Last week, I tried my hand at writing about a few of my favorite, trusty eco-friendly products-- a post you can read here. Pretty quickly I gathered I had lots left to learn about this whole new greener world I've been venturing into over the past few months. So this week I decided to write about something I know everything about: admiring French girls.
While officially a French girl myself, I mostly grew up in the States, worshipping the style of my older, and fully French, half-sister from afar. My big sister, Hélène, is 100% Parisian and everything else you imagine that goes along with that. I might have played Miss France in an episode of Flight of the Conchords, but she IS Miss France. She's a decade older in years and centuries ahead of me in terms of sophistication. In effect, we are a Henry James novel-- the clash of the brash and new with the suave, old world. While I was growing up, we'd only see each other every few years, and I treasured those encounters. Each of my big sis's perfect, effortless ensembles is as indelibly inscribed in my memory as the books and films she'd mention off-hand. As I began learning more about sustainable fashion and minimalism, it occurred to me I'd encountered these lessons in refinement, understatement and less-is-more before. In my more brash fashion, here it is, in no particular order, what I learned from my big Parisian sis, mirroring what I've learned so far about sustainability:
1. Effortless Chic Means Minimalist Chic:
The biggest difference between my French sister and the stylish Southern belles I was surrounded by in Virginia seemed to be one of effort. Hélène simply was glamor, those girls tried to be glamorous but it was always the smell of hairspray I'd most take away from encounters with them. I remember how very pretty they'd look in their sundresses, dressed up special for the Foxfield races come spring, how their shoulders gleamed, buffed to perfection as did their hair shine chromatic as a '57 Chevy owned by an old car aficionado, but it always had the stink of, not just hairpray, but of being put on for a special occasion. A look that was as comfortable for them as their new sandals, pinching the feet that longed to run free through soft, tall grass.
Not only did Hélène appear not to try, but her home reflected this same texture of knowing and being. It wasn't just a pose she assumed when out and about. I remember the small wardrobe, I mean the actual piece of furniture, that comprised all of her minimalist closet. In America, I knew one girl who had alphabetized her many garments by the mall stores from which they came: Abercrombie, Banana Republic, Gap. That girl would grow up to be Heidi Montag. (My college boyfriend worked at Timberline, her step-dad's restaurant, where that press-friendly family was endlessly gossiped about. I'm sure she wouldn't mind me sharing the story. ) Hélène like another fashion idol of mine, Marylin Monroe, didn't own much by way of outfits, but, somehow, magically, she always looked perfect. Instead of endless iterations of the trendy outfit, it might be that one accessory that would be a knockout, pulling the whole look together. I think it's that unforced effortlessness that makes French women so endlessly alluring to American women, who often look fabulous but you can see the effort and money put into it. Indeed, the money seems to be more of the point than the fashion sometimes. That's one big cultural difference right there: yes, Hélène didn't have much, but everything she had was of the highest quality. When I was a teen, I remember rifling through her guest bag left unattended in my grandmother's guest room. (Sorry, sis!) Her loose powder was Chanel and smelled like a sunset or peonies. Her earrings were Christian Lacroix. I know this, because she kept them in the box they came with and I swooned over them, remembering how they'd sparkled, elevating a simple denim dress. I was then a gawky 13, and she was a glamorous 23, arthouse boyfriend in tow. Let's cut me some slack for this creepy episode and move on.
2. Effortless Doesn't Mean Not Getting It Just Right:
Eight months after my sister gave birth to twins, I came to visit her on my own. It was my winter break, and at that point I was a sophomore in college and had just finished up a grueling round of finals. That was my excuse for my ragged ensemble, snarled, frizzy, gobs of hair, and, worst of all, the long, shapeless denim skirt-- an item, which to my shame, I only seemed to wear around my sister, until it occurred to me I could donate it and never have its gruesomeness touch my skin again the next time I had another terrible notion about prairie dressing after gazing at some Ralph Lauren campaign, or something equally ridiculous. Hélène had just birthed triplets. TRIPLETS! Her firstborn was only seven, yet when she greeted me at the door of her apartment, then adjacent to the Jardins de Luxembourg, her hair was in a smooth, shiny ponytail and her gray, cuffed trousers hit just so at her ankles. She was wearing these snazzy blue hightop Converse sneaks. On her, they looked like Manolo Blahniks. She confided in me that taking those five minutes every morning to put on a bit of makeup and run a brush through her hair made all the difference. Words that resounded through my brain when I had my own children. I have two of my own little ones now, and I'm not as consistently groomed by any means, but I do make an effort a few times a week, and it does lift my spirits each time.
As I mentioned, I'm only half-French. I seem to need to wear loungewear at least 50% of the time. That's in (at least half of) my genes, too.
3. Care and Care Some More:
Not only was Hélène always at least minimally groomed, but she cared about her possessions in a way that's rare to encounter in America. No, she didn't have a lot of clothes. You wouldn't find in her apartment-- partially subsidized by the French government because she has so many kids and not even called welfare, just called normal humanity!-- the overstuffed drawers and closets we've all become accustomed to in this age of cheap, fast, disposable fashion.
But what she had she cared about. As I mentioned, her trousers were tailored and fit her just right. While the triplets napped, she fetched a long, slip dress I'd tossed two years earlier due to a combination of factors. I'd been passing through Paris on my way to the Middle East, and my pack was overstuffed. However, I'd also had a bad experience in the dress and didn't want to wear it again. I used to project emotions onto inanimate innocent things like clothes. I'm glad I've grown more sensible with age. It was a simple, floral, rayon dress, and Hélène understood its value in a way that I hadn't. That dress would still be chic now! Hélène clearly cared about her things and took good care of them.
4. Have Fun But Not at the Expense of More Important Things
I often think one problem with the fashion world, and one reason its under-regulation has been able to wreak such havoc on the environment, is that serious people don't pay much attention to fashion. In France, serious people care about their clothes. My sister was always wearing something fabulous, but she also had fabulous things to talk about: politics, philosophy, music, poetry, dance, acting. Her home was full of beautiful art on the walls, books on the bookshelves, and, at least in that Jardin de Luxembourg apartment, the odd lovely bit of furniture like the salmon silk chaise longue that even at 20 years old I couldn't believe she'd purchased so soon after having had triplets, bringing the household's child count to 4. Most Americans would have settled for something squashy and grayish. We, as dual citizens, did both: squashy and a nice shade of white that perfectly frames dribbles and grape-colored handmarks. (It was on sale!) Anyway, having a few nice things and taking good care of them, seemed to matter to her more than having a lot of junk everywhere. Long before minimalism was a movement in America, it was a way of life in France.
5. Only Wash Your Clothes When They're Dirty & Other Energy-Saving Pieces of Wisdom
I won't put this last, slightly icky item at my sister's door, but it was a way of treating clothes that I did pick up in France long before I read the same tip on an eco blog and shared it on my own in this post . When I was first allowed to visit my grandparents on my own in the sun-drenched, placid village of Saint Aubin de Locquenay, my water habits sent my grandmother through the roof. As soon as I'd wear a garment I'd toss it in the laundry bag. When I showered, I'd take nice, long, hot showers, emerging from the bathroom to an apoplectic grandpère, red-faced and muttering angrily about the Nazis and "Americans with nothing in their heads". I never quite understood the connection, but I gathered his confusion had to do with how idiotic offspring coming from the same people who had freed him from the work camps. Those summers in the French countryside caused me to reevaluate my water habits long before it became at all fashionable to do so. Now, I wash my hair when it's dirty but not before, and I do the same with my clothes, which brings me to my final point...
6. Perfection Is Boring
My sister's hair might have been nicely cut and colored, but that doesn't mean it was perfect. It was always a little bit of a mess. A little greasy or a little wild. It's hair that says I have more to do with my life than endlessly primp. She might have worn Chanel powder that, in my memory, made her skin gleam pale and perfect as June's strawberry moon, but that doesn't mean she had a whole face of makeup caked on. (No offense to anyone by that, I personally like to wear a whole face of makeup caked on from time to time myself, but, again, I'm only half-French.) Most of all, I learned from her the sense that she enjoyed her clothes, she took them seriously as an extension of herself, and she treated them and the environment around her with the same kind of care...
More or less, what the sustainable fashion movement is trying to teach us all to do: to care, to try, to pay attention to our clothes, and the world they, and we in them, perishable and inchoate, move through.
I almost tossed these old white Chucks, because they'd gotten so grimy, but I didn't because I'm practicing what I preach! Instead, I spent a while wiping them down and washing them off, and they look great! I had to wear them for this post as that's my favorite image of my sister: in her Katherine Hepburn tailored trousers and Chucks, floating around the baby-packed room on feet light as air, haloed by the gray Paris sunshine filtering in through the jardins outside.
French-American dual citizen on a green journey, making a Paris out of Philly or a Philly out of Paris, depending on the day.