We’ll Always Have Paris: an author’s French Style Fail

— by Alyson Walsh

Emma Beddington, credit Natalie Hill

‘We’ll Always Have Paris‘ is the ace, new book by Emma Beddington the author of the brilliant Belgian Waffling blog; it’s a wry, poignant and informative memoir – I’ve learnt a lot about French literature and cakes. Here Emma talks about realising her dream of living in Paris and the accompanying French Style Fail:

My name is Emma and I am a French style addict. In addition to my nine (count them) Breton tops, my wardrobe is a homage to timeless French good taste: navy and black Capri pants and slim legged trousers, fine cashmere sweaters, crisp white shirts and little black dresses. The problem is… well, there are several problems. Firstly, I am a terrible slattern, so the Bretons are stained, the sweaters moth-eaten and the grubby-collared shirts more crumpled than crisp. The second problem is my lifestyle: as a freelance, dog and chicken owning home worker in a chilly Belgian suburb, the only things I actually need or ever wear are boyfriend jeans and woolly jumpers. But the third problem is the biggest and the most heartbreaking for me: I am not French. Not even a little bit. It has taken me over twenty years to admit this, but I have had to submit to the overwhelming evidence.

I have been trying to be French since I was 16, when, as a bored Yorkshire teenager, I discovered French magazines and French cinema. Who could fail to fall for all those incredibly stylish nouvelle vague heroines, with big dark eyes and black turtlenecks and devastatingly handsome brooding boyfriends? I was helpless in the face of Catherine Deneuve in the world’s most desirable dress in Belle de Jour, (an Yves Saint Laurent LBD with white cuffs and collars, I have been looking for a version of this dress ever since), Bardot in a boat neck in Dieu Créa La Femme or of Romane Bohringer in a perfect leather jacket in Les Nuits Fauves. I scoured Miss Selfridge, usually unsuccessfully, for classic “pieces” – a belted mac, black cigarette pants, a Breton top – and On some level I believed that if I could look like those women, perhaps I would be like them too: composed, provocative, intellectual and brave. I was an ordinary teenager: mortified by my own body and perpetually embarrassed, but with a chic Gallic armour I could be someone else, someone better. Someone French.

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The Belle de Jour dress

Everyone has these teenage crushes and enthusiasms, I know, but my infatuation with France endured for decades, and it has shaped the course of my life. After school, I spent a year teaching English in a school in Normandy and whilst there, inevitably met a nice French boy who introduced me to the mysteries of French life: endless lunches, a fondness for tartan slippers and ordering that awful mouthwash drink, menthe à l’eau, in bars. After a rocky few long years trying to maintain our relationship long-distance while I did my degree, and a stint studying and working in London, we finally go the opportunity to move to Paris, the theatre of all my French fantasies. Obviously, I thought, this would be the point when my inner French woman could finally blossom and I would sit on café terraces reading Prévert poems, drinking small cups of coffee and looking ineffably chic. I could not have been more wrong.

Inesdelafressange, French Vogueb

The circumstances could, admittedly, have been better. I had just given birth to our second son, meaning we were arriving in Paris with a newborn and a two year old, a combination that does not easily lend itself to stylish terrace lingering. From the early days in our elegant, old world apartment block, my post natal wardrobe of baggy Gap jeans, t-shirts and trainers drew disapproving glares from our immaculate elderly neighbours, but I assumed I would adapt, shed my awkward British skin and everyone would fall in love with me. Instead exhaustion, alienation, lack of funds and a holy terror of French shop assistants left me stuck with my horrifyingly un-chic British wardrobe: I bought the grand total of two reduced Petit Bateau t-shirts, then gave up. The impact was obvious: old ladies poked me with their walking sticks as I slumped round the beautiful streets, the concierge viewed me with open suspicion and on one occasion three nannies in the park surrounded me and staged an intervention about my sagging jeans. Perhaps if we had picked a more “bobo” (bourgeois bohemian, think Charlotte Gainsbourg or Lou Doillon) neighbourhood, I might have fitted in better, but ours was all Chanel and tweed clad matrons who did not find my scruffy Brit look remotely endearing. I became paranoid about leaving the flat, certain that someone would angrily brush dust off my back (this actually happened) or stare pointedly at my scuffed New Balances and baby puree stained tops.

coco chanel angry

Life in Paris was tough in all manner of other ways too and after a year, we admitted defeat and headed back, chastened, to wonderful, indifferent London where no one cared if I went to Tesco in my dressing gown. A couple of years later we moved to Brussels, a city not known for its high aesthetic standards, and we’ve lived here ever since. Perhaps that should have put paid to my French dreams, but they have reasserted themselves, gradually over the years. I know I’m not French now and I never will be: too apologetic, too self-deprecating, too clumsy and devoid of that icy French elegance. Between the dog and the chickens and the laptop on the kitchen table, I barely have any occasion to dress up, but even so, whenever I go into a shop or browse online, I know what will catch my eye: it’s those perfect, simple elegant things that offer the elusive promise of Parisian style. Sézane, Comptoir des Cotonniers and Agnès b are my fatal weakness and my heart quickens at each understatedly chic neutral, even though I know I’ll end up looking like I’m wearing school uniform. “Identity tourism” my friend Helen calls it: trying on a new persona through the medium of clothes and my identity of choice – doomed to failure as it is – will always be Catherine Deneuve.

Emma’s French style rules:

1. Be French.

2. If you cannot be French, be Kristen Scott Thomas or Jane Birkin, ie. honorary French.

3. Failing that, own a clothes brush and a nail brush, eschew anything to which the adjectives “fun” or “quirky” might be applied and hope for the best.

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We’ll Always Have Paris is published by Macmillan, £12.99

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