Do French Girls Wear Sweats?

Life is a quest, an ongoing series of adventures, a way to gamify our desires to reach next levels, unlock doors, and inevitably head towards our mission accomplished or game over states – of which there is always a reset, an opportunity to start over and move onto the next game, until death. The key to not being thrown off on the wrong trail and falling into an endless spiral of dissatisfaction is to have proper expectations: expect the unexpected and be watchful of confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories), lest we’re satisfied with less than the purest form of the truth.

In my current life quest to learn about “off-duty” style around the world, I was curious about what I’d find in what has frequently been touted as one of the most stylish cities in the world. I had no data (ie. French women are 32% more chic than Americans), but I had heard, as we all have, of the French Girl stereotype: a white, thin, effortlessly chic ingenue with fringe for bangs in her striped t-shirt, red lips and understated attire, a look that most certainly would constitute as ironically “too dressed up” for Vancouver.

She’s cooler. Chicer. The way she does her foundation, puts on her lipstick, does her hair brings to mind a certain je ne sais quoi. Words like “undone” and “effortless” replace the mainstream North American ideal.

Stereotypes exist for a reason, but sometimes they need to be shaken up and rejected, because they paint a lacklustre and inaccurate picture. So, I was prepared that when I landed in Paris for the first time, I might be less than impressed. That my Parisian myth might be shattered, and that all these assumptions about French women were in fact false. Perhaps I’d see that, on the streets of Paris, I’d see the same women as I do everywhere else.

I was caught up on the tail end of what I had categorized mentally as a summer whirlwind romance before making a move across the country, ditching the best coast for a new climactically unappealing adventure, but nonetheless one that for many months I would look forward to as the adventure of my lifetime, my fresh start. I had finally moved out of a mourning state from a previous romance (at the time, it had seemed over a week after I left, a momentous celebration of relief – but I didn’t realize that I was experiencing a slow and withering heartbreak of the self, until he texted me more than a year later to tell me that I should “know my worth”.) And between all of that, I made a leap from showing up and doing the work at work to middle management at one of the fastest growing companies in the world – it’s like being thrown into kindergarten when you thought you were coasting along fine in grade school. Paris was my first trip alone, my bookend between the past and future.

I chose Paris because it was the city of love. Not romantic love, though it was that too. But love as an all-encompassing mood and experience, both an indulgence and a necessary certainty. The way that Paris felt from the very first moment I stepped off the plane, even thinking about it now, gave me chills.

I was looking for certainty in something. And I discovered, during my 8 day romp, that Paris was a city certain about romance, pleasure, indulgence, and yes, style.

(How much of it is geography? Culture? Nature? Nurture? Myth? Bias? The fact that I was on a much needed vacation?)

I can affirm with confidence that Parisians are indeed different, much the same way I’m sure (wishful thinking?) that they’d feel the same about Vancouverites. What would they think, though? I suspect they might notice our overabundance of raincoats, athletic wear, and leggings as pants.

But we tend to see the beauty in places unknown, as the beauty we know becomes familiar. And it sometimes takes a tourist’s perspective to realize that so many people live entire lives without having ever seen our mountains, breathed our fresh air, hiked our trails, stood amidst our forests. As I was walking through my own downtown just yesterday, during the first mark of spring after a typically grey winter, I noticed for the first time the grandeur of the mountains, a picturesque backdrop to an urban landscape. I’ve seen this all my life, but in that moment I saw it like I was seeing it for the first time.

But, I think to myself, maybe mountains aren’t my thing. I can certainly appreciate all beauty, but the kind of beauty that I saw in Paris made me, a foreigner, feel like home. I felt both inspired and at ease. Like yes, this is it. As I thought about all the times my ex tried to take me hiking and I willingly went along so that we could spend time together and do couply things but I secretly wished I was doing something else, I realized the difference between appreciation and true gratitude is the difference between coasting along and being truly happy.

Can you be both ultimately and truly comfortable, while also holding in that same space, a flutter in your heart?

If I could describe French style, to me, that’s what it feels like. It’s also what great loungewear feels like. And what a great love story feels like. Everything great feels the same (voila! the epiphany!).

In Paris, I fell in love. I got to see Colette, the world’s most beloved concept store, before it shuttered its doors permanently a few months later. I finally made it to Sezane’s flagship store, after watching the French digital-first brand make waves from behind a laptop screen for years. I walked Le Marais, took a selfie with Mona Lisa, indulged my sweet tooth at Angelina’s, and reaffirmed my love for the retail experience.

As I made my way through the Paris Metro, I came across nary in sight a single woman wearing leggings (it’s stockings or nothing in September weather) or anything that even closely resembled athletic clothing. There was one spritely creature, who was actually (gasp!) running in her athletic getup. But she was actually running and sweating.

It’s not that the women looked any less comfortable. I don’t recall any stiletto teetering (except from a group of Americans on a bachelorette party underneath the Eiffel tower on my first night) or bodycon (I saw this, on same said Americans), as I often see past 11pm downtown here – but my research was, admittedly, limited: I was in my Airbnb from 7pm-3am most nights, working away on my laptop.

Do we see style because we believe that we will? Have I been brainwashed by the chic French girl propaganda (perpetuated, no less, than “the rest of us”, probably)?

What do Parisian women, so chic on the street, wear at home? Maybe they wear what we all wear: sweatpants, mostly. Or maybe they’ve got it figured out. Answering this question, I felt, was the key to figuring out why so many of us feel most comfortable when we are aesthetically the least pleased, even if there is no correlation between comfort and ugh-li-ness.

I don’t know if we can verifiably say that yes, French women are more stylish, more chic, because, here it is: I think that depends on what your perception of style is. But the way they dress does remind me of something: that style isn’t about hiding or changing oneself; it’s about what is true and real, and French women seem to embrace a sense of style that feels more at ease while not falling into slob territory. It’s effort without trying too hard. (While we’re at it: let’s define trying too hard. Because to me, it’s not dismissive of trying new things and showing effort and care in whatever it is you’re doing, style included. The “too” comes from a sense of not knowing oneself and trying to hide behind layers of falsity.)

But there is effort. It’s not, as we like to call it, effortless. I’ve worked at home for years now, and trust me, I know what true effortlessness looks like.

If I’m taking a more scientific approach to this, on a scale of dressing totally for oneself and dressing totally for others, where North Americans seem to fall on scale that swings from one pendulum to another – ragged grey sweats with holes in them to bodycon and Instagram makeup – the French fall more in the middle, a more steadfast approach from day to night, day to day, one phase of life to the next. Of course, this is pure speculation and I missed out on my chance, I guess, to ask the big question of what French girls really wear at home. (Unless you, dear reader, would like to enlighten me!)

But I guess that’s not really the important question. The bigger question, the one that I want to explore, is it possible to find that magical flutter-in-your-stomach kind of love and unfiltered, unabashed ease, together? Because that’s what I learned about the city of Paris, and that’s what I brought home with me, as I made a pivot and decided, after all, to stay.

I certainly think so. But then again, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend”, so says French philosopher Henri Bergson. I wonder if he wore sweats.

—Ana Wang