French fashion confessionals

Sonia Emmons

In Madame Berk’s high school French classes, we used a grammar workbook called FFF: “French for Fluency.” Here in Nantes, I see the heartbeat pumping French blood in terms of a different three Fs: food, friends/family and fashion. The best social welfare in Europe keeps French hearts healthy, but doesn’t fit into the F model. Perhaps welFare.
But about that last one — fashion. While I doubt that anyone would ever come to me for fashion advice, I can usually tell when someone else has a superior fashion sense and looks put-together. When my mom comes into my room with a fashion question, it’s usually to consult the full-length mirror, as all I can offer is a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
But I think I know enough to say that the French have got it going on in the fashion department. They are, as a whole, always … la mode.
The first difference I noticed was in the men. On my very first walk into town, I saw two attractive, well-dressed men walking together and found myself surprised that they weren’t holding hands. My stereotype-wired brain automatically equated their tight black v-necks with homosexuality. I looked around and saw fashion-savvy men everywhere, pushing baby strollers, kissing beautiful women, drinking Heineken, doing any number of manly things.
I asked Dany about homophobia and she told me that while France is years away from legalizing gay marriage, there is an unspoken social acceptance; if you’re gay, you’re gay. Do what you want with whichever gender you prefer, just don’t parade it in front of the whole city.
Of course there are gay men and women in France, but they are not so easily defined by their clothing. Oy vey, now how am I supposed to compartmentalize people? Straight men dress just as well as women, whereas I’d venture to say that American women out-dress their male counterparts on a daily basis. No offense, Dad.
French women are stunning. Sometimes, when I see a jaw-droppingly beautiful woman, I feel like a little kid whose socks don’t match. Their look is subtle. Other than the occasional over-rouged, stiletto-suffering woman, they don’t dress to be spectacles. Their clothes appear straight and smooth as they hang their small frames.
Young women wear mostly dark colors: lots of blacks, browns and grays. It’s “les accessories” that add the sparkle — scarves, belts and earrings in vivid reds, blues or funky patterns. Shoes must be practical (suitable for miles of walking, so usually flats) yet capable of beckoning “come hither” with a little twist of the ankle. French women rarely twist their ankles, though, because French men can be real creepers.
The French have an expression, “co–ter les yeux de la tˆte,” for things that are very expensive — literally, they “cost the eyes from your head.” Fortunately for those of us using the eyes from our heads to track the exchange rate, haute couture is less popular among young people, who instead prefer to roll their monnaie — coins — toward more affordable accessories to flavor their wardrobes.
I like that the French take fashion seriously because it seems more sincere that scoffing at it, which is what I usually do. After all, we all wear some form of clothing most hours of the day, most days of the week — one must account for the highly sexually-active and those who shower multiple times a day. So why not look good? Taking an active interest in the clothes you put on each morning isn’t shallow or vain. In fact, I’m starting to believe what friends and Vogue have told me time and time again: There really is an art to fashion. I guess it took being in another time zone to convince me.
One consolation for my mismatched-socks complex is that, from what I’ve seen, French joggers actually look less put together than I do. I try to match my shorts with my sports bra, just in case I cut my leg on a fallen branch and need to use my shirt to stop the gushing blood.
A few days ago, I passed a man jogging whose t-shirt said “Property of G-Unit.” It made me laugh and I think he thought I was hyperventilating. I quickly stopped laughing, mumbled “Bonjour, Monsieur,” and continued on my way. It was just another day at the park, with a little 50 Cent to remind me of home.