Not Pretty in Paris


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On a gray morning in Paris, I pushed back the heavy velvet curtains in my hotel room. There, just across the street, almost close enough to touch, was Charles Garnier’s extravagant opera house — the Palais Garnier. I didn’t know where to look first. The Corinthian columns with gilt capitals? The rose granite friezes? the shiny tips of gold Pegasus wings?


I left the curtain open and padded into the bathroom. A glance in the mirror over the sink revealed a sight anything but grand: the face, so pale; the multidirectional hair, frizzy with split ends; the pajamas, gaping around the shoulders. After gazing at the confectionary Opera, my reflection nearly gave me culture shock.

Mustn’t look in the mirror again today, I thought, and dressed quickly, keeping my gaze trained out the window.

The Opera’s busy style has been described as neo-Baroque, neo-Renaissance, Beaux Arts — although the architect Garnier himself gave it a somewhat more strategic name in 1861, when he was summoned to the Tuileries Palace to discuss the project’s plans with Emperor Napoleon III and his wife.

“What style is this?” demanded an unimpressed Empress Eugenie. “It is not Greek, it is not Louis XIV, not Louis XV…”

“Those styles have had their time,” Garnier retorted. This architectural style was new, and it had a different name: “C’est Napoleon III”. (He added: “and yet you complain!”)

Emperor Napoleon III smiled slightly through his moustache; the royal couple’s marriage was rocky. The Opera was completed in 1875.

It wasn’t just the Opera that made me feel unbeautiful. I had in been in Paris for a few days, and the entire city — the architecture; the art; the reedy, perfect women with smoky eyelids and impossible heels; even the displays of pert macaron, had left me feeling decidedly inadequate in the style department. I did not have the funds to buy a new outfit, nor the will to face a vendeuse to decode clothing European sizes. But maybe, I thought as I unavoidably caught a faint reflection of myself in the window glass, hey, maybe I could get a haircut.

The concierge briskly nodded and was already reaching for the phone when I explained what I wanted. He spoke rapid French into the receiver and spelled my last name. He carefully drew a line on the street map indicating my route to the salon where I was now expected. A few hours later, I followed this line, and vaguely imagined a different life than my own, which would soon be topped with a perfect head of Paris hair.

I visit Paris every few years, but I’ve never lived in the city, so my sense of it is as a dazzled visitor, a seduced party guest, who neither sees nor seeks trouble, banality, ugliness. When I walk on the Parisian sidewalks, all I sense is a pageant of details — the grrr of a Velo, the clink of silverware at a café,  the tall wooden painted doors with brass knockers the size of my head, the windows tumbling over with flowers. “The City of  Light?” I wrote in my notebook on my first visit more than a decade ago, when I was in my 20s. “It’s the City of Embellishment.” Somehow Paris makes this seem like a simple trick anyone can pull off, if only just a small effort was made: With the casual twist of a scarf, an elegant necklace slung around the neck, and the knowledge of the difference between the “to know” verbs savoir and connaitre, a transformation could occur.

“The goal in a place like this,” I wrote, “is not to resolve to change who you are, but to allow yourself to be changed but what you see and feel.”

A psychologist might call this sentiment “appearance anxiety.”

I arrived at the hair salon and was promptly hustled to a chair facing a mirror, where a fashionable woman stood behind me and flicked at my hair. Since I opened with a triumphant “Je m’appelle Alison Wellner” and was able to manage the pleasantries, the woman had no way of knowing that I was only able to understand her every third or fourth word. Still, I got the gist — she was lifting my hair and letting it drop dramatically, sighing and pursing her lips. I caught the word “soin,” which I’d previously heard used in rendering medical attention, and “revitalisant,” which sounded good, and “massage,” which needed no translation at all. I agreed to the treatment she proposed. And as she made preparations, I gazed at my reflection in the big salon mirror.

There was a time before mirrors, but there has never been a time without reflection.

Before the invention of the mirror, people sought out ponds, shiny obsidian stones, polished metal — all means of reflection, albeit of poor and distorted quality, wrote Sabine Melchior-Bonnet in The Mirror: A History, adding: “How did one live with a face or clothe a body that, without the aid of the mirror, one knew only through the gaze of others?”  Mirror making emerged in Venice, among the glassmakers of Murano — a few of whom were poached at the direction of Louis XIV in the 1600s. Mass mirror production started in Paris in the 1600s. Before the 1630s, few households in Paris had mirrors. After 1650, estate records show that two of three households in Paris had one.

Paris did not invent appearance, but it invented appearance as a general preoccupation. And it did so deliberately. Prior to the reign of Louis XIV, Paris was not considered especially fashionable among European cities, writes University of Pennsylvania professor Joan De Jean in The Essence of Style. During the summer of 1676, he launched a Parisian beautification campaign, issuing edicts requiring swans to swim in city ponds, specifying the design of streetlights, and declaring the acceptable height of the heels of a man’s shoe. Royal patronage became available for everything from wine to boots, all to be showcased at Versailles.

The angle was economic: Louis XIV wanted to corner the luxury trade market. The approach was dogmatic: “A one man style police,” writes de Jean.

Hair also received royal attention. Prior to 1659, French barbers served in a medical capacity, and only worked with men. Maids saw to the hair of women. Then, an edict created “barber-wig makers” and eventually begat the profession of coiffeur. By early in the 1690s, hair salons had opened their doors near jewelry shops close to the Louvre. These salons were listed in another new invention, the guidebook, so tourists could easily find them. Women who visited Paris had to return home with the latest hairstyle.

At the salon, I was led upstairs to another chair that backed up onto a sink. The woman produced a candle from her apron. As she snapped her lighter, I felt rising alarm: what exactly had I agreed to here? But before I could form the words, she’d whipped out a small candleholder from a drawer. Oh, ambiance.

For the next hour, she coated my hair in various shampoos and conditioners, and eventually I was led to another chair, and introduced to Olivier: tall, thin, and brown hair in perfect waves — the scissor-wielder. Rapid snipping began. I tried to make conversation. “Olivier is a nice name,” I said, after I’d thought through how to say it in French. He laughed, and I thought he seemed pleased for a moment. “My English is terrible,” he replied, in English. I fell silent. After a while, he inquired why I didn’t color my hair. I said I liked my color. A faint shrug.

Charles Garnier escaped the Parisian slum of his birth via education — the relatively new concept of the variety of self-improvement called upward mobility. He won the Opera commission through an architectural competition, during a time when Napoleon III, with Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, were in the midst of completely reconfiguring Paris by demolishing and redesigning its streets, neighborhoods, and monuments. Napoleon III called these projects “embellishments,” and the new Opera was among the highest profile. The commission secured Garnier’s career — he would eventually achieve the rank of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honneur.

But still, Garnier “struggled against an enervating melancholia that made him shy and insecure behind his public mask of verve and confidence,” writes Christopher Curtis Mead in The Opera. “He never got over his humble beginnings.”

The confrontation with Empress Eugenie in the Tuileries Palace over the Opera’s design had to have played on Garnier’s insecurities — which likely explains the emotion that led to his intemperate and impolitic retort. I’m not sure why the encounter didn’t end badly for Garnier, but I’d like to think that it’s because everyone in the room was caught up in anxieties all their own: Empress Eugenie was an outsider, Spanish, of noble but not royal birth, both powerful and widely disliked. (She was more politely called “a foreign adventuress,” and less delicately described by Princess Mathilde, a cousin-in-law, as a woman with “neither heart nor cunt.”)

And as for Napoleon III, he was in the midst of remaking a city he didn’t know very well: Prior to his reign, he’d spent very little time in Paris. Even as emperor, he’d get lost on the simplest of excursions. In the context of a royal court, appearance anxiety was not what it is today — a distressed psychological reaction to airbrushed fashion magazines displaying an unattainable ideal. It was a pragmatic concern in a city whose books held centuries of quite serious sumptuary laws regarding dress and decorum, in a country actively reconsidering its entire position on class and status, and in a time not far removed from bloody revolution and the guillotine.

Olivier finished the cut and dried my hair with a flourish. He spun me around with a mirror. My hair had shape, it had movement, it had shine. I couldn’t help but beam. Olivier looked at me shrewdly.

What shampoo do you use, he demanded, and spun me back around, re-fluffing the hair that I’d reflexively tucked behind my ears. He hadn’t heard of my brand, but it was wrong and I used too much.

He walked me to the register and plopped down a bottle of shampoo.

“This,” he said. “You must.” It was a small bottle and it cost 17 Euros. But by then, I was also looking at the bill for my hair treatment, which was over 100 Euros, at a time when the dollar was very weak. I didn’t buy the shampoo.

I tucked the receipt for the visit into my wallet with a slight wince, comforting myself with the thought that at least part of what I’d paid for was the experience of having my hair cut in Paris. I caught sight of my shining hair in the mirror, and damned if it didn’t make my previously all-wrong outfit look just a little bit more just right.

I was buttoning my coat when Olivier walked by. I thanked him again, shaking my head slightly to emphasize how it moved. Could that have been approval I saw in his eyes?

“You will come to us again,” he commanded.

“I don’t live in Paris,” I started to remind him.

“We are everywhere,” he interrupted.

What? “Even in the United States?” I said. He nodded.

The man whose name was on the door of the salon had been the hair stylist to Brigitte Bardot in the 1950s. He went on to be “the perfect example of an unbelievable success story,” says the Jacques Dessange corporate website — a franchise since 1977.

“Franchise,” derived from old French. It means freedom, privilege, immunity, such as what would be granted by the crown to perform a given service in a geographic area. In its modern use, it most often means the duplication of a business concept or format. I had been one of approximately 60,000 clients of Jacques Dessange that day, served in more than 1,000 salons worldwide. I could have had my only-in-Paris experience in Ann Arbor, Austin, Green Bay…

It had darkened into a lavender evening in Paris. I pushed open the salon door and moped back to my hotel, accompanied by dark thoughts about my fabulous Paris haircut being reduced to the level of a Filet-O-Fish or SpeeDee oil change. I’d bought standardization when what I wanted was something quite specific to this place.

I was nearly back at the hotel again, and while I waited for the light to change across the street from Garnier’s Opera, I began to think that perhaps the corporate structure of the hair salon didn’t really matter — not because of the services I actually received, but because of the relief I’d hoped to purchase.

My morning craving for a Parisian sense of style was created by Paris herself, a purposefully beautiful city, a “style capital,” which means also an anxiety capital, because style itself is insecurity; because it depends on the gaze of others to confirm or deny its presence; because even the most perfect sees a wretched reflection in the mirror on some mornings; because even the least self-aware somewhere knows their hair will gray and the flesh covering the skeleton will eventually decay. Style insecurity, appearance anxiety — these are infections spread via contact, maladies to which I am no doubt predisposed, and to which I am especially prone to succumb in Paris. If I had not been in Paris, if I had been elsewhere, would I have walked into the salon infused with the idea of potential transformation, inspired to medicate my insecurity by spending money? Or would I have remembered, before I opened my wallet, the essential futility of that act? • 21 March 2011


Alison Stein Wellner is the culinary travel editor for, and writes a weekly essay for Perceptive Travel. She has contributed to Business Week, Glamour, Men's Journal, New York Magazine, World Hum, Yankee, and Yoga Journal, among other publications.


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