By Victoire Cointy
Photography by Ellie MacLean
Modeled by Aya Albakoush, Anna Sedova, and Wint Htet
This article has been adapted for the web from our Unity/Uniformity Issue.
Every designer creates clothing with a particular individual in mind, creating entire lines and collections as they place themselves in their models’ shoes. Just as each individual puts together their outfit based on the demands of their day, a designer will inhabit their customer for an instant. The “French Girl” we’ve all come to aspire to be was, like any other style, born from the self-expression of a particular type of woman.
This French Girl is effortless, wears minimal makeup and prefers a neutral palette over loud colours. Her sex appeal doesn’t come from a plunging neckline, high hemline or exposed skin, but from her elegance, sophistication and quiet intellect. She’s unapologetically herself and owns her identity as a voracious sexual being, but with a quiet and muted confidence. Her indulgences are always reasonable, though she’s never one to refuse a glass of red wine, any and all types of cheese or some chocolat, especially when offered by a potential romantic counterpart. Her hair cascades down her shoulders with admirable ease. She’s Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Jane Birkin, Inès de la Fressange, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Carine Roitfeld, Laeticia Casta, Clémence Poésy, and Julia Restoin Roitfeld. She’s the elusive, yet widely desired French Girl.
This image of the French Girl pervades every aspect of the fashion industry, from runways to magazines. Even Vogue, a leader in the print and digital media industry, has a plethora of articles about her in its archive, with topics ranging from matching eyeshadow to earrings in “This French Girl Beauty Trick Is About to Be Everywhere” to dissecting fall-appropriate outfits in “How to Do Back-to-School Shopping Like a French Girl” or celebrating of bare skin in “Why French Girls Skip Concealer—and Swear by the Surprising Charm of Under-Eye Circles.” Goop— Gwyneth Paltrow’s newsletter turned lifestyle brand—one-ups the print mogul with an entire section on its website dedicated to looking like the French Girl. One of its first few articles is a French Girl wardrobe starter kit because “French women do, in fact, just have it going on.” From a simple black blazer, to year-round white denim, the look seems almost too easy to co-opt.
Articles like these—found in every nook and cranny of the fashion print industry—preach the secrets of a woman who seems so elusive and so perfect, she’s almost completely unattainable. Therein lies the attraction women have with this myth, turned marketing gimmick.
Brands profit from the idea of the French girl. In fact, it’s slowly but surely turned into a billion-dollar industry. Take French Girl Organics. The sustainable beauty brand, created by American entrepreneur Kristeen GriffinGrimes, markets itself as “inspired by the timeless je ne sais quoi spirit of French Girls everywhere” and “perfect for everyday self-care and effortless indulgence” on its website. However, other than the French labels, none of the products feature any ingredients that seem inherently French. Though Griffin-Grimes claims to have been inspired by the South of France, the area’s intoxicating scent of vegetation and garrigue is ignored in favor of rose, sea salt and charcoal, which—truth be told— hold no particular significance in French culture.
On the fashion front, Madewell, launched in 2006, has built itself around making the French style readily available. From customizable leather bags to striped cotton shirts, channelling the style of the hundreds of thousands of women roaming the cobbled streets of Paris has never been easier. But, here’s the thing: no French girl would ever wear a mustard tee with the word “Dijon” printed onto it in big, bold letters. That idea is tantamount to French designers creating a maroon shirt embroidered with the words “barbecue sauce,” and labelling it the American style.
The current definition of “French style” and its effortlessness severely misrepresents French identity. Though France is not a leader nor a model of diversity and integration, Parisian women— unlike what brands and the media want us to believe — are not all slender white women with hair that always falls perfectly when undone and a constantly clear complexion. Many women in Paris are women of colour, who leave their homes in hijabs, dashikis or kaftans; women who do not fit in ridiculously small sample sizes; and working women, whose dress is determined by their field of work rather than their own personal musings. Denying that their sense of style is part of the larger tapestry of French fashion is ignoring a very large percentage of the women who make up the population of France today.
To put it metaphorically, lack of diversity and social inclusion in France is like a bad blemish: the country knows of its existence, but often refuses to take a long hard look in the mirror to truly acknowledge it. In the past few years alone, the country has dived nose-first into a more nationalistic identity, almost electing Marine Le Pen—incumbent leader of the National Rally, a right-wing nationalist party—to the presidency in 2017. Coupled with the recent refugee crises and subsequent immigration, many today feel like outsiders and second-class citizens in a country they’ve called home for generations.
Mix together this nationalist identity with a severe lack of social mixity and cultural integration, and you end up with the cités of Seine Saint-Denis and Marseille. Both known for being the poorest areas in France, their landscape is made up of dozens of cheap, large building complexes which house generations of immigrants from all over the African continent.
It’s when looking at issues as deeply rooted as the racial and financial segregation of individuals in France that one is truly able to understand the problematic nature of the French Girl’s existence. Not only is she a classical misrepresentation of the many styles of dress adopted women across the country, she is a symptom of a much larger issue: racism and the erasure of diversity in France. So, next time you plan to wear a beret, forgo your concealer or add a red lip in an effort to be authentically French, think about Laura Flessel, Marjane Satrapi, Leïla Bekhti, Yamina Benguigui, Amel Bent or even Fleur Pellerin—all truer reflections of what it means to be a French girl than that marketing myth could ever dream of being.