What I Learned About Getting Dressed from Living in Paris

What I Learned About Getting Dressed from Living in Paris

A million sartorial fantasies project onto Paris, and when I arrived there in late January, I brought along all of mine, too. I spent the next six months on what can best be described as part mission, all fantasy: to immerse myself in the subject of French dress.

I people watched at cafes, vintage shopped, roamed the streets, formed a relationship with a tailor, took in fashion exhibits to understand the history of French fashion, and met emerging designers to get a view into its future. Getting dressed each day provided an opportunity to internalize what I was learning and to channel the inspiration I was imbibing from my surroundings. I'm back in the US now and I've had some time to think about how the experience impacted my relationship with fashion.

Here's what I learned from six months of getting dressed in Paris. 

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1. Fashion is a cultural construct

how we treat it is up to us

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 'Une femme passe' by Robert Doisneau, 1948.  

'Une femme passe' by Robert Doisneau, 1948.  

Unequivocally, the most important conversation I had about fashion in Paris was with my tailor, Ruty over the construction of this asymmetrical mint green creation. I asked Ruty why we have the tendency to view fashion as frivolous, to which she replied: "It isn't in fact. Fashion isn't frivolous, it's a serious thing here in France." This is when it started to crystallize for me that fashion isn't a fixed construct but a cultural one. It's viewed differently across societies and within societies and because we're socialized in those societies, so much of our individual relationship with fashion ends up reflecting the norms, judgements, and values of our cultural influences. At first, this seems kind of obvious, but as I've thought about it, this has come to feel like a major revelation in my personal approach to getting dressed. Because it means that how we treat fashion is entirely up to us. 

There is no universal Fashion, only a personal relationship that we develop between ourselves and our clothes. If we are uncomfortable with the conception of fashion–frivolous, materialistic, superficial, wasteful, etc–set by our societies or families or friends or anyone or anything that might influence us, it's in our power to flip the script. The terms we set are up to us. Fashion is whatever we believe it to be. 

 

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2. To understand the art of French style

Observe how older women dress

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 Coco Chanel by Douglas Kirkland in 1962, aged 79.

Coco Chanel by Douglas Kirkland in 1962, aged 79.

Despite the timeless allure of the quintessential French it girl, the best dressed women I came across in Paris were not young women but older ones. I first started noticing how older French women dressed in winter, when they had this way, particularly wearing their fur jackets, of seeming elaborately put together yet not fussy, of being dressed up, but ultimately, really dressed for themselves. Once warmer weather rolled around, they were still consistently catching my attention with their firm grasp of the art of je ne sais quoi. Maybe it's the homogenization of fashion, perhaps brought about by street style or Instagram or the internet or fast fashion or any of the democratizing forces that have shaped fashion in the last ten years, but I felt that younger French women, en masse, didn't appear to have the same mastery of the intricacies of style. 

I started to have these moments in which, rather than dreading the idea of no longer being young, I genuinely looked forward to getting older. To aging. To carrying myself with that kind of palpable confidence. As a woman socialized in a country that prizes youth, I was struck by these moments of clarity. The real power of fashion is not to glorify youth and beauty, but to serve us throughout our life course, through the ebbs and flows of the human experience.

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3. Real style 

is a way of being

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 Christian Dior Summer Preview on a model at the Palais Garnier. Photo by Clifford Coffin, published in Vogue US April 1948. 

Christian Dior Summer Preview on a model at the Palais Garnier. Photo by Clifford Coffin, published in Vogue US April 1948. 

Part of the task at hand during my time in Paris was to unpack the myth of French style. When one is not in Paris, the easiest thing to do is to put a place like Paris up on a pedestal and to see style as somehow existing in the city's ambient air. I know this because I've fallen into that trap time and again, glamorizing certain places; believing that style somehow has to do with one's geography. 

It doesn't.

Style can't be externalized because it exists only within. As convenient as it was for me to believe living in Paris would somehow make me more stylish, it doesn't work that way. What does work is to understand that style can be delicately honed and crafted, like a work of art. Instead of seeing it as something that can be bought, or acquired, or inhaled in the air in certain magical places, the only way to get there is to practice. So I did. I dressed for the grocery store and for quiet mornings spent alone in my apartment. I dressed to ride my bike around Paris. I dressed for myself. What came out of that for me was a sense of what style really is: a state of mind. A way of being. That might be the biggest gift, among so many, that Paris gave me.

And so, until I return, and for as long as I get dressed, my clothes and I, we'll always have Paris. 

 

Feature image Barbara Mullen by Lillian Bassman, circa 1950.

Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve

Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve

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