C’est la mode francaise

...the nation that gets it right

by Becky Cope
The French have been quintessentially elegant and fashionable since, well, forever. I’m sure even Joan of Arc had the most delicate lace stockings underneath her armour (I’m being a little over-imaginative perhaps!) This leads to one question: pourquoi? Well, it’s unlikely that it’s just something in the water. The French seem to have that untenable sense of ‘je ne sais quoi’ ingrained into their brains when it comes to dressing. I’m not saying that there aren’t some serious exceptions to the rule: several 14 year old French exchange students certainly lacked fashion appeal with their grungy hoodies and unwashed hair. But what my argument essentially boils down to is this: the French invented chic didn’t they? And I think its time to celebrate it. The usual response to the French in England is grunts of disapproval and mutterings of ‘rude’ ‘don’t queue’ and ‘frogs legs’. However, the French certainly do get some things spot on, with their personal sense of style being just one of their talents.

A quick glance across the Channel at the fashion capital of Paris and you’ll see what I mean. In the nineteenth century the European and American elite ordered entire seasons of clothes from Paris. Since then, only the method of buying clothes has changed, with the Parisians still leading the fashion pack. Dating back to the turn of the century, we have the legendary Reine de Mode, the one and only Coco Chanel. With her revolutionary take on women’s dress, transforming men’s wear into women’s wear and making it functional yet elegant, Chanel is the benchmark of French style.

Then there’s the fashion royalty of French Vogue, Carine Roitfeld and Julia Restoin-Roitfeld. Carine has long held the title of world's-sleekest-magazine-editor, and was once declared the “most fashionable woman in the world”, with her taste for high end designers and killer heels of the Louboutin variety. Being watched like a hawk on all the most influential front rows, her dark hair, eyes and brows evoke Brooke Shields and eighties elegance; something that is very in right now. She hates handbags, she hates leather, and she thinks black is overrated. A woman unafraid to voice her opinions it seems; painfully confident in her own stylish assertions. Indeed, this is an important quality of the well-dressed French, deeming personal style and taste more integral to appearance than trends or labels.

Once declaring “Fashion is my boyfriend”, mini-Carine, Julia Restoin-Roitfeld has definitely stepped up into the spotlight so long held by her mother Carine. Gracing the pages of many magazines in recent editorials and interview pieces, this stylish offspring has really solidified our impression of an inherited sense of French elegance.

Despite claims that she cannot live up to her mother’s reputation for style, young Julia wore leather trousers to school and still shows a daring, rockstar flair in her dressing today. She’s not the only young fashionable girl of note in her generation as well; take a look at Lou Doillon, Audrey Tautou and Laetitia Casta to see what I mean. All three exude cool, class and that principally French quality; chic. It’s even captured on film. From the first appearance of Eva Green in Bertolucci’s 2003 film The Dreamers, with her blue velvet dress and red beret (seriously, it works), we know we are in for a sartorial treat.

And it’s not just the fashionistas who are getting it so right. After all, Paris is the place where many of the most famous and long-living Haute Couture houses were born. Aside from Chanel, we have Christian Dior, Balmain, Balenciaga and Christian Lacroix who all owe their heritage to Paris. Even the next generation of designers seem to effortlessly recapture and reimagine these elegant roots, constantly returning to basic principles instilled by their Haute Couture backgrounds. Just look at the recent Haute Couture collection from Galliano at Dior, inspired by French boudoirs with frills and negligee and ultimately French daring; think sex and cigarettes and freedom of expression to shock.

Then you have the evolution of Chanel under Lagerfeld over the last few years, with the constant reinvention of the camellia brooch, skirt suit and chain detailing. But you still have the excitement and daring of the French attitude to, well, everything (this is the country that will strike over anything), seen in the collections of the flamboyant Lacroix and truly inventive Ghesquière at Balenciaga. Even their shoe designers have got it right; Louboutin; need I say anymore?

All in all, I think it’s clear that I’d love a French polish to my wardrobe too.