IN MANY years of writing for this most amiable of websites I've covered so many aspects of living in France with pieces about the food and wine, local restaurants, French politics and history and television, goings-on in our village, local fauna and flora, and of course the wonderful farrago and farce that often results from conducting everything in French. I've lingered happily in my own garden of music, I've witnessed historic sporting events, I've been eagerly seduced by the bizarre, like an anti-English club I came across once, or the sex-life of the praying mantis, or meeting the 'quality controller' whose job was to ensure that Miss France competitors were what they claimed to be. (He subsequently married one, so presumably he knew what he was taking on.) . . .
. . . and it might be a minor eddy in the wake of these last two that reminds me that I've never yet written about Frenchwomen. This might also be because my esteemed fellow-columnist Helena F-P has to some extent cornered the market in writing about French feminity, and although such an embodiment of grace and chic might be less of a columnist and more of a caryatid, I'd really rather not tread on her elegant toes. Anyway, Frenchwomen it is. Here we go.
I try to keep up to date with the French news by reading Le Figaro online every day. Le Figaro is the leading French centre-right daily, complementing Le Monde on the centre-left. A recent issue of Le Figaro's weekly women's section, Madame Figaro, featured a group of eight women, Barbara, Hilda, Céline, Claire, Vanessa, Jeanne, Patricia and Violaine, who were trying to discover le style qui nous correspond et réconcilier en nous l'être et l'apparence, the style that we like and which reconciles our inner being and our appearance.
The Eight spent two days under the wing of Vanina Gallo, a Paris style coach. I'm sure it wouldn't be the first time that a fashion journalist has tried this ploy, but to me, curmudgeonly masculine to my non-designer stubble, it was a novelty. I was struck at once by a bizarre anomaly: the French rarely look outside France for their style ikons, (although the late Princess of Wales may once have enjoyed a brief fling in French fashion pages, and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the current ikon, has been imported from Italy personally by the President) yet the language of fashion is unrelentingly English. Here's one of the Eight, before makeover: Hilda, 40 ans, très femme-enfant avec son style jean, pull, baskets à scratchs, protégée des autres par l'épaisseur de ses pull-overs (Hilda, 40, very child-woman with her style of jeans, sweater, trainers, protected from the others by the thickness of her sweaters).
(You would hardly need a dictionary, shopping for clothes in France, would you? 'Baskets' may need some explanation, though: they're nothing to do with what you put your shopping in, they're trainers, maybe what you play basketball in. And 'scratchs' means Velcro fastenings.)
Vanina Gallo the coach gets to work. She starts with an open forum. Our friend Hilda, still boyish in mid-life, admits that her parents always wanted a boy. It was very difficult to become what she wanted to be, a designer. Then for years she devoted herself to her children. In the end, she feels she's lost sight of herself.
The apparently outgoing and sensual Violaine has an unexpected problem. She conceals and compensates for the alopecia she's suffered from for thirty years by wearing a magnificent wig and dressing provocatively sexily. She's had enough of pretending, she says. She'd like people to see in her the fragile woman she really is.
Jeanne, cheerful and sparky, has a different problem. She talks about hours spent in front of the mirror. It's hell, she says. She wants to find her real style, to throw off all those layers of clothes that she feels the need to swathe herself in, but which in no way radiate her personality.
The others pitch in, and when the angst forum is finished, Vanina advises her clients to oser se mettre à nu, to dare to strip everything off . . . but this is a foot-of-the-page cliff-hanger: on the next page we realise she's speaking figuratively. What she means is that the Holy Grail of one's true style can only be attained if all those hang-ups and taboos, all those skeletons in wardrobes, all those scars, real and emotional, are stripped away, exposing the real woman beneath. She gets Hilda and Jeanne and Claire and the rest of them to relax, close their eyes and think back to crucial stages in their childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, and then to lay all these spooks on the table: being called fat or skinny, born the wrong sex, developing late, being denied some ordinary everyday freedom, being driven too hard towards championship swimming or tennis, over- or underdeveloped precocity on the flute, and so on. We've all been there somehow or other, boys and men too.
After this group therapy the transformation starts. Racks of clothes from Paris fashion houses are wheeled in. The Eight are invited to make free. Huge excitement. We find Hilda, whom I find myself imagining as a latter-day incarnation of Georgina from Enid Blyton's Famous Five, reborn in a sexy little black number and 10 centimetre heels. Violaine happily finds her new image in sober classic lines, while Jeanne speaks movingly and deeply of rebirth: I think I've discovered why I wear these layers of clothes, she says. My mother had several miscarriages before me, and I too carry all those babies. It's high time I freed myself from them!
* * *
HOW REAL or invented all this is I don't know. Some of the hang-ups seem a bit stereotyped to me, as if they'd been invented to complete the range of problems which, when discarded, revealed the Essential Woman beneath, raring to be rehabilitated. It seems to me that the whole exercise changed direction into a kind of therapy through fashion. Goodness knows how much it cost. Is it really like that? Am I any the wiser about Frenchwomen?
Here in the village we have our own icon of femininity. She's called La Femme Couchée, The Woman Lying Down, and unless there's very low cloud she's always there, reassuring and eternal as the rocks that form her outline. I took the photo a few days ago, as she lay silhouetted against the early morning sky, but Dawn or Eve, she's just the same. I have a great urge to go and stand on her nose . . .
. . . Her nose? Sure. Starting with the left-hand silhouetted peak, follow the ups and downs of the horizon towards the right - but I wouldn't want to be accused of sexism in any way, so I leave you make your own interpretation. And if ever I manage to clamber up there, I promise to tell you about it. But I'm glad that none of the Eight complained of psychological wounds caused by someone standing on her nose.