Vive la difference?

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Why is it that the French and the English differ so much in style? Ines de la Fressange

I received a new comment on an old blog the other day, and it set me thinking about the difference in style between French and British women. 

Why, my French correspondent asked me, do the English get so hung up on the mutton-dressed-as-lamb thing?

Her comment is perhaps worth quoting at greater length, as I had to do some hard thinking about it:

"I’m now in my late fifties, and to be honest, I don’t feel less attractive than I did in my twenties," she says. "In fact, maybe the reverse because I have more self-assurance and a better understanding of what’s right for me."

I do think that this understanding is something British women lack, and one reason for it is consumerism. British women are simply bombarded with choice in a way that is not open to French women, and most of that choice is completely unsuitable for them. The prices are lower, so it’s easier to make a mistake. A consumerist culture is encouraged, meaning British women, rather than making gradual and careful investments with their clothing and thinking about every purchase, tend to buy clothes as a way to cheer themselves up, with the focus on the buying, not the wearing. That is a very good way to end up with a wardrobe full of rubbish – the British have never learned the value of the crewneck black tee, the navy v-neck sweater, the nude ballet flat and other staples of the French wardrobe. 

Amy Childs

The British also value youth in a way that the French don’t – or, in other words, British culture is ageist. French men, I have noticed, never stop noticing you or complimenting you, no matter what your age. This simply doesn’t happen in England, where if you’re not 18 with tits up to your chin, men don’t know you exist at all. British clothing is designed for girls, not women.

When I visited London briefly in 2005, a very tall, young, strong man barged me out of the way in Oxford Street, almost knocking me down, and then said: "Fucking women – think they own the fucking road."

I think that was an age thing. At the age of 40-odd, I was simply invisible to him – beneath his contempt. But French men, I would suggest, are not as fucking stupid as British men when it comes to appreciating older women – they know the value of experience and self-assurance. And that is perhaps one reason why French women continue to make the effort to look good, no matter what their age – it is a chicken-and-egg situation.

My correspondent continues: "To be honest, I have never quite understood the Anglo-Saxon obsession about ageing. I don’t think we French change our basic style very much as we age. Rather, we adapt it. Perhaps it’s because we learn from our mothers that in fashion, as in make-up ‘less is more’. We know from an early age that a neutral colour palette and the best quality clothing we can afford will always pay dividends, and look far more elegant than a wardrobe full of high, but fast-forgotten fashion. I suppose I’m trying to say style is more important to us than following the latest trend, even if it doesn’t suit us."

She is right – elegance is not a lesson that the British generally learn. In our youth it makes us more interesting dressers than the French – more innovative, more individual, more iconoclastic – but many British women dress for effect in a way the French simply don’t and this kind of thing can catch you out when you get older and the strapless, skintight, rocker, biker-chick, hippie or goth look starts to do you no favours. What looks good on older women is generally a version of the ‘classic’ look, which many British women hate (along the lines of ‘who wants to look like an air hostess?’), and they simply don’t know how to personalise classic to bring out their individuality, especially if they never wore these kinds of clothes when they were younger. 

"This also means that I dress in a very similar way to my daughter," continues my correspondent. "In fact we sometimes borrow from each other. BUT we do accessorize these basics differently in order to put our personal stamp on them. My daughter is far more likely than I am to wear scarlet nail polish, or accessorize MY little black dress with incredibly high red patent Louboutins, while I will wear the sheerest black stockings and classic patent pumps, choosing a gold leather clutch for MY touch of panache. But that’s almost the only difference."

Well, with the exception of Mrs Middleton and her daughter, I think you’d be quite hard pushed to find many women over 40 in the UK who can fit into their daughter’s clothes because British middle-aged women are so fat. Only if they have fat daughters (which, actually, is quite likely, come to think of it) will they be sharing clothes. The fatness of Brits is something that every Continental dweller notices as soon as you step off the ferry, in the way that we once used to gawp at the gigantic American tourists waddling round our historic sites. 

But Brits are fatter not just because they’re lazier than the French (though they are) but because British culture follows the American model in being utterly in cahoots with the corporates, who push sugar and fat-laden fast food at a weak-willed populace who cannot resist it. Food appreciation is not taught in British schools and a snack culture is encouraged, all of which makes more money for the food producers. The inevitable result over 30 or so years of this is that the Brits are now 3 stone heavier than they were in the 50s, according to Jacques Peretti, and the condition of our internal organs is frightening – there is a REASON that Brits have the worst cancer rates in Europe. 

It is not only, though, a question of weight. British women, because they are taught to dress only in an ‘alluring’ manner when they are young, sticking all of their assets on display as if it were a male smorgasbord, simply don’t know what to do when they get older and a bit of restraint is called for. What DO you do when the only shoes considered attractive are those with high heels but you just can’t walk in them any more? How DO you hide your bingo wings when the only measure of attractiveness is to display as much flesh as possible? (I actually read a women’s magazine interview recently where one young man said he would never date a woman who wore long sleeves because "women who wear long sleeves are no good in bed"!)

A French woman, in contrast, although she limits her food portions and walks about more, also tends to stick to flats whatever her age, and knows the value of a decently-cut jacket whether she’s 20 or 60. In France, these things are not markers of age but of style and a woman isn’t required to totally change her look and ‘give everything up’ as she gets older. 

My correspondent finishes up: "We share the same golden rules that my mother taught me, and I’ve passed on to Marie. NEVER, EVER, even at 6.00am, go out in sweatpants and trainers (it takes no longer to pull on a pair of jeans, and a breton top, with a black blazer if necessary, and a pair of ballet flats) or without a touch of make-up. This can be a beautiful Chanel-red lipstick and a touch of mascara, or smokey eye make-up (but NEVER both!!) and never forget a soupcon of perfume."

I must admit that this is pretty much how I dress these days (except I wear loafers rather than ballet pumps, which make my feet look weird), but it took me a long time to learn how easy and effortless it is to dress this way rather than go schlepping around the place. But on the other hand, it IS rather a uniform and part of me yearns slightly for my golden days of not giving a toss. One thing I enjoyed seeing last time I was in London was women in maxi dresses in the street. This is something you’d never see in Paris (beautiful but not stylish) and although, on the other hand, the vast majority of British women I saw were badly dressed, there was also more individuality of expression than you see in France. 

"It’s a matter of self-respect, and also respect for those whom we meet in the street. So our take on clothes might be a bit different, our way of personalizing them, but basically we are the same: at 28 and 59 respectively. Why do British women get so hung up on this ‘never look like mutton dressed as lamb’ thing??" 

Mmn. Do British women lack self respect, and respect for those they meet in the street? Or is it that the French have a tradition of making fine things and are a much more visually literate nation than we are? I do think that the latter has something to do with it. My (female, well over 60, skinny as a whippet) wine negotiant turns up in tight jeans, red shoes and a full face of makeup, even though she drives a van all day. I can’t imagine a British woman doing the same. But on the other hand, British women do create beauty in other ways, in their herbaceous borders for instance, and their homes, and fashion and style are only two of the many, many things they are interested in. They are, after all, just clothes to walk about in, not the roof over your head.

In the end, although I have lived in France for many years now, I am still not sure which attitude is best – the French never-give-up or the British never-give-a-shit and I confess to being somewhat schizophrenic in this matter because, after all, I am British, not French, and I am at heart a bit of a slob. Last week, for instance, I dressed up to go and see friends for lunch, and I got plenty of compliments and admiring glances, but I would far rather have been bumming around in my scruffs.

Well, ladies, this has been a marathon blog. What do you think? Is the French attitude better, or the British? Or should we just accept our differences and say vive la difference?

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