Why I Refuse To Dress Like A French Girl

After living in Paris for a few years, I've come to see the trend in a different way.

Image: Wearingittoday.com

Type “French girl” into the search bar of any fashion magazine and you’ll get endless hits: the looks to steal from her closet, the makeup trends to emulate, an in-depth investigation into why they never get fat. By “French”, they usually mean the archetypal Parisienne: this mysterious creature with a wardrobe of graceful neutrals and the nonchalance to make them look prêt-à-porter-perfect. My friends and colleagues also laud French fashion as the epitome of style: the perfect marriage of simple and chic. I don’t deny it — many of my favorite fashion houses are French, and I love a Sandro leather jacket just as much the next (French) girl. However, after living in Paris for a few years, I’ve come to see the look in a different way.

I moved from New York to Paris the fall after my college graduation, having sworn to myself during a seven-month stint abroad that I would find my way back. A few days after my flight, I met up with a French friend that I hadn’t seen in a year for bubble tea in the Quartier Asiatique. After exchanging greetings, the first thing she told me was how she had spotted me as soon as I emerged from the metro. “French girls don’t dress like that," she said, referring to my flower-print summer dress almost pedantically, as though transmitting some essential piece of cultural know-how. 
Even if it were true, I didn’t care. After four years in New York, I had developed a whatever-goes approach towards fashion. Instead of polished neutrals, I rotated a collection of colorful sweaters and got a kick out of mixing plaids. On a chilly October day about a year ago, I busted out with an ensemble that combined all these elements: a tartan skirt paired with a plaid button-down, wrapped together with a wiry mustard cardigan and knit tights. For that autumnal touch, I applied a coat of Russian Red to my lips. I felt good – confidant with the poise only a curated outfit can give.

Standing in the metro, I noticed a man – tall, greying and slightly hunched over, staring at me – a particularly unkind expression on his face. When I got off, he had followed and was keeping up with my pace. Trying to shake off my mounting fear, I turned sharply into the exit, charging up the stairwell with the anonymous faces around me. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw him move towards me, heard a low, perverse voice hissing a stream of sexual and racist epithets into my ear. I reached the top of the stairs and, catching one final glimpse of his twisted face, I ran.
Diana at the WTG offices.
This was first time in Paris I feared for my personal safety, but it wasn’t the last. In my New York naïveté, I had assumed that what I wore didn’t matter. But as an Asian woman in France, I gradually realized that not making the requisite effort to dress “French” had its consequences. If I dressed “correctly” – that is, in classic monochrome Parisian – I successfully assumed my role of demure urbanite, subject to no more than the harmless, but still obnoxious, ni-hao. However, I noticed that if I refused to conform through dress, in so highlighting my already-obvious foreignness, I somehow became an easier target for everything from racial slurs to physical aggression.

The truth is that in France, a formal and informal imposition of “French fashion” has been in-the-making for years, effacing garments that deviate from traditional ideas of “French-ness” in the public space. In a move widely considered to target the Muslim community, the French parliament voted in 2004 to ban the wearing of overt religious symbols from public primary and secondary schools, including crosses, kippahs and hijabs. In 2009, former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s remarks about Muslim full-body veils and face coverings “not [being] welcome” in France led to banning the burqa and other face coverings in public places a year later. Last summer, it was the burkini that came under attack, with multiple local governments attempting (ultimately unsuccessful) bans and the Prime Minister declaring the swimsuit “a provocation of radical Islam”. 

Image: Hercampus.com

These acts reveal a nation mired in doubts and fears over immigration and "islamisation," a nation where garments that are considered liberating and empowering for some have become symbols of radicalized oppression for others. For as much as fashion is supposed to be about individuality and self-expression, it is just as much or even more concerned with belonging, with borders, with providing an easy visual code for who’s in and who’s out. For me and many other residents, fitting in and just feeling safe in France has often meant the obligation to rid ourselves of traces of difference — if physiologically impossible, then at least through the way we dress.
I often think back to that encounter in the metro, replaying the scene over-and-over in my head in a futile attempt to rewrite the past. I’m not sure how I feel about my fashion choices anymore, and it’s difficult to distinguish between the desire to wear a certain outfit and my reflex to camouflage, to pass incognito in a city where being foreign can attract ridicule or even malice (is it any surprise that the French word for "foreign" also means "strange": étrange). "French style" has become something like a shield, and non-adherence can feel dangerous. But I’m trying to hold my head up high, to wear what feels right regardless of unsolicited opinions, and to move freely in a public space that should be open to all, regardless of who we are and the way we dress.
One day, I would love to see French women from a diversity of backgrounds and religions, taking up spaces that assume white universality with their own style and culture. But for now, we march into the streets, bright colors blaring, legs showing, hijabs wrapped tight and gaze fixed. We wear what we want. We speak, and we don’t apologize to anybody.

Here's a selection of loud and proud pieces that'll be sure to brighten up any Parisian capsule wardrobe:
ASOS Hoodie With Frill Sleeve and Spliced Print - $46
Zara High Waisted Patches Jean - $70
Topshop Tall Paint Floral Tea Dress - $90
Kenzo Appliquéd striped cotton-blend sweater - $345
ASOS Club L Plus Velvet Wrap Dress - $43
Zara Sweatshirt with Patches - $50
Miguelina's Pamela printed cotton-voile printed cotton bra ($200) and wide-leg pants ($400)