French women, common wisdom has it, have a certain je ne se quoi, that indefinable something. But we do know it hints not at the height of a French woman’s cheekbones or colour of her eyes, but at something innate, an air of confidence and seemingly effortless elegance, even if we can’t quite put our finger on it.
At a French Connection workshop held recently in Joburg as part of Lori Milner’s “Beyond the Dress” workshops being held around the country, image consultant and life coach Donna Rae Patricios sought to unlock the secrets of the legendary Parisian woman, whose style is effortless yet faultless, and who always seems comfortable in her own skin.
Iconic examples are fashion designer Coco Chanel and actress Catherine Deneuve, who although not classically beautiful, are considered among the most attractive and intriguing women in the world, women who left dozens of broken-hearted men in their wake, even in their autumn years.
“Many of us suspect it’s in their DNA, that French women are just spectacular looking and age well, but that’s not so,” says Patricios. “Simply, it is that they convey absolute confidence in themselves and in their own sense of style.”
Fundamental to their beauty is the fact that French women are born into a society that reveres fashion and style, “literally passed on from mother to daughter over generations”.
“So they know the basic rules of fashion and style. They are also fortunate in that the French revere women; that, as a culture, they appreciate and validate women as lovely and interesting,” she says.
“And ageing represents not a paling of that loveliness, but a maturity, intelligence and experience that makes them even more interesting. It is telling that while they are among the world’s biggest consumers of cosmetics and fragrances, their expenditure on plastic surgery and Botox is among the lowest.
“The foundation of their style is a sense of worth, a sense of ‘this is who I am, and I put it together my way’. It’s about knowing who you are and expressing it confidently through your dress.
“French women are internally driven, less influenced by fashion magazines and other media, and that is key. Consider, for instance, that lingerie is one of France’s biggest selling fashion markets. French women do it for themselves first and foremost,” she says.
By contrast, Patricios finds that South African women lack confidence in themselves. “I’ve image-consulted women who literally find it difficult, even traumatising, to look at themselves in the mirror. They don’t feel good about themselves. And, as a young consumer society, we are overly prone to all this marketing buzz, buying on-trend fashion that doesn’t suit us or fake designer knock-offs. A French woman would rather save up and buy a real Louis Vuitton bag than buy a fake,” she says.
And while being overweight afflicts us more than it does the French, many South African women are also obsessed with being body beautiful, she says, “overkilling it at the gym or getting breast implants”.
“When you see a 40-something woman with a gym-toned body with breast implants and dressed like a young woman, it’s a bit of a disconnect. It says again that, at heart, she doesn’t feel good about herself. In France, there’s a lot more appreciation for what you are about and have to say,” she says.
That said, French women are vigilant about keeping trim, and a visit to Paris, a city full of walkers, is testimony to this.
“They eat healthily and exercise, but they don’t deny themselves. There is no obsession with dieting. If they feel like a glass of wine or a dessert, they’ll have it. For the French it’s not all or nothing, but everything in moderation,” says Patricios.
Modern women’s lives are stressful, of course, and this remains one of the toughest challenges in terms of reclaiming the sexy, confident woman within. In a talk at the workshop, titled “Boardroom Burnout – Bedroom Blues”, clinical psychologist Dr Woolf Solomon told those attending that stress not only negatively affects self image, but can compromise sexual relationships “to the point that some couples just don’t engage in it any more.
“Many couples live celibate lives, but it is not ideal,” he says.
“Marriage in itself is stressful, because the differences between men and women can create a lot of conflict,” says Solomon, who reveals that the primary issues he deals with in relationships is communication breakdown, extra-marital affairs and substance abuse.
To reignite the spark, it’s important to set aside time, say a date night once a week, but also to function independently “so that the moments together are really appreciated”, Solomon suggests.
Equally important in rediscovering amour is, again, building inner confidence and pursuing a healthy lifestyle, “not just for your partner but for yourself”.
Solomon advises finding healthy ways to manage stress – “exercise is a non-negotiable” – and make the effort to look good.
“Self-esteem is the most powerful aphrodisiac.”
WHAT SETS THE PARISIAN WOMAN APART
Image consultant Donna Rae Patricios has these 12 tips to finding your inner French woman:
1. The most important style quality is self-confidence. Believe in yourself.
2. Don’t ignore the physical realities of your body shape, age, complexion and lifestyle. Dress in a way that flatters you personally, that’s practical and suits your lifestyle.
3. Dress your age, not your figure.
4. Get to grips with the colours that suit your complexion.
5. Frumpy dressing shouts “I’m not happy with who I am”. Make an effort. It’s true that if you look good, you feel good. Fake it until you make it.
6. Wear clothes that fit. Pulling and tugging at your clothes just makes you look awkward.
7. Don’t try too hard. Being “branded” from head to toe makes you look like a walking billboard.
8. Taste is a discreet accessory like a designer bag, a pair of well-made shoes, tailored pants. Understatement is the key to looking effortlessly stylish.
9. Learn the basics of style; that is, what works with ankle boots, what flatters a bottom-heavy figure or what works with a wide belt. Once you have the basics down, then you can be experimental with colours and mix up fabrics and patterns.
10. Use your intuition. Flip-flops are not for a visit to the lawyer’s chambers, and beachwear doesn’t work in corporate settings.
11. Take care of your skin and health and start right away. Most French women are taught from their girlhood to cleanse and moisturise, and to eat and exercise well.
12. Don’t be afraid of age, however. Fight off media and societal definitions and stereotyping about growing older. Consider ageing like the French do, like a bottle of wine maturing well.