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.

Catherine-Deneuve-Belle de Jour6
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.

We'll always have Paris jkt
We’ll Always Have Paris is published by Macmillan, £12.99

30 thoughts on “We’ll Always Have Paris: an author’s French Style Fail

  1. Oh I do understand. I am Jacqueline Yvonne so you would think I had a head start on this Paris style business. And it doesn’t help that my sister Pauline actually has French nationality having married a French man & lived there for 40 years. However she is not in Paris & style elsewhere is sometimes thin on the ground. Her friends certainly don’t sport the Breton tops that I do – & l only have 5! At 69 I am still trying to sort out my style tribe but thanks to Alison & TNMA have decided to embrace Scandi style & incorporate the stripes into that. Now I am off to read Emma’s blog.

  2. Having lived in Paris for seven years – admittedly, east Paris – I think “French Style” is a myth and a marketing tool. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a French woman wearing a Breton top, apart from models in magazines and actors in films.

  3. I enjoyed the comment about looking as though one is wearing school uniform. When I was a child, our village received annual visits by a lady who had grown up there but moved to France. Each summer she would come back for a week or two to visit her family and she only EVER wore navy and white: a navy skirt, white blouse and navy cardigan. Always. Every day. She, of course, looked fantastic – she had dark colouring, freckles and permanent soft caramel tan to go with it. She had obviously succeeded in 100% assimilation. Her half-French children looked 100% French, too. She fascinated me (this was the seventies, when everything in England seemed to be orange and beige).
    I have always tried to keep to a pared-back colour palette since and have always regret digressions from it in the long run. But pulling off that navy and white combination eludes me to this day.

  4. Reminds me of a 1979 American ‘coming of age’ film called “Breaking Away”, which featured a guy obsessed with all things Italian.
    I see the writer’s point – even the way she holds her mouth in the accompanying photo looks British to me. (I’m not British but have loads of British cousins.)

  5. This is a charming and funny story. And I do identify. Although I am by anyone’s standards short, and brunette, a willowy French blonde lurks inside.

  6. I absolutely loved this! You are a wonderful wordsmith and your insight is probably spot on for many women. Sigh! I too always wanted to be French from the time I was in high school. I feel your pain. At 63 I know that it will never happen. My lifestyle was never comparable ( American stay at home mom, followed by various school positions from high school attendance clerk to elementary library assistant). I didn’t have the figure, the patience, or the ability to pull effortless French chic together even with tons of effort. Sophistication and my name will never be in the same sentence. But c’est la vie, I can be comfortable maybe a little stylish, and get over being something that I never was intended to be. Oh but it was fun to dream……..

  7. This was a really fun read for me; I’d love to read the whole book. I married a Parisian man (and got the Parisian mother in law, free of charge) who does not understand my style. She calls it “Baroque” and I imagine she doesn’t mean that as a compliment. I had to explain to her what sequins were (I know)! I love the French and I spend a LOT of time in France, but they are quite formulaic with style, and I definitely am not.

  8. Should you visit Bayonne (attractive city) you will find that the essence of chic is not prevalent. That’s all I am saying.

  9. I can identify with this. When I was sixteen, in 1966, I discovered Jean Pierre Cassell. A few weeks later, fiddling with the knobs on the wireless one evening I came upon France Inter. Somehow the two things came together with an intensity that fired a passion for all things French. I passed my teenage years, the rest of the sixties, listening to French pop music, reading French magazines, Paris Match, Salut Les Copains, anything, watching French film and falling in love with French actors and actresses equally, and I wanted to look French. Oddly, like you, I trawled through Miss Selfridge in Oxford Street, and I did somehow achieve something that made people ask, “Are you French?” The obsession lasted into the eighties and then, with the advent of children, less money, other concerns more close to home, it all somehow got left behind…except for the occasional evening of Adamo CD’s and, as you say, a very simple style of dressing. xx

  10. I agree with Juliette’s post above – I’m a bit mystified by this French chic stuff. I’m a Brit who’s been living in Paris for the last 22 years, have loads of French friends and I honestly don’t know anyone who could be described as having the “icy French elegance” the author speaks of. I’ve also never been treated with the condescension she talks about. Maybe her neighbours were elderly “bourgeoises” in the 16th arrondissement? Maybe I’ve just been lucky? No idea. But I agree with Juliette when she says she thinks that “French style” is a marketing myth!

  11. Loved this excerpt and can’t wait to read the book! I also love the ‘so-called’ French style. Maybe the real French women don’t wear Breton tops, but overall, they do exude an attitude that says they are comfortable in their own skin. Whereas in America, it often appears that women are trying to hard (too much surgery, too much makeup, too much… Excess). However, I think Emma would like to hear that when I lived in England for 4 years in my early thirties, I adored British style! I copied so many looks from my British friends, who never wore sweats, t-shirts, and tennis shoes. They were classic and elegant in their own right, even on play dates with the kids and shopping at the local. I still have many of those wool cardigans and tartans that I bought there many years ago. P.s, isn’t it wonderful being able to change our clothes to match our moods, dreams, and imaginations?

  12. You may not be Fench, but boy can you write and you sound to have a lovely lifestyle. Personally I think if it exists it all sounds very regimented…give me the jeans & sweaters any day!

  13. I ordered the book from Amazon at the weekend as there was another review in The Sunday Times that whet my appetite but I have not received it yet. Very excited to do so! Love the excerpt – I, too, have spent the last twenty odd years trying to be ‘French’ – I can pull it off more in the warmer months than the winter when I need to swathe myself in jumpers and woolly socks (very non-French)!. Once in the bluest of moons someone asks if I am French and I am impressed with myself for days – pathetic, huh! Nonetheless, I am a chilly Londoner who still gets madly ‘experimental’ with my style and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Still, the ‘dressing-up box’ of life is Very Good Fun. Can’t wait to get my mitts on the book.

  14. What a hoot, this post is, Alyson. Love Emma’s writing style…and suspect her dressing style was not as embarrassing as she so amusingly, and self-deprecatingly observes. That image of the her being “poked” by old ladies with walking sticks as she “slumped round the beautiful streets” will have me smiling all morning. Makes me remember how intimidated I was as I packed for our first visit to Paris last May.

  15. What a laugh! I too have a hopeless addiction to Breton tops and once took 10 on holiday to France – one for every day. My husband despaired of me and asked of I had anything else to wear. I can’t wait to read Emma’s book.

  16. As I coincidence, only yesterday, I was reading The Pool blog and saw an article by Emma on failing French. I love the book cover – fabulous graphics and so French without being cliche. Alyson thanks for sharing the Emma’s writing. Yvonne

  17. Loved it! hopefully available on Kindle in the states soon….currently wearing a Breton top and sweatpants…this made my morning!

  18. I realize that Emma Beddington’s book is written with a humorous and tongue-in-cheek tone (I hope), but I’m so tired of this “French Chicness”. A stripped shirt does not a Breton shirt make. But I get weirded out because I’m so afraid that many women read these books and articles about French style–chic–“how to dress like a Parisian”, and they become slightly intimidated.
    When “style” is written, it is about a minority of women who mostly live on Avenue Foch or celebrities.
    How come nobody ever writes about the French/Parisian women who, after a “certain” age, cut their hair into a close-cropped shorter-than-pixie cut and dye there hair bright burgundy–like wine! Having spent once, twice, three times a year in France over the past now eleven years, I’ve come to dispel the myth and realize that the French women dress just like you and me!

  19. I have no real interest in emulating French women. They’re thin because they smoke. I like stylish,slender people, but the freedom to be a fat slob is real freedom, and that’s what we have in America.

  20. This put a smile on my face as it reminded me of my time in France having recently returned to the UK after 8 years living there. I agree with many of the comments above that any French style is limited to major cities – not that I saw many stylish women on my visits to Paris or Lyon. Most were dressed for comfort or the climate.
    I don’t recall ever seeing a Breton top although I think wearing a scarf is mandatory in France.
    One common sight I did notice among many French ladies of a certain age was the hair styles. Either a short swept back cropped style or a a bob held neatly in place with a velvet Alice band and as mentioned above, many with hair dyed orange or burgundy.
    Love TNMA by the way.

  21. So, it’s NOT just me who wishes they were French! I admit it, I too am obsessed with all things French, to the point where I think I’m related to Ines de la Fresange..! It is the greatest compliment to me, when travelling in Paris, to be taken for a native Parisienne!
    Like Emma, I believe the answer to achieving [and keeping!] true French style comes down to one simple phrase: “Be Born French!”

  22. At least you married a French guy. I am an American who looks French married to a guy from Norfolk. Imagine how I feel.

    PS love your blog

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