« Living in the Shadow of the Perfect Parisian Woman »
Two years ago I went to the American Library in Paris to hear American writer Jamie Cat Callan speak about her book, Ooh là là: French Women’s Secrets to Feeling Beautiful Every Day.
This charming lady explained to the gathered crowd, the majority of whom were Anglophone and Francophile, how French women were wonderful: always elegant, always sexy, and always refined. When the mediator asked for questions, everybody agreed that French women are perfect models for other women. Everybody, except me.
I stood up and said, “I don’t have any questions, but a comment. I’m annoyed by all of the books about French and Parisian women that say that French women are perfect. As you can tell from my accent, I’m French, and if I believe most of these books, as a French woman:
I never get fat (from the book French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Galliano).
I’m a sex goddess (from the book What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind by Debra Ollivier).
I am a femme fatale (from the book Fatale: How French Women Do It by Edith Kunz).
I have two lovers (from the book Two Lovers and a Lipstick
by Helena Fritz-Powell), and of course I never sleep alone (French Women Don’t Sleep Alone: Pleasurable Secrets to Finding Love by Jamie Cat Callan).
I’m always chic, and I always match my underwear, even when I go to throw my garbage away at midnight (Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris by Jennifer Scott and Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style, and Substance by Tish Jett).
And not only am I The Perfect Lover, even if I have children, I am also the best mother in the world! (French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman).
“You know what?” I said smiling, “It’s a little too much for only one woman… even for me! I feel very sorry for American women, and if I was an American I would hate
“But you will notice that the hundreds of books and articles about the myth of the French woman have all been written by American women and not by French women. French women would not be so arrogant as to pretend to teach other women in the world how to behave,” I ended.
On my way home from the American Library that night, as I walked through the elegant quiet streets of the 7th district of Paris, I thought:
“I am a normal middle-aged French woman who was born and educated in Paris, who has two children, and who has always lived in Paris. Of course I’m flattered to be seen by the world as a sex symbol and a model for other women, even if my weight must be double that of the sexy Carla Bruni (originally an Italian, by th
e way). And I perfectly understand that it can be very annoying for any woman to be told that she has to be as slim and elegant as the French women.”
As I admired the symbol of Paris, the elegant Eiffel Tower, shinning in the dark, I wondered: “Why is there this mystical image of the French woman, and more particularly the Parisian woman, who is always slim and elegant with a je ne sais quoi in her allure? Is it a myth or is it reality? From where does this perfect image of this fascinating lady come?”
I am not Claude Levi-Strauss, the famous French anthropologist and ethnolog. The Parisian woman is not the Indian of Amazonia that Levi-Strauss described in his books. But I believe that the famous image of La Parisienne is both cultural and historical.
This idea originated during Le Grand Siècle. The Great Century was the glorious era of the French King Louis XIV. During the 17th century, France had the most talented architects, interior designers, landscape gardeners (André Le Nôtre), writers, and philosophers (Molière, Pierre Corneille, Jean de La Fontaine, Jean Racine, René Descartes, etc.). Thanks to the impulsion of the brilliant Sun King Louis XIV and his genius Prime Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, France became the European model of good taste. The marvelous castle of Versailles, a symbol of the glory of France, was replicated 28 times in Europe (not all the copies have been completed). From Stockholm to Saint Petersburg, the European elite wanted to speak French and to dress like the French aristocrats.
But what about the French women?An aristocratic woman in Paris in the 17th century could not meet her girlfriends at McDonalds to chat about fashion and men. She created her own literary salon in the home to receive the crème de la crème of the French writers and intellectuals. Noble French women, like the Marquise Catherine de Rambouillet or Madame de La Fayette, the famous French writer, did just this. Parisian women of the 17th century invented something very French: the art of conversation.
French women were not allowed to be educated in the same manner as men; they did not speak Latin. So they spoke about culture in French. They were the ones who modernized the French language. In their living rooms, the Parisian women of the 17th century codified the relationships between men and women. These refined ladies taught the vulgar French nobility how to be polite, gallant, and delicate with women. Literary Parisian salons became the schools of elegance Louis XIV imported to Versailles.
Then arrived the Enlightenment in France and French women, such as Madame Geoffrin and Madame du Deffand, created the fashionable literary salons in 18th century Paris. In these intellectual salons great philosophers including Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Jean d’Alembert could debate freely and criticize the royal power. Parisian women with a strong personality broadcast the Enlightenment’s ideas, which became the basis for the future French Revolution.
During the 18th century, the Scottish philosopher, David Hume lived for many years in Paris. The French warmly welcomed him, and he learned to know and love France. Hume wrote that English are better philosophers than the French, just as the Italians are better musicians and painters than the French. But he said the French are the only ones in the world who make alive, the subtlest and most agreeable art, the art of living (l’art de vivre). David Hume explained that the art of living is the pleasure of talking and the pleasure of showing oneself. But you cannot please a man or a woman simply with words.
Being refined in the 17th century meant to be elegant…and slim as well. France created, in the image of Louis XIV, self-theatralisation outside the home. The court at Versailles became a permanent theater where one had to always present oneself. The same theater still exists for the French on the streets of Paris. And being elegant means fashion.
So the French developed their passion for fashion. No surprise that the first fashion magazine, Le Mercure Galant, debuted in Paris in 1672. This newspaper was more popular in Europe than Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. If you glance at the sophisticated French ladies in Le Mercure Galant, you will notice that the French woman of the Great Century was not only a fashion victim, but was also slim.
No doubt that being lithe even in the 17th century was more elegant than being fat.
Another famous French philosopher from the 18th century, Montesquieu, wrote a book which influenced French and American constitutional law, the sprit of the laws (De l’Esprit des lois). The serious Montesquieu noticed that France was a lively nation, which had the religion of the spirit, adored the taste of theater in its daily life, and had a big passion for fashion. He also insisted on the determinant importance of women to French society.
It was also during the 17th and 18th centuries that the French developed an aesthetic conscience, not only in art and in architecture, but also in daily life. And this vivid concept of aestheticism explains why modern Parisian women are still aware that being elegant is an important key to their life.
I believe that the environment has a strong influence on the way a woman dresses. Paris has always been a huge source of inspiration for artists and people who admire beauty. And still today in Paris, even when you go out to buy bread, handsome old buildings surround you. The beauty of the city is the constant inspiration for the elegance of Parisian women. In the past, the French honnête homme (honest man) had to exist in accord with his environment. The stylish modern Parisian woman is in harmony with her magnificent city.
Many people like Paris because it is a romantic city. But the history of Paris has not been always so romantic. Parisians have always had to fight to protect their city and maintain their liberty. In January 2015, two million Parisians took to the streets to defend their freedom. But before 2015, the Parisian died many times in the name of freedom:
First the population of Paris had to fight against invaders, the Vikings and the English.
Parisians died in 1789, with the French Revolution.
Then there were the bloody barricades in Paris in 1830 and 1848 against the dictatorships.
In 1870 when Paris was isolated from the rest of France and surrounded by the Prussians, thousands of Parisians died of hunger, cold, and disease.
Then arrived the violent civil war of the Paris Commune, which killed men, women, and children in 1871.
And in the 20th century, Parisians endured the world wars and the invasion of Paris.
But what is the link between the bloody history of Paris and the elegant style of the Parisian woman?
Part two: The Impossible Legacy of the Perfect Parisian Woman published on A Woman’s Paris®.
Acknowledgements: Alyssa Heitfeld, English, Media and Cultural Studies major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and Editing Intern with A Woman’s Paris.