Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review: French Style (1993)

"If women did not exist, all the money in the world would have no value."

Remember vanity tables? My mother had one when we lived in the Philippines, before we moved to the U.S., and I think it still exists somewhere, in some distant relative's home. It had a huge, sort of circular mirror and a few little drawers on either side, plus a nice, deep, polished surface in the front which my mom filled with her various perfumes, powders, cosmetics, skin creams, and hair accessories. Somewhere in storage are dozens of photographs of me and my two younger brothers hanging around that lovely table -- we were endlessly fascinated with it and the treasures it held, as evidenced by the thick layer of white powder we always seemed to sport in those early photographs.

French Style, published in 1993 by the clothing company Express (for whom writer Veronique Vienne served as spokesperson at the time) and quite an improvement over a similar book entitled French Chic (by Susan Sommers) from the 1980's, reminds me so much of that vanity table. Vienne, French writer and de facto ambassador of French culture and style, penned this loving homage to the elusive magic of French Style (her caps), complete with large, dreamy photographs of everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Anjelica Huston, as well as whimsical line drawings of everything from the traditional French waiters' vests to the legendary shopping halls of Paris.

Vienne's writing style can be erratic at times, as I've mentioned in previous reviews -- she has an occasionally irritating tendency of floating off into tangents. Still, her metaphors are so divine and so rich in emotional color that it's easy to overlook the random flights of verbal fancy. She navigates the expansive landscape between American pragmatism and French extravagance and happily bridges the gaps between them, offering her American readership the hope of capturing that quintessential French Style and making it our own. Vienne, who has spent a number of years in the U.S., does to fashion what Mireille Guiliano does to food and wine -- she nimbly translates the complexities of French dress and attitude and makes us believe that we, too, can accomplish what our French sisters seem to do so effortlessly. Vienne firmly believes that "French women are made, not born," and French Style does a yeoman's job in convincing us (well, this reader anyway!) that, yes, it really is true.

Francophiles anxious to plumb the secrets of French style will be delighted with this book, which offers not only endless inspiration via its enormous number of photographs and illustrations but also concrete tips on how to emulate your French counterparts without losing yourself in the process. She touches on everything from the history of French royalty and their critical role in the evolution of fashion and style, to the shopping style of the modern French woman. (I was happy to note that Vienne agrees with the advice I offered in yesterday's post, namely that one should always embark on a shopping expedition with the knowledge of what one wants to accomplish. Observing street fashion, perhaps by spending a few hours at a favorite cafe or other well-trafficked people-watching spot, and even browsing through magazines will give you plenty of background research on what styles and fashions might look smashing on you.) She explains in great detail the French woman's goal of "shocking les bourgeois" through one's dress and even provides a useful "Glossary of Key French Words" to assist the reader in interpreting French style to suit her own circumstances and style ambitions.

Most importantly, Vienne reminds us that looking like a French woman doesn't actually require that one be a French woman, and she points to Ms. Huston as a sterling example. The two-page photographic spread of the actress near the center of the book is indeed mesmerizing, and one can't help but agree with Vienne's assessment that she looks "more French than a French woman," and that she has "too much je ne sais quoi to be merely fashionable." Studying Ms. Huston -- lying on a bed, her arms cradling her head and her mysterious eyes staring at the camera with maddening nonchalance -- I forget that she's not French and wonder how I too can channel that aura of deep sensuality and intelligence.

And then there's the memory of my mother's vanity table and what it symbolized. What lingers in my mind long after I've turned the last page in the book is Vienne's description of the traditional lingerie. Contrary to what you might think, the word in this context refers to the room just off the boudoir that serves as a "private sanctum for clothes." Here is where the French woman transforms herself into the unforgettable silhouette on the street, where she performs the mundane tasks of dressing (ironing everything from jeans to underwear; rummaging through her piles of blouses; trying on countless pants) and eventually emerges as, well, the French Woman. Vienne then helpfully points out that French women who live in more modest homes typically commandeer a corner of the master bedroom, outfitting it with a dressing table, some chairs and a folding screen. It's their secret garden, so to speak, a place where they can relax and indulge at leisure in the arts of femininity.

My mother's vanity table served just that purpose as well. Vanity tables were once quite common in most American homes. You see it often in old movies, complete with a little vanity chair, but nowadays most women -- myself included -- are lucky enough to get a decent shower in the morning, much less a few minutes of pure indulgence at the vanity table. If we're truly fortunate, we might have an entire corner of the bathroom counter to call our own, with the linen closet or medicine cabinet or even the undersink cabinet to serve as the repository for all the extra beauty supplies in our arsenal. (B. and I share a tiny bathroom counter, taking turns using it in order to preserve marital bliss. Because there is literally only a few square inches of space around the small sink, we each have a little white plastic basket that carries our toiletries and which we stow away in the linen closet when we're done with our ablutions.) We may have overstuffed closets, wardrobes, massive flat-screen TV's, oversized chairs, and perhaps even hope chests in our bedrooms, but real vanity tables? Not likely.

French Style serves as a beautiful reminder of the priority we should place on nurturing ourselves, of seeking pleasure and happiness in our womanhood, and of bringing back the vanity table into our boudoirs, if not in reality then at least in spirit. It's an instruction manual, a history book, and a self-help tome, all wrapped into one elegant, well-designed softcover book. Vienne is utterly convincing in her conviction that absolutely anyone can have French Style, and the real value of this book is her ability to make the process seem not only quite simple, but also truly pleasurable.

Note: I'm not normally in the habit of reviewing out-of-print books, but I couldn't resist this one. lists this book as available through third-party sellers, but as of this writing, pricing started at US$125.00. It's a great book, but unless you're a collector, it's not worth that ridiculous price. Instead, use your public library's magnificent Interlibrary Loan service, which in my opinion is one of the finest, best things about America. Take what you can out of the book, and then return it so that others can enjoy it as well. And do let me know what you think!

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