There’s nothing like a walk down any street, boulevard, or avenue in Paris to teach you that everything you thought you knew about dressing yourself is wrong.
This seems especially to be an issue for Americans. We, as a nation, have a long-standing tradition of arriving in Paris and finding that we suddenly long for personal transformations: professional, cultural, sartorial.
On my previous visits as a tourist, I was astonished by the ability of the average citizen to look like a million euros at any moment of any day in any season.
You can summon my Parisian friends with forty seconds’ notice for a picnic, window shopping, or a night at the opera and they will show up dressed as though they’d been waiting for your call already decked out in absolutely the very thing you want to be seen in for a picnic, window shopping, or a night at the opera.
Meanwhile, I was spending at least two hours each day getting dressed and still felt either like a gift-wrapped Rococo porcelain pig (too much) or a bipedal basket of dirty laundry (not enough).
Unless you are possessed of unshakeable self-confidence (in which case: good for you, sweetie, here’s your medal) this is especially tough on the ego in Paris, because stepping out your door in Paris means stepping onto a stage with an audience of thousands.
The city was transformed (painfully, expensively) in the nineteenth century to make it the most modern, elegant capital in the world. The new boulevards, with their long vistas and wide sidewalks, became ideal places to see and be seen. Ditto the parks and squares, the cafés, and even the indoor public spaces like museums, department stores, and theaters.
And because most of us here live in shockingly tiny apartments, daily life has to happen largely in public, all the year round. (If you can seat five people in your Paris living room: good for you, sweetie, here’s your medal.)
I became determined, through careful observation and shameless imitation, to crack the code and fix myself up. This is more difficult than you might think.
Because here’s the thing. It’s not as though all Parisians dress alike. There are types here, as in any city. You have your breathtakingly rich people, your middling sorts, your bohemians, your rich people pretending to be bohemians, the ultra-fashionable and the people who really, truly do not appear to give a damn about fashion. And yet they all, in their own way, make it work.
Also, please don’t think that Parisians get all dolled up every day. They don’t. A lot of what Americans think they know about Paris style comes from watching Funny Face, that 1950s musical in which Audrey Hepburn is, improbably, a frump from New York who comes to Paris and, even more improbably, falls in love with Fred Astaire.
Audrey and Fred have moved on, and so has Paris.
Take the matter of sneakers. I’ve seen so many warnings online that if you’re American and heading to Paris, for heaven’s sake don’t wear your sneakers. Because no self-respecting Parisian would be seen on the street in sneakers!
It’s just not true. It may have been so once; but now sneakers (albeit, generally up-market sneakers kept in immaculate condition) are extremely common and utterly à la mode.
So, if it’s not about dressing alike or dressing fancy … what’s going on?
I can’t say I have it all figured out, but here’s one thing I’ve noticed.
The famously “effortless” chic of Paris is not at all effortless. It results in part, I am convinced, from all the people-watching. Behind the famously blasé facial expression is a French brain lit up like the Champs-Elysées, analyzing clothes that pass by. What works … what doesn’t work … would that hat work on me … where can I find that coat …
Over time, the constant observation of a dazzling amount of input leads to a finely-tuned sense of what sort of clothes will make you, yourself, happy in your own skin. It’s almost never about spotting the latest handbag and then rushing to get it. It’s more about realizing that when your trousers are a certain length and you pair them with this kind of shoe, you feel a little bit like a superhero. And that makes it so much easier to stand your ground while you fight with the clerk at the post office until they grudgingly hand over the package that’s been sent to you.
My first useful observation, my first baby step into dressing more comfortably in the city, was that a solid outfit often has one–but just one–thing that stands out and makes it sing.
Most clothes here aren’t flashy. In fact, sketching things that I’ve seen, then reviewing them later, has shown me that usually all the elements in a great outfit (hat, scarf, coat, shirt, pants/skirt, shoes) will be on the quiet side. But one of them, just one, will make you stop and look. The pants will have an amazing print while all the rest is solid, or the scarf will be brilliant silk when all the rest is mud-colored wool, or the hat capping an otherwise unremarkable ensemble will say HEY WOW MON DIEU I AM QUITE ZEE HAT, NON?
Kiss My Mitts
I realized that I ought to revise my list of knitting projects. I needed to shuffle the order to immediately address my problem area: Accessories, subcategory Hands. Sweaters, of which I have plenty, could wait.
Twenty years in Chicago had led me to see hand coverings as survival gear, completely divorced from frivolous concepts like fashion. Or happiness. I didn’t care what I put on my hands, so long as I could still feel them by the time the bus arrived.
Now, with winter coming on, I looked at my supply and realized my choice was between ugly ski gloves and uglier ski gloves. You know those supercute mittens that are fun to knit as holiday gifts? I didn’t have any, because those aren’t warm enough for Chicago. In fact, if you want to know if something is warm enough for Chicago, check to see if it’s supercute. If it’s supercute, it’s not warm enough for Chicago.
Paris is mild in comparison. It doesn’t snow very much. My heart leapt at the thought that I could finally knit and wear something I’d been longing for: fingerless mitts.
Riffling through my queue, I settled on a mitt pattern I’d never knit, but had photographed–in Paris. The pattern (“Twist in My Sobriety”) was written by a friend who owns a sweet yarn shop here, Les Tricoteurs Volants. I shot the original pattern photos in Père Lachaise Cemetery, and he gave me the pattern as a thank-you.
His were in a quiet grey. I knit mine in a vivid green that would make Paris stop and look. Most of my outerwear was on the plain side. I’d invested in a new, trimmer coat in brown corduroy, and I usually wear a brown Shetland tweed cap and brown leather shoes.
They’re a quick knit, and fun. I had them ready for my first toodle around the garden of the Palais Royal after the early November chill hit. Sitting on a bench with a book in hand, I noticed a passing woman glance at my mitts and, in a flash, give them a near-imperceptible blink of approval.