ultimately declares the society’s preconceived idea of the ‘French girl’ to be sexist, elitist and unachievable.
But, is the image of the French girl changing? Today, the body positivity movement is thriving, and more and more marginalised groups are taking to social media and using technology to create their own platforms through which they are able to take control of their own narratives.
Amandine Gay is a French-African filmmaker, journalist and activist based in Montreal. Through her directorial debut Ouvrir la voix (Speak Up), a documentary in which women of African descent discuss their identity as African women, Gay aims to "occupy public space and explain why the intersection of discriminations faced by black women in France and Belgium is as problematic as it is political."
Yet there still remain positive aspects of the image of ‘French chic’ that we can use as sources of inspiration. In 80s supermodel Ines de Fressange’s book Parisian Chic: A Style Guide, she writes that, to be a true Parisian, a woman must never neglect herself for the sake of adhering to convention or trends. This idea can be interpreted to promote the idea of self-acceptance, as can the trope of minimal makeup associated with the French, which appears to be making a resurgence today.
The ‘French girl,’ then, must be reclaimed. We do not need to abolish the image completely: it is an iconic souvenir of the history of French literature and visual culture, but the stereotype needs, however, to shift into accordance with modern-day French society.