The French can stake a claim to excelling in many areas, including wine-making and cookery, and the nation is also known to have perfected a supremely chic style that has been much mimicked, but never really matched.
The ideal of Parisian dressing was exemplified in the 1950s, when the city’s haute couture dictated fashion trends around the world. This season, Palais Galliera, the city’s fashion museum, celebrates Paris’s role in global clothing design with an exhibition, The 50s. It will gather together the finest examples of chic French dressing, starting with Christian Dior’s game-changing, highly feminine ‘new look’, through to the advent of Yves Saint Laurent. From wasp-waisted suits to cocktail dresses, contributions will also come from other leading lights including Chanel, Givenchy and Balmain. While the style of the designs from each label was vastly different, each house promoted a supreme elegance which has continued to influence what we wear.
We may not try to fit ourselves into those tightly corseted hour-glass jackets anymore, but the fundamental building blocks of Parisian style remain the same. There are a few rules: build a wardrobe of classic pieces in beautiful materials including cashmere coats, beautifully cut separates, and feminine but simple silk blouses, focus on neutral colours (including a collection of black basics) and then put them together with a light touch. The look may be polished and artful, but French women always make it seem easy.
All these elements come together – albeit in an avant-garde way – in Phoebe Philo’s autumn/winter collection 2014/15 collection for Céline which offers endless chic options: stunning cocooning coats for girls on the go, plush fur muffs, neat dove-grey dresses for day, and wraps and sumptuous satin skirts for evening. She may be British, but Philo’s 21st-century updating of the classic lines of Parisian couture is thoroughly convincing.
The aesthetic at Nina Ricci is very different, focusing on light, feminine themes, but the autumn collection by Peter Copping also displays Parisian elegance, with silk blouses and demure pencil skirts, ladylike suits, fluffy knits, mink trimmed heels and neat little clutch bags. Copping takes a more gamine, youthful approach than many of his contemporaries, but he still plunders the rich lexicon of Parisian elegance.
Of course there are some embellishments that are timeless and chic enough to add to the mix – jewellery is where French women allow themselves some adornment, perhaps a stack of gold bangles from Cartier, a sparkling diamond pendant from Van Cleef & Arpels or a stunning cocktail ring from Boucheron. These pieces, nonetheless, are still worn in a typically Parisian way – understatedly, without too much fuss. And never look like you are trying too hard.