You know it’s a racket, but you click anyway. You already know what it’s going to say: Showing less skin is ultimately sexier than wearing something too short or too low-cut, and a natural beauty look is more appealing than obvious contouring. Blue jeans, an off-the-shoulder top, a little red lipstick, and off you go into the evening. Life is good when you’re a French Girl.
The effortlessly chic French woman is one of the most persistent tropes in our lifestyle landscape. Sixty years after a young, unapologetically sexual Brigitte Bardot danced her way into the pop culture canon in the film ...And God Created Woman, publications like Vogue, Into the Gloss, and Who What Wear now publish a steady stream of articles on the supposedly superior and increasingly specific ways that French women dress, do their hair, eat, exercise, and fall in love. “The One Piece Every Chic French Girl Has in Her Winter Wardrobe.” “The Color Combo French It Girls Always Wear.” “How to Do Valentine’s Day Like a French Girl.” “How to Wash Your Hair Like a French Girl.” Even the New York Times has investigated French women’s daily habits (“Aging Gracefully, the French Way”).
Some of these articles are written with a dash of knowing humor, because our French Girl obsession has become something of a joke. (Last year, The Cut skewered its ubiquity in a post titled “97 Things You Can Do Like a French Girl.”) In fact, there are times when it seems like our French Girl may not even exist. Maybe she’s just the product of a media pile-on, each story laying the foundation for the next until she’s a commonly accepted fact.
On any given day, the pantheon of French Girls includes Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Hardy, Jane Birkin, her daughters Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon, and former Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld. Coco Chanel, immortalized not so much as a young woman but as an elegant matriarch, retires nearby. They’re distinct both as fully realized people and as types — Bardot is fiery, Deneuve icy, Birkin carefree, Roitfeld edgy — but all are regularly brought in as evidence of the French Girl’s actuality.
Who is she? She’s intellectual, cool, and a bit of a romantic, but she doesn’t give her approval easily or smile too much. She might run around in black-tipped Chanel slingbacks, or barefoot if she’s on vacation. She has a signature perfume. She eats cheese without abandon and nurses a single glass of wine all night because she’s a master of reasonable indulgences. She’s almost always white, hetero, and thin, and you can only conjure her by willfully ignoring the many French women whose daily routines do not involve bicycling along the Seine in mini skirts with baguettes tucked under their arms.
But the French Girl’s influence is tangible. She makes money for big American drugstore chains, department stores, independent brands, book publishers, magazines, and digital media companies. She definitely has something to do with the fact that rosé, sales of which outpaced the rest of the wine market last year, has become so popular in the US.
The obsession has become a business, and in that sense, the French Girl is perfectly real.
“There is a little je ne sais quoi in all of us,” the French Girl Organics website reads. “Perhaps a petit chocolate for breakfast, an impromptu dance session à la Anna Karina, or an evening soak in the tub paired with a glass of rosé.”
The Chanel-inspired packaging of its skincare products is perfect, nothing more than glass jars and black sans serif type on rectangular white labels. They’re filled with big pink flakes of bath salts, mint and rosemary body scrub, and shimmery bronzing oil. It couldn’t be more tasteful, or more on-the-nose: This is where Instagrammable minimalism converges with Instagrammable Frenchness. Rose figures prominently in the brand’s recipes, giving more than one product the dusty hue that has become synonymous with millennial tastes.
French Girl Organics, which is sold at Anthropologie and Williamsburg jewelry mecca Catbird, is neither the work of a Parisian It girl nor a clever marketing team, but rather a 60-something Seattle resident named Kristeen Griffin-Grimes who has a warm, ready laugh and an unpretentious demeanor.
Griffin-Grimes grew up on an oyster farm in Seattle, surrounded by the sensory pleasures of good food and nature. She always felt a strong affinity for France through her Cajun mother, whose ancestors had immigrated to Prince Edward Island from France in the early 1800s and later to New Orleans. Griffin-Grimes herself didn’t travel to France until middle age; the trip served as a celebration of her son’s high school graduation, and a mission to locate her distant French relatives. Suddenly, everything shifted. “I never understood why I loved aesthetics and beauty so much,” she says, “but when I got there I was like, now I see.”
Her first foray into French Girl anything was writing French Girl Knits, a book of knitting patterns that took inspiration from French film and history. Later, she organized group knitting tours to France. Griffin-Grimes found herself exhausted after finishing her second French Girl Knits book and began funneling her love of gardening and cooking into making beauty products using her own ingredients. She sold them on Etsy.
The business has ramped up — French Girl Organics now has 15 employees and a sales projection of $1.5 million for 2017 — and Griffin-Grimes works with larger-scale organic suppliers, though she still uses flowers from her garden sometimes. She attributes much of the brand’s success to retailers’ and consumers’ growing interest in so-called “clean” beauty and describes its French connection as the frosting on the cake.
“We’re not French girls just because we think being French is cool, which it is,” Griffin-Grimes says. “We’re French girls because we’re on a mission to promote self-love and self-care. I think that really is at the heart of it.”
Listening to Griffin-Grimes effuse about the kindness she encountered while traveling around the French countryside or the locals’ pride in their history, it becomes impossible to reproach her for using the French Girl name. When she talks about being impressed by the ritual of a meal that lasts three hours, and how beautifully the food was presented, and how it’s all so different from how we do things in the US, you’re impressed, too.
According to the conventional wisdom, heaven is a French pharmacy. From Goop to i-D, beauty reporters sing the praises of the products lining the shelves of everyday drugstores, like Klorane (the best dry shampoo), Bioderma (the best makeup remover), Homeoplasmine (the best all-purpose ointment), and Embryolisse (the best moisturizer). They’re relatively inexpensive, and therefore seem like a life hack, but aren’t widely accessible, and therefore are to be coveted. For a long time, the Americans most attuned to these products were makeup artists, models, and fashion editors, who could stock up while they were in Paris for Fashion Week.
International distribution, as well as the internet, is changing that. Walgreens-owned Duane Reade has carried Avene, La-Roche Posay, and Lierac in select stores since 2009. (In addition to being more expensive than the mainstream American skincare brands, these products sit apart from the pack on shelves with special lighting.) Ricky’s, a funky chain of beauty supply stores in New York that largely caters to makeup artists and consumers who want professional-grade products, has carried Klorane and Embryolisse for the better part of a decade and introduced Bioderma last year. Bioderma’s version of micellar water, a type of no-rinse skin cleanser sold by many French brands, quickly became one of the top-selling products at Ricky’s.
“The reason we started carrying it was because it was such a coveted item with makeup artists, not because it was a mass trend. We’re actually the only chain retailer on the East Coast that has Bioderma,” says Anna Daoud McConnell, the vice president of product and brand development at Ricky’s.
But it is a mass trend. Simple and Garnier both launched their own versions of micellar water in the US in 2015 — Garnier’s clear bottle and pink cap looking suspiciously like Bioderma’s packaging — and they’re now stocked at CVS and Rite Aid.
In June, six days after Estée Lauder announced that it was shuttering its Kendall Jenner–fronted Estée Edit collection, the American company hired a much less famous woman who could nonetheless help it gain traction with millennial shoppers. Violette — just Violette — is a 33-year-old makeup artist who is both respected within the fashion establishment, having worked with photographers like Patrick Demarchelier and Mario Sorrenti, and a popular presence on YouTube, where she delivers tutorials to her nearly 97,000 subscribers.
Violette is the Parisian dream, except she moved to New York when she was 19 to seek work as a makeup artist. She has eye-grazing bangs, brown hair worn in a state of controlled chaos, and a charming accent that inspires fans to leave her videos playing as background noise. Even the production of her YouTube videos is aspirational: Apparently unembarrassed about doing her makeup in public, she films them in cute cafés and bars around Brooklyn and Manhattan.
It’s safe to say that Violette’s French roots are part of her appeal. Her 10 most-watched tutorials include “Breakfast & Blue Eyes in Paris With Loan,” “My Bardot Look,” “The French Kissed Look,” and “Yeux Chocolats in Paris.” The search term “French beauty tutorial” returns more than 2 million results on YouTube at large.
Just as Lancôme hired the professional makeup artist-turned-YouTuber Lisa Eldridge to consult on product and make videos in 2015, Violette is helping Estée Lauder develop cosmetics while starring in tutorials and creating digital content for the brand, which she’ll also share with her 99,800 Instagram followers. (The company itself sounds French because Josephine Esther Mentzer, its founder and a Queens-born daughter of Hungarian immigrants, chose to go by an accented version of her childhood nickname, Estée.)
Violette says that the French philosophy toward makeup — no foundation, messy hair, mascara, red lipstick, which works doubly as blush — is fundamental to her approach, but the diversity of techniques and looks she encountered in New York has greatly influenced her style. For an American audience, she’s offering something enchanting but accessible, foreign but familiar.
France cornered the market on style centuries ago. It was Europe’s luxury capital in the 18th century, a leader in everything from furniture to jewelry-making, though you can easily take that heritage back further: Louis XIV moved the royal court from Paris to Versailles, a monument to high style and opulence, in 1682. The late 19th century saw the rise of couturiers like Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman who nonetheless went to Paris to become one of the most prominent designers of his day, and the early 20th century welcomed Parisian fashion houses that set the standard for today’s high-end design, like Poiret, Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, and, in 1925, Chanel. Dior came along in 1946, and Givenchy in 1952.
Refinement — the cachet conferred by carrying a quilted Chanel purse or buying a Dior lipstick — is one element of France’s appeal to outsiders, and consequently the French Girl equation, too. Sex is the other, and nobody lingers in the public consciousness in that regard as much as Brigitte Bardot.
Bardot’s first film came out in 1952, but it was her 1956 role in …And God Created Woman, in which she played an independent and sexually aggressive young woman, that landed her in the international eye. We’ve been knocking off her heavy black eyeliner and glamorously disheveled hairstyles ever since.
In addition to giving us heroines, film has encouraged and sustained the mythical quality of France itself. Audrey Hepburn’s titular character in Sabrina (1954) goes off to Paris for two years and returns home a sophisticate; Paris provides the backdrop for her modeling stunts in Funny Face (1957). Amélie (2001), starring Audrey Tautou, paints an impossible but intoxicating portrait of the city’s delightful quirks. Even the Pixar movie Ratatouille, the sweet one about a rat who cooks (and that also features a French Girl chef), is transportive. The list goes on and on.
When foreigners talk about French Girls today, they often reference stars of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, Bardot included. The French New Wave gave us Anna Karina, with her perfect bangs, cat-eye liner, cardigans, and colorful tights; Jean Seberg, known for her blond pixie cut and striped shirts, emerged at the same time. Jane Birkin’s flared, high-waisted blue jeans, little white tees, and straw bags offer a blueprint for the 1970s resurgence we’re living in.
Ironically, none of these women are French. Karina’s a Dane, Seberg was American, and Birkin was born in England. Laurent Philippon, a top hairstylist with Bumble and Bumble, even sees elements of la parisienne in Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, the closest thing we have to a New York Girl: “She’s a bit rock ‘n’ roll, a bit irreverent, and it doesn’t look like she cares much.” (Of course, when Bradshaw does move to Paris in season 6, she quickly finds that her natural buoyancy is out of step with the unimpressed nature of the natives she meets there, and, for a host of other reasons, she moves back to Manhattan.)
Sabina Socol, the social editor of the French fashion magazine L’Officiel, says that most of the interview requests she gets from foreign publications pertain to her style or beauty habits in the context of being French. “Which is funny, when you know that I was born in Romania!” she writes in an email.
You can see this as proof that anyone can be a French Girl if she tries hard enough, or as evidence that no cultural moment exists in a vacuum. As Nicholas Hewitt, a professor of French cultural studies at the University of Nottingham, points out, the arty films of the French New Wave owe a debt to the “clunky, low-budget” American crime movies of the 1950s. Leila Yavari, a model and stylist who recently moved from Paris to Los Angeles, sees the influence of American rock ‘n’ roll in the undone, devil-may-care style of certain Parisian women.
“The French are deeply impressed by Americans. It’s very much a two-way relationship,” says Hewitt.
Still, the codes of quintessentially Parisian style aren’t necessarily intuitive for an outsider, hence the need for so many explainer articles. It’s important to note here that when we talk about French Girls, we are referring to a specific Parisian look.
Alexandra Pinel, a 27-year-old who grew up in Paris and now lives in New York, outlines the rules for dressing like a Parisian like this: Don’t wear sweatpants outside the house, ever. Don’t wear too many colors or loud patterns, and don’t dye your hair crazy colors. A natural beauty look is preferred, as are neutral shades like black, gray, and khaki. If you’re going to wear jeans, don’t wear a denim jacket, too. (That is, unless you’re playing into the ’90s mania that has swept both the US and France.)
While Pinel knows Americans who don’t put any thought into their wardrobe, she says she’s never met a French woman who doesn’t care about style. “It’s really ingrained in the culture,” she says. “I have one friend who’s a pediatric cardiologist, and she’s in a white coat every day, but when I meet her at the bar afterwards, she’s wearing that little floral dress and she has her little side bangs on.”
Above all, the look is predicated on what Pinel calls “purposeful negligence”: working hard to appear as though you didn’t try at all. In high school, Pinel and her friends would muss their hair (“You had to look like you just had sex”), cut holes in their jeans, and drop their shirts on the shoulder a bit.
“All French women wear makeup,” Pinel adds. “They don’t leave home without it, but it’s very minimal and they pretend like they don’t. There’s a lot of shame in showing people that you take care of yourself. Women don’t talk about exercising, and they don’t talk about dieting.”
“I believe the exercise that these Parisian women (including myself) do best, is pretending they’re careless about their outfits when in fact, they’re just doing their best to achieve this perfect ‘I didn’t do it on purpose’ look,” writes Socol. She freely admits that she dresses in “a kind of cliché Parisian (not French) way,” drawing a distinction between the capital and the rest of the country.
You can’t say for sure how much of a career lift being French gives a person, but it’s probably not zero, particularly when she works in fashion. Consider Camille Rowe, a French-American model who has worked with Dior and Victoria’s Secret. A playful video she made with i-D titled “How to Speak French With Camille Rowe” is the magazine’s sixth most-viewed YouTube upload ever, and a video on her “French style secrets” is in the top dozen on British Vogue’s channel, close behind clips with Kylie Jenner, Gigi Hadid, and Cara Delevingne.
“It is true that in food, in wine, and in hair dressing, being French is a plus,” says Philippon.
Less evident to the foreign eye is the degree of classism that is baked into Parisian style. The lingering attachment to the 18th-century aristocracy still exerts social influence today, and it’s not uncommon for parents to ask after the last names of their children’s friends, to see if they come from so-called good families. Indeed, many of our French Girl style icons have a “de” in their last names, indicating noble status, like the Chanel muses Caroline de Maigret and Ines de la Fressange. (Wherever you go, high fashion favors those who can afford it.) If the nouveau riche dress in a gaudy manner and the upper crust exerts restraint, emulating the latter is an attempt, intentional or not, to tap into its privilege.
Philippon grew up in a family of barbers, and describes being the comparatively poor kid in a posh area outside Paris. He feels that many French style icons carry themselves with a nonchalant air to such great effect because they have solid manners to fall back on.
“They have a really good education, they've been to school,” he says. “Most of them come from good families, so they were very well brought up. Because they know all the good behaviors, then they can break from them.” If you’ve got a great haircut, you can leave your hair a mess. If you’ve got a fabulous dermatologist, of course you don’t have to wear much makeup.
“To me, what makes all the difference about New York, and maybe the rest of the United States, but particularly New York, is that you’re not judged on what your name is or who your parents are or which school you’ve gone to,” Philippon says. “You’re really judged on the job, how you can get it done. You’re given more chances, I think, in America.”
Pinel now finds Paris sartorial demands limiting. When she moved to Washington, DC for college, she was met by a fashion scene that was outgoing and fun. Her peers were shopping at Urban Outfitters, wearing highlighter-hued American Apparel hoodies, and listening to M.I.A., a patron saint of bold, colorful dressing.
“It's funny, because I feel like my personality has changed from the moment I left France,” Pinel says. “I felt more free and authoritative as a woman when I was given the permission to wear louder clothing.”
Inevitably, foreigners took matters into their own hands. We’re now facing a host of non-French brands with French-sounding names, a trend that Fashionista documented in 2015 in a story titled “Why Are There So Many Fake French Brands in Fashion?” The list includes Glossier, La Garçonne, Agent Provocateur, and Journelle, and their founders’ reasons for doing so range from feeling inspired by French style to seeking legitimacy through the country’s history as a fashion powerhouse to simply liking how the words sound.
Of them, Être Cécile is perhaps the most flagrant about tapping into the French Girl craze, and the most attuned to how silly it all is. Its tag line, “presque Parisienne,” translates to “almost Parisian.”
The brand, which caters to the rarified segment of women looking for low-key tees and sweatshirts to pair with their Céline skirts, was founded in 2012 by former Style.com fashion director Yasmin Sewell and Kyle Robinson, director of the fashion PR and sales agency Paper Mache Tiger. They’re Australian, and the company is based in London.
The women pictured on the design team’s mood boards often aren’t Birkins or Bardots, but Woody Allen heroines like Annie Hall. Still, red, white, and blue stripes abound on Être Cécile’s website, and every season begins with imagining its patron saint — a 1960s Parisienne with a fondness for animal prints — traveling to a new locale.
“Right now she’s in California,” says Lara Bayliss, the brand’s general manager. You can buy a top that says “Venice Peaches” or a Breton-stripe shirt that reads “La Vie Los Angeles.”
The French theme sometimes reaches comical, albeit self-aware, heights. A classic navy-and-white-striped marinière has the word “Stéréotype” in red across the chest, and a collaboration with Man Repeller resulted in a tank that says, “Am I French Yet?” The team goes out of its way to misspell words to play up its tongue-in-cheek attitude, writing “Champ Élysées Paris” rather than Champs-Élysées, or “Je Parle Francais,” skipping the cédille under the c.
“We have had emails from French women who've corrected us,” Bayliss says. “We've been told to get a French dictionary.”
No contemporary French brand reinforces its own stereotypes quite as thoroughly as Rouje, which launched last year and trades in ’70s Birkin nostalgia. It sells floral dresses with short sleeves and deep V-necks, high-waisted blue jeans, and crocheted tops. Sweet, sexy, and easygoing, its collection begs to be paired with a straw bag and a trip to the Côte d'Azur.
Rouje is the creation of Jeanne Damas, a sometime-actress with a fondness for red lipstick and a haircut that falls in perfect disorder. When you ask people to name contemporary French It girls, she is usually on the list.
“The real intention behind the brand was to create my perfect wardrobe every season through pieces that reflect my own personal style: effortless and chic,” explains Damas in an email.
She also draws inspiration from women in her own life, like her mother, sister, aunts, and friends, and, of course, from Birkin. Damas may be a French Girl for our Instagram era, but she still takes notes from her predecessors.
Damas declined to share Rouje’s sales figures, joking that the French don’t like to talk about money, but said that revenue projections for the brand’s second year are roughly twice that of the first. France represents a quarter of its business at this point, but the US is its fastest-growing market. Être Cécile, meanwhile, hit £1.5 million in revenue for 2016 (about $1.94 million). For both brands, the US is a big focus in the coming year.
In recent years, American shoppers may have noticed the creep of modern French brands like Sandro, Maje, and the Kooples. Sandro and Maje’s storefronts tend to arrive side by side — their respective founders are sisters — with the former hitting the sleek, streetwise side of the Parisian fashion equation and the latter delivering a more bohemian, feminine look. Sandro has been in business since 1984 and Maje since 1998, but neither expanded to the States until 2011. The US is still parent company SMCP’s smallest region by retail footprint, though it’s catching up: At the end of 2016, SMCP had 140 points of sale in the US, compared with 479 in France.
The Kooples is a family business too, run by Alexandre, Laurent, and Raphael Elicha. Long before they launched the brand in 2008, they watched their parents distill easygoing French style at Comptoir des Cotonniers, which they founded in 1995 and sold to Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company, in 2005. Comptoir des Cotonniers did make a run at winning over American shoppers, but exited the US in 2016.
The younger Elichas now have six standalone stores in the US in addition to concessions in department stores like Saks, Bloomingdale’s, and Nordstrom. The Kooples, which finished 2016 with €227 million in sales (a little over $250 million), stakes its image on super-slim silhouettes and a rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Its ad campaigns feature attractive real-life couples (“kooples”) who might make the viewer feel somewhat lonely or inadequate, whether or not she’s in a relationship.
The brothers, however, are warm and talkative. Their style skews as far from any Parisian archetype as you could imagine. On a recent trip to New York to promote their summer capsule collection, they were decked out like flamboyant warlocks in layers of black heavily accessorized with big silver rings, necklaces, scarves, and brimmed hats. They all have beards and glasses. To see one on the street, you might think, “That guy has style.” To catch all three, you assume they must be famous.
The Elichas say they always dressed differently from their peers, and have at various times drawn on punk culture and Japanese street style. Despite its country of origin, the Kooples has an international flavor. The staff at its headquarters represents over 30 different nationalities. More to the point, its rebellious look has been inspired by London’s music and fashion scene since the beginning.
“English people thought we were a French brand, and the French thought we were an English brand,” Alexandre Elicha says of the Kooples’ early days.
Bloomingdale’s was the first US department store to carry the Kooples, Sandro, and Maje, and it often works with their design teams to develop exclusive pieces for its stores and website under its “100% Bloomingdale’s” initiative. That doesn’t just involve asking for sole access to particular pieces in the brands’ collections, but telling the designers which trends Bloomingdale’s is chasing for a particular season and asking them to create pieces that fit the bill — items that stay true to the brand’s DNA but are engineered to win with Bloomingdale’s customers. For foreign brands still establishing themselves in the US, that means deliberately becoming a little more American.
Inclusive of the US, the Kooples is in 36 countries now and maintains a remarkable consistency in its approach to international expansion. It begins with pushing out a ton of marketing imagery, says CEO Nicolas Dreyfus, like plastering the streets with photos of those beautiful couples. The brand then moves into department stores, launches a local e-commerce site, and eventually opens its own stores.
For all its worldliness, the Kooples does throw off distinctly Parisian vibes (it sells a lot of floral scarves and breezy blouses with its studded sandals and destroyed jeans), and the standardized way in which it enters new countries speaks to the global appeal of French style, the idealization of which is not a singularly American pastime. In 1986, a psychiatrist coined the term “Paris syndrome” to describe the stress that some Japanese tourists experience when they discover that Paris isn’t the charming paradise it looks like in films and the pages of magazines.
Consumers around the world have a lot in common these days anyway, thanks to the world-shrinking magic of the internet and global expansion of mega-retailers like H&M and Zara. French customers tend to style their Kooples looks more simply than Londoners or New Yorkers, but the best-selling pieces in one city are almost always the best-selling pieces in every other city. Shoppers behave pretty much the same wherever you go.
The great irony of the French Girl craze is that the literature acknowledges that Parisian women conceal their efforts to look effortless. “The truth is out: Parisiennes aren’t privy to a secret ‘skinny’ gene, they aren’t always easy to be with, and aren’t all perfect mothers,” reads the introduction of the 2014 book How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits, which revels in the fallacies of the stereotype over 246 generously spaced pages.
The book’s Parisian co-authors — Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline de Maigret, and Sophie Mas — deconstruct topics like haircare (“She cultivates, depending on her age, a type of capillary blur, to varying degrees of tidiness. But make no mistake, this is very carefully organized chaos”) and aging (“Parisiennes do not have plastic surgery, because they believe you need to know how to accept the body your mother created with such attention and care… Of course, this is what they’ll have you — as well as their men — believe. But it’s not true”). They find humor in insufferability with a list of “Parisian Snobbisms” that includes the following advice: “Never lose control. (But make sure you have a steamy past).”
Yet by undercutting the fantasy, How to Be Parisian makes it seem ever more attainable. You might suppose that if French women have to try, foreigners might as well, too, with the help of a $25 book.
How to Be Parisian romanticizes even as it cheekily exposes, mingling text with black-and-white photographs of messy white bed sheets and Sunday recipes for baked apples and pea-and-carrot soup. Ultimately, the idea of becoming French comes out on top. A month after its release, the book reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list for fashion and manners. The blockbuster French Women Don’t Get Fat followed a similar trajectory in early 2005, popping up on the New York Times best-seller list a month after it debuted, above He’s Just Not That Into You and The South Beach Diet.
“The term ‘French woman’ epitomizes everything women want to be: sexy, stylish, thin, great conversationalist, slightly maverick, very seductive, very badly behaved. It’s all quite glamorous and appealing,” says Helena Frith Powell, the British author of All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation Into the Lives, Lusts, and Little Secrets of French Women.
Of the 11 novels and advice books she’s written, Frith Powell says All You Need to Be Impossibly French is her most successful, having sold 250,000 copies globally. (It was originally published in the UK under the title Two Lipsticks and a Lover in 2005.) She has lived in France with her family on and off since 2000, and in her early years there wrote a column for the Sunday Times about French culture.
Where How to Be Parisian is authoritative but scattered — the work of actual Parisians who avoid committing too heavily to stereotypes and err on the side of a loose, playful sketch — Frith Powell’s investigation is earnestly reported, based on her own observations and interviews with dozens of real-life French women. It struck a chord with readers. Frith Powell still receives several emails a month from women who felt encouraged to make small changes to their lives, like wearing matching lingerie, regularly getting manicures, and remembering to moisturize their feet.
On a good day, self-care, an old concept that’s currently of great interest to millennials, is exactly what the myth of the French Girl promotes. Cheese is delicious. It’s nice to be given permission not to feel bad about eating it.
Yavari feels that living in Paris freed her of the pressure to dress up in heels and full makeup when it just wasn’t warranted, like on a 6 a.m. flight. “It’s a philosophical thing, not giving a fuck,” she says. Women everywhere are under a metric ton of pressure to look a certain way. It’s nice to be encouraged to not try so hard if you don’t feel like it.
But the French Girl myth can also reinforce the belief that there is, and always will be, a more perfect form of womanhood than whatever you have going on. You could be thinner. You could be hotter. But please, while you get there, make it look easy. No, unintentional.
The self-help book industry might help readers, but it’s definitely going to help itself. The same goes for the women’s magazines and websites that publish French Girl stories with frankly impressive frequency. They’ve found an unthinkable number of ways to repackage the same concept because it drives a ton of traffic and keeps them in business. If a story elicits a flood of attention, you replicate it until it doesn’t anymore. The French Girl has been here for decades, but thanks to the online media’s amplification system, it’s like she’s stepped into a Yayoi Kusama infinity room.
Still, you click, because you never know. That article could contain the piece of advice that finally turns your life into the breezy, rose-scented, romantic, confident masterpiece you always knew it could be. And if you don’t make that happen, who will?
Eliza Brooke is a senior reporter at Racked.