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Dressing Room General French vs American style
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French vs American style
After spending some time in Paris it struck me that one of the roots of the incredibly different effects which French and American women present has to do with the question of movement. Of course I am speaking very generally here and I mean to characterize average types; I also am talking more about people, in both countries, who think a lot about their appearance, without necessarily feeling completely at home in it.

American women, one might say, assemble themselves in front of a mirror, and construct a very static image of beauty. Perhaps they are influenced by images in magazines, or just by a general photographic consciousness. Like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless ("what happened? Did I step into a patch of bad lighting?") there is an idea that one's image can be presented to the Other as something fixed, or as part of a larger environment with certain fixed parameters (one looks at one's best angle in the mirror: but in life the other sees you from all sides, and there is nothing to hide).

By contrast it seems that French women think of themselves much more as bodies in motion (which is, I think, on the whole a much more successful strategy). The average well-dressed Frenchwoman produces an impression of much more elegance in person than can really be captured in a static photograph, not unlike the way that a ballet dancer (so much at home in movement), often so graceful in motion, is sometimes even a bit awkward still.  Or to go back a bit farther, for instance Brigitte Bardot's outfits in Contempt: flared skirts, flats, and loose sweaters tight in the hip, which produce a very vivid impression of a waist once she begins to walk.

Clueless vs Contempt is probably not fair, of course. And there's a lot more to say (about the body in its totality versus the body in pieces) but will stop here for now. Am interested to see whether this resonates with others.
As an American who has spent quite a lot of time in France over the last seven years, this certainly resonates with me. And I think one of the underlying reasons for this difference is that France has a much more highly developed concept of the street (or public life, generally) as theatre than America does.

The best (or at least, most typical) example of this that comes to mind is that in American cities, it's fairly common to see women on their way to work in a smart suit but with athletic shoes on for comfort during the walk - they'll change into their high heels once they get to the office. They're still 'backstage' until they arrive wherever they're going. In France, this would be anathema - as soon as you step out of your house, you're 'onstage'. Walking down the street in smart clothes and sensible shoes would seem as incongruous as an diva stepping onto the stage at the Opera wearing the top half of an ornate Rococo costume with the jeans she'd normally wear to a rehearsal.

So maybe it's not just the body in its totality versus the body in pieces but theatre versus tableau vivant?
Misia's suggestion about the way public space is construed differently seems quite good to me, and I'm also pretty intrigued by Mia's idea about movement and the static pose.  Something in this idea about movement escapes me; I have trouble connecting it to other ideas about France or national character.  It seems therefore rich in possibility, but I'm not sure how to develop it.  Instead of trying to reply to these or to add a third way of asking the question, I want to just quote a few passages from Gertrude Stein's little book Paris France in case they might generate other ideas.

Maybe these quotations will seem tangential to the question, but Stein's book is not only about France (and its difference from America) but especially about style.  She elsewhere develops, I think, a pretty specific concept of style; but it may be not so important here.

It's a little hard to extract quotations, since even in this relatively accessible book Stein is working on the temporality of language, and she relies heavily on repeated formulae like "fashion and tradition," "exciting and peaceful" that connect to one another in shifting ways.  At a minimum, it seems to me that the point of these pairs is to suggest ways in which French culture harmonizes what appear (to an American?) to be contraries.

N.B. Stein isn't too much concerned with gender in France, though here and there she will talk about women or men in particular.  Late in the book she talks about the way men and women dress, about changes between elegance and fashion, but this is only intelligible in the context of her extended discourse on war and the twentieth century in France.


1. According to Stein, in France one cannot be fashionable without also being traditional.  I take this as some version of T. S. Eliot's modernist creed, but used playfully as a way of picturing French style:

"I cannot write too much upon how necessary it is to be completely conservative that is particularly traditional in order to be free.  And so France is and was.  Sometimes it is important and sometimes it is not, but from 1900 to 1939, it certainly was."

"The French like to call beasts up-to-date names, names of people do not change much but they like to follow the fashion in animal's [sic] names."


2. Similarly, French national style survives only through what is foreign.  I couldn't resist quoting the whole passage, but the first half is more immediately relevant:

"I thought poodles were french but the french breed always has to be refreshed by the german one, and the german pincher is so much more gentle than our Chichuachua little dog which it resembles, and so everything would be a puzzle if it were not certain that logic is right, and is stronger than the will of man.  We will see."


3. And to sum up (?) the relations between different antinomies of French life:

"So there are the two sides to a Frenchman, logic and fashion and that is the reason why French people are exciting and peaceful."


4. Stein is also interested in what is public in France, and especially the place of the family and home. 

"War can not civilise, it takes private life to civilize, and of course publicity has the same effect as war it prevents the process of civilization."

"That was really the trouble with the sur-realist crowd, they missed their moment of becoming civilized, they used their revolt, not as a private but as a public thing, they wanted publicity not civilization..."

On the other hand: "Humanly speaking, Frenchwomen nor Frenchmen do not really interest themselves in intimacy, intimacy is something essentially uncivilized [...]"

She later calls the family a "concentration of isolation" and says that "Everything is private and personal in France," yet I think she doesn't mean that France lacks public space, but that public and private are differently coordinated.  Maybe it's that public and private operate simultaneously, that their spaces are not as separate as in America, and that both intimacy and modern "publicity" are at odds with this arrangement.

Mainly for the pleasure of it, here's one more quotation.  (It relates to publicity, and it also reminds me of Mia's claim about movement -- since organized music-making requires a kind of stasis):

"After all civilized countries do not continuously make music, and that is the reason that France and England are the most civilized countries.  They are not everlastingly making music."


Sorry for being so long-winded.  A danger of note-taking is that you'll have too much matter on hand, and I find some parts of the book just too delicious to resist quoting.

I wonder what French readers might make of any of this.  Certainly there are problems whenever we want to talk about something like "national character" -- the phrase itself conjures up some of them -- but even national style seems hard to approach except obliquely.
Books Discussed
Paris France
by Gertrude Stein

I am thoroughly enjoying this discussion. Misia, I think your remark is spot on. I remember going to the gym during my time in Paris (back when this was an exotic phenomenon) and arriving in sweats was unheard of. I still remember the other women walking in at 7am in full makeup and fancy dress, just so that the walk between apartment and gym would not violate codes of propriety. After a short workout, out again came the makeup and heels.

And who better than Gertrude Stein to tell us about constructing oneself as a work of art, down to the last comma.
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