When most people think of Parisian style, they probably picture a woman wearing slim dark jeans paired with a striped top and navy blazer; but for me, a breezy dress will always most symbolise a Parisienne’s inner feminine, and rebellious, streak.
‘A dress makes no sense unless it inspires men to take it off you,’ proclaimed Parisian author Françoise Sagan, whose breakout 1954 book Bonjour Tristesse shook the moral foundations of bourgeois France.
Fellow social disrupter Brigitte Bardot would soon star in Et Dieu … Créa La Femme, with her amoral ways and wild, flowing hair — and button-through frocks that would become her signature style. They allowed her to move with womanly, self-assured ease through a changing world.
Sagan and Bardot were both from well-to-do families in the bourgeois epicentre that is Passy, yet symbolised a new generation of women who wanted to free themselves from the stifling etiquette, as much as the suits and pearls, of their mothers.
It was a time when society was becoming less stitched up, just as the corsetry of haute couture was coming undone. Prêt-à-Porter was sashaying to the fore, thanks in large part to Chloé, which happened to be one of BB’s favourite labels.
Founder Gaby Aghion, a wealthy Egyptian who had emigrated to Paris high society, launched the label after tiring of being a lady who lunched. She herself dressed in haute couture (along with some couture copies whipped up by her local dressmaker) but sensed that fashion change was in the air.
After an initial offering of six pretty cotton-poplin dresses in 1952, Chloé came to define the modern Parisienne with her wardrobe that worked from day to night, from smart office-friendly shirtdresses to light and frothy frocks perfect for dancing the night away.
Parisian designers have long created beautifully wearable dresses, the most iconic being Coco Chanel’s Little Black Dress. While Chanel and Chloé frocks remain on my bucket-list, I’ve still managed to find myself at least one gorgeous dress every time I’ve gone to Paris.
Paris, in fact, is responsible for my dress obsession, which I can trace back to a trip to the Clignancourt fleamarkets in north Paris, when I was sixteen. I remember adventuring along alleyways tumbled over with ivy and a jumble of antiques, and wandering past curvaceous nymphs that would have once adorned flowering gardens but now served as handbag holders.
Unsure of what I was searching for, I found myself gravitating to the clothes strung up along the walls, rubbing shoulders with candelabras dripping with gems and eighteenth-century paintings of blush-cheeked shepherdesses cavorting with cherubs. I strolled past a timeline of French fashion: flapper dresses heavy with beads that would have jingled gorgeously to the Charleston; skirts in the full bloom of Dior New Look luxuriousness; short and shiny tunics of the swinging sixties, when Parisian designers experimented with space-age style.
And then I saw the dress that had been waiting for me to come along and breathe it back to life. Hanging from an old coat stand, it seemed to sway its hips of its own accord. Held up by ribbons at the shoulders and along its fluttery sleeves, the dress then swooped downwards, cupping the chest and cinching the waist, before flowing down to the knees. The flowering-vine print tried to give the impression of innocence, but I wasn’t fooled. She was a total minx, the Brigitte Bardot of frocks.
Dresses have a reputation for being fussy or prissy. But they’re actually the most practical clothing option around; one second and you’re dressed — literally. But you’re so easily undressed, too. And therein, as Mlles Sagan and Bardot well knew, lies their subtle sexy charm. As French men, as much as French women, would say, Vive la Robe.