Dress like a Parisian woman
Among the many pocket-sized books on women’s style, dressing like a Parisian is a popular category. Many, it seems, find the idea of the Parisian woman who dresses fashionably but not fussily, in a way that is simple but chic, appealing.
I was skimming one of these recently (in the wonderful Gower St branch of Waterstone’s) when it struck me how similar the philosophy is to Permanent Style. Not just the aspiration to timeless style, but the attitude of investing in versatile clothing.
So I bought what looked like a good example of the genre (Dress Like a Parisian by Alois Guinut) and have been making notes in the margin ever since.
The approach is remarkably similar. As Guinut (above) puts it, "the words that come to mind when you think of Parisian style [are] effortless, chic, understated" and "our obsession with perfect basics may make us look alike…but for La Parisienne singularity is all in the details."
The same goes for the attitude to fashion: “La Parisienne doesn’t take fashion too seriously and trends do not really matter to her...Yet she may follow fashions when they please her and, as long as she likes them, doesn’t care about wearing the same.” Rather similar to ‘How I filter fashions’.
It's nice having your approach endorsed by someone from a different world - in the same way it would be if someone from a different culture admired it, for example. But more significant is that it can really refresh your perspective on that style and how you think about it.
For example, in the introduction Guinut writes something that could have come straight from Permanent Style: "What I will share with you in this book are not 'rules' but guidelines…style recipes that you can choose to follow or break away from".
But then she makes a point I've never quite managed to put into words: "You could think of this book as being like a cookbook of French cuisine. [And] as with all great cookbooks, I will give you easy recipes as well as more advanced ones."
It's a useful metaphor. I often struggle to express to readers how some looks are more complex, and therefore harder to achieve, but that this doesn’t necessarily make them better or worse. Much of high/low dressing falls into this category, as does mixing of strong colours and patterns.
I would usually use a term like 'advanced' dressing, but that can sound condescending or suggest there is something necessarily superior. But there isn't. Just like a simple boeuf bourguignon compared to Parisian haute cuisine, the latter requires more experience to master but that doesn't mean it's to everyone's taste, or that there isn’t a lot of subtlety in a seemingly simple dish.
Of course much of the book is not relevant.
I know a lot more than I did before about how to flatter your legs with different shapes, soles and heel heights (so complicated!). And I know some tips on mixing shiny materials in eveningwear (lurex, sequins, glitter, metallics).
But some of the sections are more relevant than you’d imagine. The way women wear lipstick as a pop of colour, for example, has parallels with how men use accessories. Plus the Parisian approach to make up and hair in general is something I think men could learn from.
Parisian women (apparently) like a natural look, with less make-up and a simple hair style, while always having a clear understanding of what flatters them. Men that work their designer stubble into too sharp a shape could take note - but so should guys that spend no time at it whatever.
And throughout the book, there were some genuinely useful and practical points.
For example, Guinut’s definition of a ‘neutral’ colour, as one that doesn’t conflict with any other. This could be black, navy or grey; beige or nude (“warm neutrals”); denim or even “natural leathers”.
It isn’t a concept we (or at least I) use very much - instead referring to simple versatility or to less saturation. In Guinut’s view, Parisian women should work their whole wardrobe around these neutrals.
She also talks well about the colour wheel, highlighting the contrast created by different sides of the wheel (blue with orange, yellow with purple) but then - more usefully for menswear - the role of neighbouring colours. So green and blue, red and orange.
Often it can be hard to communicate to readers which colours ‘harmonise’ with each other when picking ties or handkerchiefs. Without such an understanding they're often reduced to picking an identical colour from elsewhere in the outfit. This discussion of neighbouring colours - along with how pastels work together, or monochrome and camaieu - creates a nice structure for thinking about it.
It’s the kind of colour combination we admired in King Charles recently.
Still, the biggest thing throughout the book, is the reinforcement of principles we talk about on PS, put in different and refreshing ways. For example:
- Showing a white T-shirt under a crewneck: “Use white as a highlighter. Layering a white T-shirt or shirt underneath something is a great way to make colour easier to wear and add lightness.”
- That style can be something your’re born with, or that you can learn: “La Parisienne would say she doesn’t care much about rules, that she is a free spirit. Truth is, they may be so ingrained in her DNA that she doesn’t realise she is following them.”
- The difference between more rural and urban colours: “Silver, greys and blues will give a cool, urban look.”
- That black can easily look cheap: “If you feel black is too harsh for you, replace it with navy blue, its more polished, bourgeois brother. Unlike black, navy matches almost every other colour.”
I like the use of the term ‘bourgeois’ in that description. One thing classic menswear can be, by not following youth trends and being more conventional, is bourgeois. It’s something to be aware of and perhaps push against, but in some ways this is a better term than ‘fuddy duddy’ or old-fashioned.
The same goes for the way Guinut uses words like ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’, which menswear writers shy away from. Pushing back sleeves, for example, is for her just cool - which is the opposite of fussy.
Do Parisian women actually dress like this? Speaking to a few friends, in the sense that there is some tendency there that they recognise, the answer is yes. But it doesn’t really matter - the important thing is how interesting or useful the ideas are, rather than who is actually following them.
I found the book refreshing - much more so than reading another menswear guide, which will always tend to use the same phrases, the same references, the same ‘icons’.
That doesn’t mean readers should necessarily go out and buy this book, because some of the information will be irrelevant. But it's a good presentation of the argument for learning from womenswear, and for seeking other perspectives in general. Perhaps those that have a stylish partner could start by sneaking a look at their bookshelf.