A Beret Good Read

Helena Frith PowellLately I’ve been going through my books. I’m considering, but not committing to, downsizing my bookshelf. I’m loath to do so because, I mean, books!

I’m a huge fan of libraries. I think you get a real sense of a community by the stacks of its local library. Wimbledon, for example, has six books on beekeeping, a whole self of IVF and far too many books about the grieving process. It has a huge section on financial advice, every new feminist book as soon as it’s published and a massive stack of books in the children’s geography section.

I can’t buy every book I want to read, as I have neither the money nor the space, so my strategy is to only buy books I have already read at least twice from the library. Looking through my bookshelves, I realise that I have a lot of books on style. And, as a subsection, a lot of books on French style.

I’m not the only one who has books like these. They are best sellers. On the whole they fall into two types:
– gawky young English/American woman moves to France, learns from the locals and becomes chic
– dumpy middle aged English/American woman moves to France for work or her husband’s work, learns from the locals and becomes chic.

They have delightful titles like “Two Lipsticks and a Lover – all you need to be impossibly French“, “How To Be Chic And Elegant: Tips From A French Woman” and “Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl.”

From my extensive research of books and blogs about French style, all the advice can be summarised as follows:

– accessorise with a scarf

– never ever wear underwear that does not match

– wear red lipstick – never leave the house without makeup, even to take out the bins

– perfect “le no make-up” look which involves a minimum of eight products

– spend a small fortune on beauty at the parapharmacie

– buy classic cut, good quality items for your minimalist wardrobe

– buy traditional French brands like Dior and Hermes

– dress in an androgynous way, but display your femininity

– quality over quantity in everything

– be thin, but enjoy food

– be intellectual, but not overly opinionated

– be attractive to men, but in a dismissive fashion

– avoid French women as they will steal your husband – only socialise in couples.

Please don’t mistake my pithiness for disregard. I read those books, I inhaled those blogs, I wanted to be a French girl. The number of faded stripy t-shirts and dead ballet shoes in my wardrobe are testament to that.

Now that I’m contemplating possibly moving to Germany in the future, I am stressing about it like an exam. I want to start revising now, before the course has begun. I’m looking into replacements for my skin products that I can’t get there, I’m researching recipes for making baked beans (they take FOREVER. I’m just going to import them). I’m panicking about phone contracts and data plans.

What I’m not doing is trying to look German. Mainly because I don’t want to. I don’t want a Dirndl (and a colleague has kindly pointed out that I “don’t have the bust to carry it off” which is surely some sort of sexual harassment?), I quite like my non-funky glasses, I don’t want to wear orthopaedic shoes or Birkenstocks (there’s just too much naked foot on display, I can’t explain it) and I like wearing the colours I wear now, I don’t want to break into patterns or mustard-coloured hosiery.

When I moved to London, I ate those books and blogs on how to Look French. I watched so many videos on how to tie silk neck scarfs, despite looking ridiculous in neck scarves. I wore red lipstick. I had three berets which itched. I bought a lot of classic items for my minimalist wardrobe, but I actually need more than ten items of clothing with my job and I couldn’t afford to buy proper classic items, so bought the next best thing available in Dorothy Perkins which usually had a non-classic ruffle or decorative detail. Obviously I looked a hot mess, rather than French because I did not follow the rules. That was my fault, not the fault of the books. I was a disaster.

You don’t find a lot of books about dressing like other nationalities in the lifestyle section of Waterstones (you can find them in the fashion section though). There aren’t many “Dress like a Mexican” or “Great Greek Style” books. Mainly because you can’t really the style of a nation into one book, and mainly because the French have very good PR. French girls and women are chic, are classy are stable. They are seductive even if they are jolie laide.

When you’re lost and you don’t really know who to be, it’s very easy to want to be French. French girls eat croissants, but are slim; are sexy, but don’t have to wonder if they look like a slut or if you can even call yourself a slut if you aren’t ever getting any; are intellectual, but not geeky; are attractive, but not shunned as clothes horses. It’s easy to dress like a French girl. You can be pretty and girly in skirts or chic and sexy in cigarette pants. They always wear matching underwear. They have their lives so together that they can wear matching underwear without having to plan the laundry rotation in advance.

When you’re lost, you want clear instructions on how to dress and how to look, because maybe that will help you fake it until you make it. If you dress attractively, maybe you will be attractive. If you dress like a French girl, then you won’t have to be a dumpy girl from Milton Keynes or a middle aged mum from Slough whose kids have left home. If you look like it, you can become it. If you just sort out how you LOOK, you can sort out how you FEEL and how you THINK and how you BE. If.

I did not become French. I travelled TO France and discovered that these books and blogs are selling a very particular type of well-heeled (in both senses) Parisian woman who doesn’t eat much and is constantly struggling to fit into the mould society has caught her in. She must be sexy and slender and not mind that she never has dessert except when out with guests or that her husband is having an affair with a neighbour and the whole boulevard knows. Those women don’t last. No one can last like that.

I don’t need those books any more because I know who I am at the moment. In a few years that might be different if I live elsewhere, have a family, have a different career, am happier or more stressed, or have a different haircut.

At the moment, I am the kind of girl who wears a lot of pleated skirts and swishes them about her knees. I’m the kind of girl who can’t get her calves into most trousers and wonders when she’ll stop referring to herself as a girl. I’m the kind of girl who buys and wears the lipstick but forgets to reapply it. I’m the kind of girl who’s happy, for a change, with what’s going on in her life and has found a balance between her work  and her friends and her family and her worries and will sometimes dare herself to wear the short shorts to Tesco and be stunned that no one stops her crossing the street, so stunned in fact that she VERY NEARLY starts discussing the shorts with the busy and nervous Indian chap behind the counter until she remembers that she comes into this Tesco a lot and it would be nice to still be able to come here without being mortified the next time.

I’m still a bit of a mess, but I’m not wearing an itchy beret any more. I might keep one or two of the books though…

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