As the capital of couture and the City of Love, Paris holds a particular fascination for many people.[i] Famed for its style and influential fashion designers, from Gabrielle Chanel to Jean Paul Gautier, visitors and social commentators have long tried to define Parisian chic. In the first guest submission to Linleywild, Modern Languages student and fashion writer Jake Hall seeks to distinguish sartorial fact from fiction in pursuit of the enigmatic Parisian Gentleman. Offering a more nuanced view than Baldesar Castiglione, who considered the French overdressed, and thankfully enjoying better conditions than George Orwell, Jake reflects on three months’ of Paris living.[ii] Jake has written for various fashion websites. His own website is: www.stylejourno.blogspot.co.uk.
If The Shoe Fits
Stereotypes are strange. Subconsciously they provide reassurance that everything in life is how it should be. When experiencing cultures for the first time, they help us to feel comfortable within our new surroundings. They make us believe that we can know what to expect. But for all the comfort they provide, stereotypes can deceive. When I finally took the plunge and moved to Paris three months ago, I clung to the stereotypes that I had grown up with. Wearing my designer coat (well, diffusion-range – I don’t have the budget just yet) and clutching my leather suitcase, my stereotypes gave me confidence as I boarded the Eurostar and braced myself for the long journey from Paddington to Paris. I assumed that I knew what awaited me on the other side of the Channel.
I was wrong. Very wrong. I did not descend from the train into the chic and romantic world that I had seen in the films. There were no women in designer gowns, no men in tailored suits and certainly nobody waiting to escort me to an opulent hotel. Instead, I stepped into the abyss of Gare du Nord, a wretched place. If anybody proffers a friendly greeting, you can be sure that this is to distract you from their accomplice, who is waiting to grab your wallet. I was at the mercy of a sea of unfamiliar faces, speaking an unfamiliar language in an unfamiliar landscape. Things did not immediately improve. I left the station feeling bewildered, bemused and lost. Instead of walking directly to the hostel, which the website insisted was “impossible to miss”, I wandered unwittingly into a backstreet full of very short bald men who wanted me to sign some kind of petition. I hurriedly declined.
Only now, having lived in Paris for three months, can I look back on my first few hours in this iconic city and reflect on my disappointment. I felt as though I had been slapped in the face with a soggy baguette. There seemed to be no charm, no romance and no hope, only seedy alleyways and decidedly un-Parisian men. My trust in stereotypes was shattered. Hence the purpose of this article: to define, once and for all, the elusive ‘Parisian gentleman’. He is a man that everybody thinks they know, from his sharply-tailored monochrome ensembles, to his elegant accent and eccentric mannerisms. He is studied by many and revered by all. Since I arrived in Paris, I have searched for this man, with his pointed brogues and shock of black facial hair. I have seen a few archetypes, but something has always been askew. Either he has lacked an inch or two in height, or the lapel of his Dior suit has been creased from being pressed against the window of a crowded metro. Whatever the case may be, the men that I have seen have not matched my expectations.
It is only recently that I have realised I am asking too much. Nobody is perfect. As a society we seem to expect all Parisian men, by reason of their birthplace, to be ‘the’ inimitable gentleman; the man we have seen portrayed in countless rom-coms. We expect him to possess the same artistic flair and intellect as the men we encounter in ‘must-read’ novels. It’s a tall order. Stereotypes exist for every race and nationality, but Parisian men (and women) seem to be held to higher sartorial and behavioural standards, just like their city. More than anywhere else in the world, Paris is relentlessly romanticised, to the extent that it will never be what people expect. The disappointment visitors feel when they plunge into the Parisian rat race is so profound that it warrants its own psychological condition, ‘Paris Syndrome’.[iii] Ironically, the definition of ‘Paris Syndrome’ is attributable to another stereotype, that of the Japanese tourist. Apparently, it is over-enthusiastic visitors from the East, armed with Nikon cameras and Metro maps, who are most crushingly disappointed by the metropolis’ inability to match media standards. The result is that they leave the City of Love suffering from ‘psychiatric breakdowns’.[iv]
Smoke And Mirrors
This particular expectation of Paris and its inhabitants is overly harsh, although bear in mind that I say this after living here for just three months. If anything, what I love most about Paris and its inhabitants is the honesty. Sometimes this can be brutal, often it is unsolicited. Every station in Paris, for example, displays signs warning of pickpockets. No beggar makes a secret of his desire to swindle you. Every waiter makes it abundantly clear that he is not there to ‘serve you’. The city does not attempt to sugar coat its flaws, yet the media continue to offer saccharine proclamations about beautiful landscapes and charming natives. The reality is that the Eiffel Tower looks decidedly unglamorous during the day and the ‘charming natives’ laugh in your face if you don’t speak French.[v] Despite its flaws, Paris remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world – the architecture is breath taking and the sprawling boulevards make perfect backdrops for the films that we have come to know and love. The media are willing to overlook the grime to focus on the spectacle. For this reason image and reality will continue to exist in separate spheres.
The Parisian Gentleman
Like his city, the ‘Parisian Gentleman’ is never quite what you expect, although that is not to say the two don’t have style. Parisian men have a unique way of dressing that has evolved in tandem with the rapidly expanding horizon of menswear. Androgyny and individuality are now both welcome. The ‘Parisian Gentleman’ will not infrequently wear a tailored suit with a patterned handkerchief poking from his breast pocket, or a pair of classic leather brogues with a pair of quirky socks. Black and white, by an overwhelming majority, are the colours of choice for the modern gentleman because this new breed of ascetic dandy knows that the devil is in the detail. In Paris, the distinction between daywear and eveningwear is increasingly blurred, so you’re just as likely to see a gentleman in dark slim-fit jeans and a crisp white shirt during the day, as you are to see him in tailored shorts and a bow tie. But Parisian style is not impractical. Urban life is tough and the city is, frankly, always freezing. For this reason, men appear to invest more in coats that are both sickeningly chic and sickeningly expensive. Every man has his own variation, but the classic navy pea coat and Burberry trench coat are the most popular choices – businessmen tend to wear them over a slick two-piece suit, more casual gentlemen team them with dark denim and leather boots.
The one distinction between English and French style is this sense of uniformity. France is a country renowned for its patriotism and tradition – the words Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité are ever-present – and its attitude to dress follows suit.[vi] Times are changing, but experimentation will probably only be tolerated to a certain degree. This is not necessarily a bad thing as innovation can often be done for its own sake, cluttering an otherwise flawless outfit. Besides, Parisian men find more sartorially subtle ways to express their personality – monogrammed bags, block-coloured scarves and unusual jewellery are just a few examples. Like the city itself, where real style is only found when you explore beneath the surface, the dress of the Parisian Gentleman may not be as polished as his stereotypes suggest, but it is far more interesting when you notice the characterful details. In essence, the Parisian man matches his outfit to his character – his presentation has wit and an abundance of charm. My wardrobe has followed suit. Piercings and gaudy knitwear have been replaced with moisturiser and a navy dress coat. A floor-length black scarf has become the accessory of choice. I never leave with home without jewellery. It is now the cut of my black trousers that makes them interesting, rather than the print. Men here respect men with style and, thankfully, I have received nothing but compliments from my European counterparts.
[i] C. Breward, Fashion (London, 2003), 172-82.
[ii] B.Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, tr. G. Bull (London, 1967), 135; G. Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (London, 1940).
[iv] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/europe/6197921.stm. Accessed: 3-xij-2013.
[vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libert%C3%A9,_%C3%A9galit%C3%A9,_fraternit%C3%A9. Accessed: 3-xij-2013.