Decoding the Parisienne

Just over ten years ago, I came back to Paris after having spent a decade in London. I wore plastic crowns of flowers on my head, Mad-Hatter-like tights, faux fur coats, and fed myself with pints and chips. That was then. Fast-forward to today, and I can’t help but notice that I wear more black, smoke like a chimney, and experiment very little, sartorially speaking. What, one may inquire, happened in the process?  Paris, of course…

That is the starting point of my first book, Je Ne Suis Pas Parisienne, which came out in September. In it, I recount the story of my return to Paris and the alienation I felt in the city I had actually grown up in, until age 15 (in the near suburb of Malakoff, to be exact). Most of this sentiment stemmed from a feeling of complete and utter inadequacy when meeting a member of a rare breed called “a real Parisienne” and being bombarded by fashion images of the sort of Gallic femininity I couldn’t relate to, despite qualifying, on paper at least, as one of them.

Graced by the likes of Audrey Tautou or Inès de la Fressange, every advert in the city – from perfume to exquisite camembert – seemed to promote the image of a miraculous creature who perpetually de-ambulated from public bench to public bench, effortlessly wearing 12-centimetre heels while smoking Gauloises without her hands (busy flicking the pages of Libération or an eminent tome of existentialist philosophy). A woman who is perpetually thin, young, artfully dishevelled-yet-bougie, donning a Breton top and a vintage Chanel bag, and probably carrying a baguette under her arm (only God knows where the calories go).

I’ve stopped counting the books with alluring titles such as French Women Don’t Get Fat, or French Women Don’t Get Facelifts, and realized two things: the Parisienne is synonymous with France.  In other words, this is the only image delivered to a vast, diverse population of this country.  This image is also distributed to a vast market that in large part, is boosted by luxury groups.

Indeed, the latter are globalized but based in Paris, and use the city as an idealized global package, complete with macaroons, the Eiffel Tower, and elongated females, hence providing an aura of slightly vintage savoir-faire and savoir-vivre to the otherwise globalized city. In other words, the Parisienne acts like the proof of and the extension of centralized France — a vivid testimonial of undying chic.

Yet, as I discuss in my book, this image is more problematic than it may seem at first blush – and I’m far from the only woman feeling excluded by it.

A layer of a look associated with freedom (‘La liberté!’) and a sense of a seemingly accessible effortlessness, belies a system of exclusion and privilege.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we? The Parisienne never brushes her hair, guides tell us. Yet this is a luxury that only straight hair can afford, immediately rejecting other hair textures, and, thus, many other ethnicities than Caucasian. (Let’s not forget that in France, shampoos labeled cheveux normaux, or normal hair, mean straight hair.)

The bright red lipstick only fits certain skin tones. The heels signify not having to deal with public transport or walking short distances. The boyfriend-shirts and jeans suggest that every woman is extremely slim.  Lest we forget, one is expected to wear the pieces oversized, to look more petite than Monsieur. Then there is the vintage Chanel bag inherited from one’s grandmother, which not-so-subtly suggests being born into a family that has been consuming luxury goods for generations.

Between the lines, what emerges is (you guessed it!) a skinny, privileged, heterosexual, white woman. What about all the other women? What about Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux, all cities with booming avant-garde and underground scenes?

Not that there’s a lack of other clichés of French women floating around here: But, as I elaborate in my book, just like those of the Parisienne, the other images are also clichés –  all treated with condescension and mockery. 

The figure of the “cagole” is used to describe a blond, tanned, and stereotypically vulgar woman from the south of France. The word “beurette” designates a highly sexualized female of Arab descent – and suggests a heavy and unspoken colonial history. The “cougar”, finally, is a woman who attracts younger men.

All these negative images leave room for only one legitimate representation : the Parisienne. But where would she be — without women who are devalued and whom she has constructed herself against? Despite the other types of Parisienne women, she stands strong as the only respectable image of the country.

Today, bloggers, books, classes at the Sorbonne, hairdressers and coaches all provide Parisian expertise to women for whom the dream is alluring yet unachievable.

Of course, one may ask, what qualifies me to write about this topic, when in fact, I’m not that different myself? This was a question I have asked myself throughout the entire writing process. And I came to the conclusion that one can be part of a system and still question and criticize it. In the end, I hope my book achieves two things:  I’d love to see how these Parisian codes can be readapted to fit more women. (Say, how can a woman who wears a size 44 rather than 34 work her way into oversized, tomboy chic? How can the famed messy hair be adapted to curly hair?); I also hope to see a celebration of other cities that Paris, and cultures other than Franco-French. On peut toujours rêver?

So, in the end, what can be done differently? Many women ask me if inclusive sizes are available in all shops and are represented on the catwalks of Paris and other fashion capital cities? Over the past few seasons, Parisian houses have begun showing more diversity on the runways but ought – in my humble opinion –  to continue this process out of the limelight and inside the offices in positions of power. This would avoid the frequent feeling that minorities are being tokenized, and allow women who don’t look like Gallic waifs to be heard— celebrating the rich multiculturalism that makes France unique. 

About the author: 

Alice Pfeiffer is a Franco-British journalist with a Masters in Gender Studies from the London School of Economics. She has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde. She is currently freelancing for Vogue International and The Guardian and directs the fashion pages of French weekly Les Inrocks. Her first book, Je ne suis pas Parisienne, was published in September.

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