Effortless Chic: Exploring the French Style Mystique

Effortless Chic: Exploring the French Style Mystique

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Parisian Beauty by Lisa Czarina Michaud
Parisian Beauty by Lisa Czarina Michaud

How to Look Like a French Girl! Top Ten French Girl Must-Haves! How to Get That Je Ne Sais Quoi! Be French: Exude Confidence! Oh Là Là! Do any of these captions look familiar? They should. It seems like every few weeks a new article sweeps the Internet touting the superior style that seemingly all French women possess. The buzzword “effortless” usually finds its way into these articles as an anchor to the theory because according to these assertions, French women are these celestial beings who never have to pluck their eyebrows, watch what they eat, or where make-up because they were born with an intrinsic sense of style that the reader can acquire by simply clicking!

These articles are usually supplemented with Sartorialist-worthy (read: MODELS) subjects wearing expertly cut pants, tailored dresses hung on delicate silhouettes and floppy hats, posing stoically outside of a Fashion Week tent. Or the glossy editorials boast the “quintessential” Parisian style with the French version of the Jackie/Marilyn style paradox: Either a lithe Audrey Tautou looking model with a pixie cut looking into the camera with a doe-eyed “who moi?” look of wonder, or a salacious Bardot-esque model with “come and get me” eyes.

Paris Fashion Week
A scene from Paris Fashion Week by Lisa Czarina Michaud

I always finish reading these pieces feeling far from effortless. I am someone who has to put some thought into getting dressed, as I am fairly certain that if I simply paired a leather mini skirt and a slouchy “boyfriend” sweater with a pair of the Parisian sneakers du jour: Stan Smith Adidas, I would look less chic en français and more like a poorly executed throw-back to Working Girl.

Before moving to Paris six years ago, admittedly I was also sold by this imagery of Parisian chic, and packed my bags fearing that I would have no place in this City of Light; I did not own a timeless Saint Laurent “key piece” that I could remix with anything, or have flawless skin that would harmonize with a facile makeup regime consisting of clear chapstick and one single coat of mascara. What effortless looks like on me, a petit Italian girl from Long Island, is what it is defined as in the dictionary: displaying no signs of effort, or to paraphrase, just plain lazy.

As I tried to pack a year’s worth of clothes into one roller board suitcase, the idea of Parisian perfection relentlessly gnawed at me, echoing my fifth grade crush who ascribed me as an “It” girl by way of Stephen King, rather than Stéphane Rolland. Would my own personal style paired with comforts like broken-in ballet flats and adult-acne concealing foundation make the cut?, or would I be looking at possible deportation for insulting the natives with my applied style since I will never be effortless?

Paris Fashion Week showroom by Lisa Czarina
Paris Fashion Week showroom by Lisa Czarina Michaud

While I knew that I would never blend in as a Parisienne, my first few weeks in Paris were spent wandering the city to soak up some of the style culture that French women are celebrated for. Expecting to find a pastiche of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Léa Seydoux doppelgangers out like gazelles in their natural habitats, what I found in its stead was not far from what I would find in any other metropolitan city: women who wear diffusion fashion from H&M and Forever 21; women who like me were also having a frizzy hair day because Paris could rival with the Pacific Northwest in annual precipitation; women of various sizes and body shapes weighed down by the pressures of living in a city; and they came from diverse ethnic backgrounds where the new headlines should really read: French Women! They’re Just Like Us!

What I learned over the years is that French women regard American women—particularly New Yorkers—in equal admiration of style. French fashion magazines often feature style à l’américaine editorials with their own take of American style: featuring a carefree model blithely hailing a cab in Michael Kors or pensively waiting on the platform for the uptown 6 in Zac Posen.

Nina Ricci- Paris Fashion Week 2010- by Lisa Czarina Michaud
Nina Ricci- Paris Fashion Week 2010- by Lisa Czarina Michaud

When I bring up this fascination with the French Girl effortless style to my French girlfriends and in-laws here in Paris, while they are flattered to be regarded as fashion authorities, their chief complaint is that they can’t even keep up with looking like a “French Girl.” They feel they have been reduced to caricatures of being perfectly styled and perfectly slim, mute living dolls. Additionally, they are confused by why it is assumed that they don’t put any effort into themselves and devalue the claim by reminding me that it is no coincidence that L’Oréal, Lancôme, and Clarins are French founded beauty brands.

 Hermès scarf
Hermès scarf courtesy of Hermès

An example of the diversity and attainable style that comprises the city of Paris is refreshingly depicted in the French film Bande de Filles (English title: Girlhood), a film directed by Céline Sciamma that inadvertently challenges the manufactured image of Parisian women. In this coming-of-age film that offers a fuller picture of modern day Paris through character-study, the viewer experiences the city’s suburban life through the scope of young women of Senegalese and Algerian descents who are rarely depicted as your typical French girl in mainstream media, but who are however your everyday Parisiennes.

While the mystique of the evasive French Girl Style will most likely remain a mainstay in fashion fluff pieces, these are generalizations painted in extremely broad strokes mostly targeted to sell a lifestyle that does not exist to the majority of French women. Are all French women stylishly disheveled or fit into this one mold of one professed enviable style, stopping their otherwise busy days to pout coquettishly on the Pont des Arts in a tutu? Good grief, no. No single culture of women can promise that, and that’s probably a good thing. As I continue on my journey as an adopted Parisian, walking these diverse streets, with confidence I continue being my American self where my trips to the supermarket in leggings have yet to scandalize the locals, while French women also continue to be themselves.

Moderate effort required.

Martin Grant- Paris Fashion Week- by Lisa Czarina Michaud
Martin Grant- Paris Fashion Week- by Lisa Czarina Michaud




  1. Amusingly, the last photograph is from the collection of an Australian designer, Martin Grant, who comes from my home town of Melbourne, but now is based in Paris.

    • Hi Anne,

      It was a great collection, one of the best of that season! I like Martin Grant’s work and thought this dramatic skirt perfectly encapsulates the idea of French fashion. Saying that, I would definitely trade my leggings in for a stroll around my neighborhood in it!

      Thanks for reading!


  2. Funny, six months ago I was so fed up with the advice-wielding articles that I decided to see how many of them I could find in 15 minutes. Over 30! I definitely think there are patterns in how French women dress. I also think that women around the world often dress the same way since brands like H&M are now global, scarf tying videos are rampant – in a word, internet. Here’s my compilation if you want to check it out. http://lynncroyable.blogspot.fr/2015/01/how-to-dress-like-parisian-according-to.html
    One line I take issue with is about the beauty brands being French – have you ever seen a chic Frenchwoman wearing the shadow from a 4-color Dior/YSL/Givenchy palette? No way. I find Parisian women to be much more subtle with their makeup than that. (I live in Paris)

    • Hi Lynn,

      Thanks for reading and for supplying a list of the many “French How-to” articles and your fantastic blog post! I enjoyed the read!

      As for the beauty brands, I really wanted to be careful not to generalize as I know French women who put on a full face of makeup everyday and American women who haven’t touched the stuff since their proms! The point that was proposed by my French girlfriends (in which I agree) was that many top beauty brands (not limited to makeup, think also skin care, etc..) are French that there it is safe to assume that there is a French market for them.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  3. This article is so refreshing…and the author is right ….all women, all over the world are simply doing their best. I have concluded, as a women of a certain age…that there are no SUPERIOR OR INFERIOR WOMEN……..OR PEOPLES,…. thus we all have something to learn from each other…
    In the end…(and the beginning)IT IS BEST TO BE YOURSELF AND ALLOW OTHERS TO DO THE SAME! Not an easy lesson, perhaps, but one worth working towards.

    Merci, et Voila!
    JMG, San Francisco, CA. USA

  4. Thanks for keeping it real! I often felt relieved living in an Alpine (thus sporty, mixed with every other style) city, because I can stop at the market in my gym closes post-hike and look completely normal. Or, like you, wear leggings all winter long. I almost wear the same thing everyday (because I can’t be bothered picking out outfits to grab groceries or to visit the countryside), and have wondered if I could get away with it in Paris. Of course I could. I don’t think I’d ever thought about reaching the Paris “fashion” ideal though, because I just don’t have the body type! If you can find something that is comfortable but also makes you feel good; go with that! I have a few French girlfriends who are reeeally into their clothes — hey, if that’s what they like, good for them! They look great. I rather focus my creativity (and time) on my art, but’s that me. I’m all about the image of a ‘Parisienne’ being some tall, straight-haired, flat-buttocksed (not a word, I know!) white chick with a perfect Frenchy-chic wardrobe being a stereotype of the past. It’s true, it’s way cooler here to be a New Yorker, however you’re dressed!