It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking there could ever be one definition of a “Parisian woman” when that is exactly what we’re told. The neatly-packaged stereotype is quintessential and iconic. The only problem? It’s decidedly oversimplified.
I have two copies of Parisian Chic by Sophie Gachet on my bookshelf, gifted to me on two occasions leading up to my impending semester abroad during college. Having spent years studying the language and devouring its literature, my fascination with the culture was primarily academic in nature. Unlike other Francophiles who may have become enraptured after tasting a sublime chocolate croissant or watching Paris fashion week, I was smitten with Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Victor Hugo — that, plus the French language, which somehow continued to sound just as crushingly beautiful and romantic as the first time I heard it. Needless to say, I hadn’t thought much about how to dress or carry myself in order to pass as an effortlessly chic “Parisian woman” during my four months at La Sorbonne outside of wearing a scarf and maybe pairing skinny jeans with ballet flats. But after receiving this so-called “bible” not once, but twice, I re-considered.
The book is split into four sections: “Dress Like a Parisian” (all about fashion), “Belle of the Ball” (beauty tips 101), “Chez Moi” (how to perfect home style), and “Ines’s Paris” (little-known neighborhoods and cosmopolitan haunts throughout the city). Each chapter is peppered with tips, specific do’s & don’ts, and quirky illustrations. Part 1, chapter 1 kicks things off with a six-point guide to “Parisian DNA” — but don’t worry, Gachet promises. “C’est facile!”
Among the many directives she lists? Don’t coordinate your outfits (“it’s a “crime”!), kiss your bling goodbye (because…and I quote…“a true Parisian is not looking to snag a billionaire husband”), and never, ever commit the fashion faux-pas of pairing a mini skirt with a masculine blazer because “an ultra-feminine skirt kills the jacket’s impact”…obviously.
As I continued reading, my mental list of what to wear and not wear grew longer and longer.
No logos, yes H&M blazer. Always have a scarf on hand — but wait, she says the best are vintage men’s…do I have that? She’s recommending knee-high cashmere socks, which I 100% do not have. Add to list. Oh! And I need to buy a silk blouse to pair with a denim jacket. But what if my denim jacket isn’t “old and worn out” as she recommends?
Teetering on the edge of overwhelmed, I resolved to do the best that I could which, per Gachet’s standards, probably wasn’t great. I reminded myself that I was operating on a virtually non-existent college budget — plus I was there for the academics, not a fashion show! But I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t spend my first few days in Paris not-so-subtly eyeing every woman that passed me by.
And here’s the thing: almost no one I saw followed the so-called “rules” in Gachet’s book. Sure, I spotted blazers and skinny jeans, scarves and rolled-up sleeves. But I also lived with a host mother who wore the same solid v-neck sweater, knee-length skirt, and stockings every day, just in a different color. Naturally gray hair swept up in a chignon. Zero makeup.
Walking through the Latin Quarter to school, I marveled at the buzz of foreign languages spoken around me — French, of course, but also Spanish, possibly German, Arabic, and a dizzying array of African French dialects — the diversity of language matched by the diversity of style.
In hindsight, it sounds silly to say I was surprised. Paris is an international city! 20% of the population consists of first-generation immigrants, and 40% of children have at least one parent who wasn’t born there. It’s diverse, just as one would expect NYC or London to be.
So why does the world obsess over this singular archetype of a Parisian woman?
A quick Google search of “how to dress like a Parisian woman” yields…get ready for it…11,400,000 results — a testament to just how pervasive the fascination is. People around the world are fed images, TV shows, movies, and books mythologizing this stick-thin, lipstick-wearing, baguette-eating woman who, mind you, is almost always white. She’s impeccably put together but simultaneously unserious about herself — her presentation never borders on vanity. She not only has the luxury to laze away the afternoon perched outside a café, but the confidence to as well. Her MO is effortless ease, a certain je ne sais quoi that has women around the world simultaneously enraptured and just a little bit jealous.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking there could ever be one definition of a “Parisian woman” because THAT, mon amie, is exactly what we’re told. The neatly-packaged stereotype is quintessential and iconic. Convenient, even. And it sells. The only problem? It’s decidedly oversimplified and not in any way reflective of the actual, real-life Parisian woman. Add on top of that the broad international appeal and commercialization of Paris, and what you get is a reductive portrait that has been exported around the world time and time again — telling us in no uncertain terms that there’s a cut-and-dry formula to femininity with universal faux-pas to avoid. That there’s a way to dress, to act, to eat…simply, to exist.
In the years since studying abroad (and, later on, working abroad) I’ve vacillated between resignation and hope. I’ve cringed through 10 episodes of the cliché-laden Emily In Paris, but I’ve also devoured books like Lindsay Tramuta’s The New Parisienne, which brilliantly “lifts the veil” on the archetype of the Parisian woman with profiles of activists, creators, educators, visionaries, and disruptors — exactly the kind of book I wish I read before I left for France.
So while the French narrative the world loves may never disappear entirely, I’m hopeful that it’s slowly shifting away from oversimplified projections to truer, more diverse reflections that more people can see themselves in. And that this narrative shift will serve as a long-overdue reminder that the definition of a Parisian woman — or any woman, for that matter — isn’t actually a definition at all.