That Je Ne Sais Quoi

March 6, 2020/ Spark Magazine

A century ago, fashion monolith Vogue alleged the state of French skin: “The fashionable French woman of the moment presents an appearance of freshness and beauty that makes it difficult to guess her age, as she retains her youthful appearance for an unusually long time.”

Vogue’s 1921 piece could’ve been ripped from the average American woman’s Twitter feed today, long obsessed with French glamour. The detailed, expensive guide that followed on how to glow like the “fashionable French woman of the moment” elevated an entire population to one elusive, mystical, almost mythical figure. Youthful and desirable, it will take work and money to look like her. And we’re willing.

Like bumper sticker residue or a judgmental in-law, the fantasy of the “French Cool Girl” has stuck fast to the American pop culture imagination, alluring us with the je ne sais quoi – a French saying, translated literally to “I don’t know what” – that she refuses to share. The French Cool Girl moves and molds with time but remains a firm matriarch over our closets, feeds and publications. What began as a chic and youthful European aesthetic has received the 2019 treatment. Specific trends promising access to the French Cool Girl (or, at the risk of kitsch but promise of brevity, the FCG) drift in and out of fast fashion stores, closely following Instagram influencers. Cheaper, skimpier and more fleeting than the look our grandmothers chased, today’s FCG mirrors our own culture and social media habits. It seems our obsession reveals something about ourselves. Maybe it hasn’t much to do about the French at all.

The American media creates, sustains and sharpens our collective image of the FCG. Whether it’s Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina or a Refinery 21 article on how to date like a French woman, the message is the same: she is chic where we are gaudy, effortless to our high maintenance. This sanitized glorification is full of clichés, ideals and impossible sex appeal. The generic and trend-based result is undeniably us. All virtues that attracted us to French women in the first place are lost.

Vogue, designed for the wealthy women of New York, ran constant updates on what French women were wearing, doing, eating, even smoking. In their first issue in 1892, the magazine alerted its readers that public smoking, considered unladylike at the time, was now in, because influential Parisian women said so, of course. In smokey prose, Vogue reported that French women “rest in the beautiful conviction that life bears a far more beautiful aspect when seen through the opalescent clouds of the fragrant smoke that issues from their delicate lips.” 

Today, the image of the cooler-than-thou French woman taking a drag over late-night conversation holds strong, birthing a new generation of artsy nicotine addicts long after the US quit smoking. The carcinogenic allure of the FCG inspires us to mold our lifestyles around hers. Simon says, or rather, Simone, says smoke cigarettes. Simone says wear short skirts. Simone changed her mind, Simone says wear long skirts. Simone says wear less concealer (or, really, Simone says have better skin). We try to keep up.

The genuine French aesthetic will remain elusive so long as we reach for the FCG over actual French values of personal style, timelessness and well-made basics. Real French women are not a trend that can be adopted — that’s the point. That’s why we love them so much. Quel paradoxe! There is no one way, nor fifteen ways, to be a French woman, but we have designed our very own French barbie. No wonder it all comes off so plastic and manufactured. Thankfully, there are avenues for us beyond the poor imitation of the French and the slightly better; our own fashion values certainly differ but are equally worthy of embracing.

Maybe the absurdity of American fashion is a virtue of its own. After all, the preposterousness of Iris Apfel and Betsy Johnson rendered them icons. Our weirdness, our too-muchness, defines us in the landscape of runways and the internet. We don’t belong to a refined, controlled culture. It’s why we have so long been pioneers.

When we abandon our cultural identity in pursuit of the French Cool Girl, we cease to innovate and make bold moves in fashion. If we continue to morph into these aloof fantasy women with aesthetically pleasing fantasy lives rather than lead our own real, joy-filled, messy ones, we will eventually be defined by our unoriginality. ■

by: Sydney Hatmaker

layout: Kalissa White

photographer: Thao Nguyen

stylists: Doris Umezulike & Megan Arimanda

Adrianne Garza & Tiffany Tong

Lindsay Gallagher, Paul Leonardi & Wis Escher
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