When I moved to Paris in 1992 as a 28-year-old bride and a fledgling correspondent, top fashion editor Suzy Menkes took me to lunch over grilled sole and white wine imparted some of the most insightful counsel I have ever received. “Paris,” she said, “will teach you how to be a woman.” At the time I had no idea what she was talking about. But soon I learned. In dress there were basic rules: wear sombre neutral tones such as black, beige and navy, accessorised with bold belts, good jewellery, and scarves. Always wear matching lingerie, in silk and lace, black or colours, even under jeans and T-shirts. One must consider the entire silhouette at all times, including feet, with regular pedicures (in shell pink or red only) and excellent shoes. French women wear beautiful — and I mean beautiful — shoes no matter the weather, or the circumstances. Rubber thongs? Are you out of your mind?
I learnt the importance of being soignée, or pampered, usually at day spas and as covertly as possible. French women never share beauty secrets or shopping addresses with anyone — not friends, and certainly not men. No, men should simply revel in the seduction. Manicures are de rigueur, again only in pale roses and deep reds, with nails clipped short. The “French” manicure with white tips? Wholly American. Expert haircuts are essential, but they must be low-maintenance (blow-dries look too polished) and make-up should be kept to a minimum: eyebrows brushed, swoosh of mascara, smudge of light lipstick. French women allow their natural beauty to come through; imperfections, it is thought, are what make you ... you.
But there was more to it than all that — a certain something I was lacking, a je ne sais quoi that Parisiennes such as Betty Catroux and Inès de La Fressange exuded even when they were in their twenties. I finally found the answer in Edith Wharton’s French Ways And Their Meaning. “The French woman is more grown-up,” she wrote. I was raised in the US, where youth is prized, so this was an epiphany to me. And the more I watched French women, the more I understood. They are confident and sensual. They are elegant and alluring. They are cultivated and they speak their minds. They are extremely demanding — exigency is highly valued — yet always gracious. When they step out of their homes, they are the embodiment of unstudied, effortless, topto-toe ravishing perfection. In other words, they are women. — Dana Thomas.
When the Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley slammed William Stadiem’s nutty social history Jet Set in a review last summer, he also took aim at its unwitting subjects. They were a “motley collection of occasionally beautiful but invariably contemptible men and women,” Yardley wrote.
Betty Catroux with Yves Saint Laurent and Loulou de la Falaise in London, 1969
Inès de La Fressange in1992
The younger sibling of Jaqueline Kennedy, Onasiss in 1967