Maybe this is just a case of wishful thinking, but I don’t believe you need to have a Parisian address to be a Parisienne. For me, Parisian is as much a state of mind, and style of dress, as it is a status of residence. It’s partly because the concept is so demystified these days. Ever since the 2004 publication of French Women Don’t Get Fat, every second book and blog seems to have attempted to decode the je-ne-sais-quoi secrets of those oh-so-nonchalantly-chic Parisiennes. So it’s easy enough to mimic their looks and lifestyle: mess up your hair, wear red lipstick, invest in wardrobe staples, always tie on a scarf, buy fresh flowers, wear flat shoes, know how to ride a bike without flashing your lacy underwear, etc, etc. But it’s more than that — because some of the most successful honorary Parisiennes lived decades ago, before anyone even knew the Cool French Girl was a Thing. Maybe the reason so many of us sigh at the thought of being Parisienne is that we all, deep down, have an inner Parisienne, just waiting for the right moment to slink on out. Here’s some inspiration for you — five women who made la transformation in spectacular style …
Born in French-ruled Martinique to a noble yet poor family, Joséphine ran wild and free on the sun-soaked island until the age of 16, when she was sent to France to marry. She doted on her dashing aristocratic husband, who looked down his nose at the unsophisticated girl before him. After ensuring the dutiful two children, the serially unfaithful Alexandre banished his wife to a convent. It was at this unlikely place that Joséphine learned the arts of French feminine wiles, from her fellow boarders, who were high-society Parisiennes taking shelter from reality for various reasons. Joséphine studied and emulated the manner in which they sat, walked and talked, and copied the way they suggestively wrapped shawls over low-cut gowns. The makeover didn’t win her back her husband, alas, who was guillotined during the Revolution, but it did help ensure her a series of powerful protectors, until the future Emperor Napoléon spotted her, and saw in her his ideal imperial consort, not to mention the personification of Parisian femininity.
Author Edith Wharton, who had written books chronicling the showy lifestyles of turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York, was entrenched in that society herself — she had been born into the very family that inspired the expression ‘Keeping up with the Joneses.’ But Edith gently derided status-seeking behaviour, so it’s not surprising she found her spiritual home in Paris, a place where there’s not the same history of conspicuous consumption (Versailles lavishness notwithstanding). In her delightful 1919 essay French Ways and their Meaning, she wrote that Parisians’ ‘thoughts are not occupied with money-making in itself, as an end worth living for, but only with the idea of having money enough to be sure of not losing their situation in life.’ She had easily fallen in love with her new city, and by the people’s time-honoured pursuits of beauty and pleasure. ‘French people “have taste” as naturally as they breathe,’ she gushed. Edith was not only inspired stylistically, but emotionally; it was in Paris that she had her first amour fou, and her writing became infused with a certain sentimentality that could only come when someone is living that bit more with all the senses.
The epitome of English aristo eccentricity, author Nancy moved to Paris, at the age of forty-something, to follow the amour of her life. He turned out to be the typical French philanderer, but Nancy refused to let herself fall apart. A stickler for decorum, she put on a brave face, lipstick too, and persevered through life as elegantly as possible. She lived in a chic Faubourg Saint-Honoré residence, writing her enchanting biographies and elegant, witty novels during the day, and partying it up in Dior at night. She chose, very consciously, to make peace with her lot, to not let love, with all its potential clutter and confusion, ruffle the rest of her very full, quite beautiful, life. Well before the time she passed away, in her gorgeous house in Versailles, she had become a true Parisienne.
In 1952, the virtually unknown actress was preparing to film her breakout 1954 hit Sabrina, in which she would play the lead role of a chauffeur’s daughter sent to Paris for a two-year cooking course, that turns out to be the recipe for the most glamorous style makeover in cinema history. Audrey had the celebrated Hollywood designer Edith Head at her disposal, but the actress knew that, if she was to believably carry off this modern-day Cinderella role, Paris had to play fairy godmother. Specifically Hubert de Givenchy, whose impeccably cut shapes in bold, block colours were the very quintessence of soigné Parisian style. He went on to dress her for many subsequent films, many of which were set in Paris. Audrey never lived in Paris, although worked and visited there often; nevertheless she has, from the second Sabrina was released, been the international personification of Parisian chic, selling the transformative powers of the City of Light.
The English it-girl became one of the most celebrated French style muses after hooking up with the legendary Serge Gainsbourg (singer, songwriter, musician, poet, painter, actor, director and all-round national treasure of France) and moving to Saint-Germain. Wearing little more than lithe-legged jeans, sheer T-shirts and long, swinging hair, the honorary Parisienne sold sleek, modern French style to the world, especially when the house of Hermès designed a bag for her. The Birkin is to this day a top bucket-list item for many women. Despite having a cult luxury bag named after her, Jane continued to flit around her neighbourhood with a simple straw basket her only accessory — one of those women so ridiculously stylish they don’t need to over-emphasise it.