They learn when they’re very young of course. Even our bi-cultural children, strongly influenced in their early years by our ‘foreign’ tastes in matters of clothing and comportment, turn out looking French in the end!
I can still remember being on a secluded beach one day in Australia with my 20-year old daughter, born and bred in France. She had just spent six months studying at the University of Queensland. A long way off, we could see a group of three people.
“They’re French,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“I can just tell.”
And when they came closer, her guess proved right of course. Two of them were French.
So it’s also a question of how people walk and talk and gesticulate. Recently, I was walking behind a family in the Palais Royal in Paris. There was a little girl of about eight or ten carrying an adult’s handbag. She had it all right – the way she walked, held the handbag, the clothes with their multi-layers – she was unmistakably French!
No Aussie kid would be seen dead in that ‘get-up’. I have to say I was well into my thirties before I even consented to use handbags and I keep them as small as possible!
I must admit I’ve never really tried to ‘look French’. I’ve always done my own thing. When I like French fashion, I wear it, but I learnt to wear coordinates when I was very young and find it difficult to break the habit.
I don’t feel comfortable with clothes hugging my skin or with my shirt ten centimetres below my jacket. I can’t do the unkempt look – I’m always neat and tidy! And I don’t really like dressing in grey and black all the time… I’ve never mastered the way the French throw a scarf around their neck. They just make me feel self-conscious.
We were at a mixed gathering of French and English speakers the other night in the Loire Valley. It was amusing because you could easily pick who was French and who wasn’t. At one stage, I was talking with two French women and discussing this exact same question. So I asked them whether they had thought I was French before we started speaking. They looked a little embarrassed and said, “Well, no, not really”. They, on the other hand, looked unmistakably French!
Physique does count, of course. A lot of the people present were fair-skinned and very English-looking. I have dark brown hair going grey, which is another distinguishing feature. Most French women dye their hair as soon as the grey starts to show. I was even told that not using dye makes a woman look ‘neglected’ in France. Fortunately, my French husband prefers me to grow grey gracefully which is certainly what I prefer!
A certain exuberance of gesture is definitely a French trait, although they don’t wave their hands around like the Italians do! They stand and sit much closer to the people they’re talking to than English-speakers do. They interrupt more, rarely waiting until the other person has finished speaking. They anticipate what they’re going to say and jump in to give their opinion. It’s all very intense. This gives a different dynamic which is visible to outsiders.
So all I can say is that the best way to look French is to be born in France. Failing that, spend many long hours minutely observing – and absorbing – the way the French look, walk, talk, think and act!
1. Philippe Moreau Chevrolet,on Flickr
2 – 4. Rosemary Kneipp