French Lessons


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I’m just back from Paris where the architecture is dazzling and the food scrumptious. In the matter of fashion, however — that third prong in the Parisian esthetic — I was disappointed. It’s just not what it used to be. French women are still thin (their secret, presumably, is small portions — I say it’s smoking). They are also enviably ass-less, which helps enormously in the draping of clothes. But the clothes themselves, once so original, have become pedestrian. What is it with blue jeans? How do they manage to replace all the pencil skirts and twill trousers? Jeans are American hegemony run amok; they are to fashion what Disney World is to architecture, McDonald’s to food. But where the French have fiercely opposed the latter two incursions, they have left themselves open on the fashion flank. The deluge of denim has done its work to dilute, if not eliminate, Parisian chic.

When I first visited Paris in the 1970s I was dazzled by “le mode” (pronounced “le mud”). I would sit in a café on the Boulevard Saint Michel and study the passing crowd. The men delighted me: they in their pull-o-vers (accent on the last syllable), their neatly fitted trousers, and soft leather shoes like ballet slippers. The thought of an American male foot in such a shoe was like imagining the ugly stepsister in Cinderella’s glass slipper. (This was my period of being “into” European men and vaguely repulsed by their oafish American counterparts).

But it was the French women I really studied. In those days, French women wore “outfits”: skirts and tops, jackets and scarves, shoes and hats. Where did they learn how to dress? Was there a course in French schools, the equivalent of our home economics, that taught them? French friends informed me that the secret of French fashion lay not in the quantity of clothes — most French women bought very few “pieces” in the course of a year and often wore the same outfit four or five times before sending it to the dry cleaners. The recipe for chic was quality and creative accessorizing, along with a certain panache in the wearing. In those days, no one but a French woman would have thought of putting the collar up on blouse or leaving it unbuttoned to reveal a glimpse of lacey bra.

So I was disappointed on my recent trip to see that so much had been lost. Fewer pieces and accessories; more jeans and T-shirts. And yet, even in a homogenized denim culture, Parisian chic still flickered, a not yet extinct taper in the twilight of a once great fashion culture. Yes, there was an excess of denim, but French women looked better in jeans than their American counterparts do, owing perhaps to their lack of derriere and insouciant way of wearing them. And even on this trip, I picked up one novel idea (granted, I used to get dozens): a young woman in the predictable jeans and T-shirt wore a silver necklace interlaced with a gold one. It transformed the look: The marriage of metals was at once simple and original, the very essence of French chic.

My mother-in-law who, for reasons too complicated to explain here, accompanied me on this trip to Paris, noted that the falling off I bemoaned was relative. She set the bar higher having gone to Paris earlier.  Her first visit had been in 1950, soon after the war, when Americans were greeted as royalty by the French (believe it or not, there was such a time). That was the era of little suits and hats with veils, seamed stockings, red lipstick, and ankle strap shoes. Although the resources for personal embellishment were limited then, the French woman still managed to scavenge and combine in the service of chic. According to my mother-in-law, French fashion was a revelation to her and she did her best to copy it.

But no doubt there were those for whom the 1950s was a sad falling off from what came before — namely, French fashion of the early 20th century, that period of bobbed hair, cloche hats, and filmy tea dresses; of café society, whether frivolous or intellectual, i.e., those gatherings at Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore where Sartre, Beauvoir, and the Existentialist gang gathered in chic black turtlenecks to smoke Gaulloises sans filtres. That was the period of Elsa Schiaparelli and Raoul Dufy, who both moved in surrealist circles and brought to fashion a sense of artistic experimentation.

Of course, that period had its antecedents in the late 19th century, when couture was born. In the 1880s and ’90s, Americans of means began aping the European aristocracy, particularly with regard to fashion. Wives of the era’s steel and railroad moguls went to Paris to gather their trousseaus, and the expatriate American painter John Singer Sargent made a fortune by reproducing on canvas the luxe of silk and the luster of pearl in his clients’ dress. One the ironies of the American pursuit of chic is that it often involved an inability to distinguish between Parisian high society and the Parisian demi-monde — the world of the high-priced courtesan. Couture fashion — whose workers were often former courtesans themselves — was born in this era with the express intention of marketing French fashion to Americans.

Which brings me to the new exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: “Shopping in Paris: French Fashion 1850-1925.” The museum has plucked from its permanent collection of costumes and textiles some 35 couture gowns that wealthy Americans acquired in their effort to gain access to French style. It is a phantasmagoria of appliqués, lace, sequins, pearls, and embroidery, cut in the dramatic styles of the period. The gowns show an increasingly slim and casual silhouette, but the materials and the workmanship remain exquisite from beginning to end.

The most famous of the earliest Paris dressmarkers was actually an Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth. Said to be the father of couture, Worth’s Paris address was frequented by the wives of America’s mid- and late-19th-century tycoons. I suspect that Worth gowns were seen as vulgar by French women of the period — even to my unpracticed eye they look blocky and overdone. But even if he wasn’t French and didn’t quite grasp the esthetic, Worth understood that exporting a French connection to fashion was a profitable idea. It was inevitable that the French themselves would catch on, and, soon, authentically French designers — with better taste — entered the fray. In the Philadelphia show, we see, along with a number of showy Worth gowns, lovely pieces by Emile Pingat and Jeanne Lanvin. Americans also began to copy the French designs at home. Two successful American designers, Mrs. Donovan and Mrs. Connelly, as they were known, are represented in the show. Both women were Irish-Americans working out of New York who, at different points in their career, were charged with smuggling French couture into the country. They wanted to copy the designs but avoid paying the high export tariffs.  Also on display are dresses from B. Altman’s department store in New York City, which, by the 1920s, had in-house designers that did their best to compete with Paris couture.

A major contribution to French fashion came from Russian émigrés who flooded Paris during the early 20th century.* The exhibit features an evening dress by Yteb, with metallic thread reminiscent of Russian icons. Yteb was run by Mrs. C.N. Buzzard (whose parents were Anne Lathrop of Detroit and the Equerry of Czar Nicholas II). Mrs. Buzzard was a member of the royal court of St. Petersburg before she fled to Paris during the Russian Revolution. Yteb was her first name, Betty, spelled backward.

As the exhibit demonstrates, a certain segment of the American public at the turn of the 20th century had a lot of disposable income, and plenty of savvy businessmen and women availed themselves of it by making dresses with the Paris imprimatur. According to the show’s curator, Dilys Blum, some of the gowns on display were discovered in a trunk in the home of a Philadelphia family whose great-grandmother must have done some serious Paris shopping back in the day.

During my recent Paris trip, my mother-in-law and I happened, during our perambulations, to stumble upon a little shop on the Rue de Bourgogne that sold unmatched couture pieces (suit jackets without skirts, skirts and slacks without jackets) at reduced but still exorbitant prices. My mother-in-law immediately tried on a jacket or two, whose impeccable workmanship the snooty saleslady pointed out to us. One piece, in particular, was a marvel; it showed no evidence of stitching, as though it had sprung fully formed from the womb of high fashion. “Ca, c’est couture!” explained the saleswoman. My mother-in-law looked wistful. To own a couture piece, she said, would be a dream come true. And if they’d had a nice little tweed jacket that fit, I’m sure she would have bought it. Unfortunately (though fortunately for her pocketbook), they didn’t.

In retrospect, the shop struck me as a sad little place — all those odd-sized, unmatched garments waiting for Americans with memories of a Parisian past to buy them. So different from that period in the late 19th and early 20th century when wealthy American women rushed to Paris for their trousseaus. Or even the 1950s when middle-class Americans visiting a decimated France bought a piece or two at reasonable prices. Or even the ’70s and ’80s, when American students like myself frequented French department stores and, for pennies, bought the scarves and gloves that would give us a soupcon of chic.

In the past few decades, Milan has been rising with New York as a serious contender. Even Philadelphia, once the dowdiest of cities, has started to show some flair. Even so, I am loath to write Paris off entirely. There’s still something about the way French women wear their jeans that’s worth more study. • 14 April 2009

* For those who want a whimsical look at the period and its fashion, rent the 1935 film musical Roberta, with Irene Dunne as a Russian émigrée designer in Paris and Randolph Scott as the flat-footed American (he couldn’t have gotten his foot into one of those French shoes), who inherits the business and falls in love with her. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers play the second leads. There are lots of good dance numbers and an over-the-top fashion show, set to great Jerome Kern music, at the end. It’s Paris couture by way of Hollywood — and it’s fabulous!



Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.