Published on October 19th, 2014 | by Nathalie Monsaint-Baudry5
A matter of style
In French, to say that someone is stylish, is slightly different from saying that she has a certain style, or a very definite style. Intuitively, we all feel what style is about in French. Besides, on a larger scale, we can talk about American style, Italian style, British style and French style. Look at any airport crowd, you can almost unmistakenly tell which nationality people belong to: the shoes they wear, the luggage, clothes, the way they move around, body language, attitude. We can also easily understand that style is a matter of individual combinations. To have style the Italian way will most likely include some key ingredients that are common amongst the men and women of the Italian Peninsula. They tend to wear hip, classy shoes, well-designed clothes, and they move fast. By all means, this alone does not suffice for them to automatically qualify as stylish or classy in their own culture. Americans are recognizable through their need for elbow room, the ability to take naps just about anywhere, including on an airport couch, their wearing casual clothes while a more formal attire would be expected, their being vocal and loud, etc. We understand through these examples that there are definite styles linked to cultures, and as many styles within those same cultures, along with good and bad taste.
When evoking French style abroad, first comes to mind a stately style. To add a French touch, to adopt a French style, the French paradox, even French doors are positive statements, glamorous, swank even luxurious. We all believe there is an idea of sophistication in French style, conveyed by its ambassadors such as perfumes, the fashion industry, wines, works of art, Michelin-starred gastronomy. We know of German style via its high precision design, while French style mostly comes from the combination of artistic, luxurious and creative inspiration. The idea of French style therefore refers to the famous gardens of Versailles by Lenôtre, the subtle and rare wines from Burgundy, as well as to the daily baked crusty baguette, and to champagne. It is always about being exceptional, rare, fresh, non-processable, as unique as a work of art.
In America, comfort comes before style
« […] the Spanish or Mediterranean revivals were not the only styles that were beautifully designed. All of these architects were equally proficient in other historic modes – The Norman French Provincial, the English Tudor, The Colonial Revival, the Greek revival, and later the Monterey Revival (Adaptation of the Classical revival to adobe architecture that we have come to call the Monterey style) and even the Art Deco (Zigzag) Moderne, the Egyptian Revival, touched off by the discovery of King Tut’s Tomb in 1922 […]. Pueblo revival, pre-columbian revival. »
Gebhard, David & Winter Robert, Architecture in Los Angeles, Gibbs Smith, 1985.
Take the French countryside which varies in style according to the regions, the weather, and the local building materials. For example, North of France would go for grey slates for roofing solutions, while the South opted for orange clay tiles. Hay roofs are to be found in Normandy and Brittany, and stones instead of tiles called “lauze”, are to be found in southern regions. The local building stone varies considerably according to where you are: from granite in Brittany, white tufa stone in the Loire Valley, wooden chalets in the Alps, to the dry-stone constructions in the Ardèche region. Colors do vary too, from the Basque country red, the pastel blue from the Gers region, or the soft blue shutters from the Vendée département. There is nothing in common between the warm hues ranging from the yellow to the reddish ochre façades in the Croix-Rousse district of Lyon, and the greyish white of the XVIIIth century historic Ile Feydreau district of Nantes.
In the United-States, we all know that a house in San Francisco has little to do with a home in Baltimore or in Louisiana. A definite East Coast look, New England style, with red bricks, some plaster moulding, and faux-finish columns, or Nantucket style, Long Island style, soft colored woods. In California, each decade or so inaugurates a cycle introducing a revival of architectural trends: Mexican pavers were in, French country style, then Mediterranean style. It is not unusual to come across radically different neighborhoods within the same city: a developer can decide to build a New England style mansion that is upscale, and in a gated-neighborhood community next to a more middle-class Mediterranean adobe-style single family home tract. This results in a patchwork of communities corresponding to the status you belong to and a composite cityscape combining glamorous and grandiose stylish residences and non-descript residential areas. There is a disconnect between the actual house and the local geographical rationale.
The average American home tends to follow the trends. A country-style family room could be next a formal Queen Ann of Tudor style dining room, leading to a non descript sitting-room. Style becomes à la carte, a juxtaposition without any unity. In the do-it-for-me tradition, well-to-do Californians tend to hire an interior designer to handle the whole project from A to Z, including synchronizing all details, such as color matching your sofa with the pictures hanging over it. It is rather common to call for a professional to showcase or homestage the property you are putting up for sale. Typically, furniture is rented out to enhance your home and have it look its best to sell well and fast. This is coming to France too. Decluttering the home, and getting rid of eyesores – the result is the appearance of a model home. The only acceptable personal touch that may remain are the numerous frames of family pictures, showing weddings, births, graduations, or a complete family photo album with a beaming smiling family. The house for sale must neutralize all personal touches from its current owners as to not interfere with the purchasing decision of a potential buyer who needs to project his future family life in neutral surroundings.
The most adopted indoor colors range from the off white, beige to egg shell neutral tones so as not to be too different. Neutral tones allow the house to remain impersonal. To be different is not necessarily a compliment in America. Acceptable hues are the ones found with Calvinist artist such as Rembrandt: browns, blacks, beige, while Rubens’ palette, a Catholic artist, adopted a more vibrant and daring color range. It is no surprise that French and Italian interiors combine vivid, boisterous tones, such as red and warmer shades. Because it has been reduced to its most neutral color, the American home leaves little room for customization. Americans will therefore customize their cars, as an extension of the self, car tuning, vanity plates, simply because they are still nomad by culture. Mobility riding a horse or a motorcycle, or driving an automobile boils down to the same desire of being on the go. This may explain why the home might be like a temporary shell, a good investment you can buy and sell, or move out of without leaving much of your soul behind. Many American homes look like model homes, with immaculate picture perfect European kitchens. Americans can sell their homes to down size and settle in a mobile home, deciding to live in a camper during retirement, or drive across America in an Airstream camper. The American remains an eternal pioneer. An American lifestyle, it is for sure.
The very French idea of the extended family home has no real equivalent in America. We like homes with a soul in France, bearing the marks of past generations is actually very reassuring, it contains the family memory. Even the smallest Parisian apartment leads us to a unique universe, cosy, with an ambiance directly inspired by its owner. Here you find an Empire Style chest of drawers next to a designer leather sofa, a Bouillotte lamp sheds its gentle light on a mahogany console, a Persian rug lies over a honeybee fragrant waxed hardwood floor, useless objects contribute to adding mystery, real leather bound books garnish the shelves of an antique library bookcase… although, even in France, we purchase fewer books than before, we might possibly see tablets everywhere… It is a matter of style here too.
Elaborating on the idea of the French Grand style, let’s consider the chair with its French, precious XVIIth and XVIIIth century style variations. The French will prefer the Louis XVIth chair, even the XXIst century adaptation revisited in its plastic version by Philippe Stark. Although this elegant XVIIIth century chair is probably the most unconfortable one, forcing one to sit in a rigid manner, the French will go for the most elegant and precious chair in the world, with its story-telling French Toile fabric upholstery, adorned with its carved gilded motifs of ribbons, bows and roses wraping the whole chair together in a garland. It is certainly the most qualified contender to the idea of what a beautiful chair should look like – should such a contest decide to elect one! Anyhow, it is for sure a cultivated chair, dignified as if aware of being superior aesthetically speaking. Culture is about this too, adding meaningfulness to usefulness. Being and Beauty. An insignificant object becomes an objet d’art. Italy has always followed beauty for the sake of beauty.
Even if Ralph Lauren created a real elegant, sober, off white and comfortable style, synonymous with good taste, like the Kennedy’s in the 60’s, Americans will follow comfortable and practical considerations first as well as usefulness. Aesthetic preoccupations never were priorities in American History. The French will side with beautifully designed objects with intrinsic beauty, or uniqueness, over comfort. When Crocs footware introduced brightly colored plastic shoes, emphasis was on how comfortable they were. Covering up the foot under a plastic shell giving it a slouching look or highlighting the natural curve of the foot on a sculpted pedestal heel made of materials, you choose. In France, custom-making shoes in the Massano shoemaking tradition still exists. We understand why Louboutin and his legendary stiletto shoe is making a killing. Embroidery from Lesage adds relief to fabric. In France, our pleasure is to add complexity wherever we can. We elaborate on everything, literally adding depth.
The French woman and the aesthetic faux pas
One thing is for sure, being French means to fight for it on all fronts. The French would rather err on the aesthetic side than capitulate, even if that translates into blisters. French women work out wearing full make-up, this is appalling to American women who really sweat it out. Even if things do change everywhere, a globalization of style is noticeable, the French are still shocked to see American women go for sports shoes while wearing conservative business attire. This is a major eye sore, or an aesthetic blunder. The French woman would rather suffer rather than surrender to practical and lower considerations. They excel at dressing their children up with expensive, real outfits made out of cotton that require ironing (who would consider ironing infant clothes in today’s America?), as well as maintaining immaculate whiteness. In the US, children’s wear must be comfortable, such as jumpsuits. Shortcuts are the norm in America, explaining that we typically get rid of silverware via garage sales simply to avoid the chore of polishing it. Thank God for disposable tablewear! We do not dress up a table as they still do in France with fine linen or organza tablecloths. A paper tablecloth will just do fine. Even if in France things do change too.
The image of the French woman abroad seems to equate with the Parisian as if she were the quintessence of it all. Arsène Houssaye wrote in The Artist, in 1869: “ The Parisian is not fashionable, she is fashion“. This might be a fragile archetype today, have a look at the Parisian crowd over the London one, it certainly is not more elegant. We no longer dress up, people go out to the opera wearing jeans which is a decision in itself, a fashion statement per se. However, it is undeniable that you still find in Paris and other large French cities, that definite style and the awareness of being stylish and rather chic: nonchalance, refinement, aesthetic acuity, controled and casual understated chicness. Style does not happen by decree. One was not born with style either. And it goes without saying that it is not because you wear Dior from head to toe that you will be granted any style. French and Italian women are in the know and have it down to an art form. It is called the je-ne-sais-quoi, precisely because it is impossible to pinpoint and to translate into English.
It would be counterproductive to attempt to give a definition of French style, hence the innuendos, an abundance of antonyms to explain what style is not about. Style does not boil down to mixing and matching everything, seeking perfect coordination. It takes savoir-faire, intuition and flair. You may pair some items one day, accentuate a detail there, soften one next. Style is a construction and a deconstruction on a daily basis. It is dynamic, not a permanent state. Style is not the sum of its parts either and is not encapsulated in a check-list. It is in the way you move, your gait, the way you talk, it lies in the whimsical combination of putting things together to be different and only borrowing the strict minimum you need to just be yourself. Style you now understand becomes inseparable from being. What you wear is an important detail, but a tiny detail compared to the overall style. For a French woman, an aesthetic faux-pas would be to follow a recipe by the book, it is an admission of a complete lack of personality. The more you stay away from processes and the more détours you follow, the more of your personal signature you contribute, the more likely style will come out of it. This is as true about fashion as it is about fine cooking. In short, French style has retained the exact definition from the Latin word it was borrowed from: stilus, that gave estile in Old French where the English word comes from. It means stem, a mint mark, and a pointed writing instrument, hence a literary and a writing style. We also understand the variations in penmanship and why Italics were invented in Italy. Cursive handwriting allows a more personal style connecting all the words, with looped ascenders and descenders, while block letters or the print writing format just looks typed, word processed fonts.
Process kills style
To conclude, one thing is for sure, countries where personal style is encouraged, appreciated and likely to exist, are those following fewer processes. Italy being the perfect example, the word sprezzatura – almost impossible to translate into other languages – encapsulates the idea of Italian style. Style belongs to the Arts, and art de vivre. Literature offers us great pages describing the differences between abundance and process – the American way – versus uniqueness, scarcity, homemade, unpredictability – The French way. In Democracy in America,Tocqueville wrote in 1832 Of The Spirit In Which The Americans Cultivate The Arts: “But there are only two ways of lowering the price of commodities. The first is to discover some better, shorter, and more ingenious method of producing them: the second is to manufacture a larger quantity of goods, nearly similar, but of less value. Amongst a democratic population, all the intellectual faculties of the workman are directed to these two objects: he strives to invent methods which may enable him not only to work better, but quicker and cheaper; or, if he cannot succeed in that, to diminish the intrinsic qualities of the thing he makes, without rendering it wholly unfit for the use for which it is intended. When none but the wealthy had watches, they were almost all very good ones: few are now made which are worth much, but everybody has one in his pocket. Thus the democratic principle not only tends to direct the human mind to the useful arts, but it induces the artisan to produce with greater rapidity a quantity of imperfect commodities, and the consumer to content himself with these commodities.”
Honoré de Balzac, in Beatrix, wrote in 1839: “Modern industry, working for the masses, goes on destroying the creations of ancient art, the works of which were once as personal to the consumer as to the artisan. Nowadays we have products, we no longer have “works.“” Finally, American writer, Henry James, wrote in the American Scene, 1907: “ As the usual, in our vast crude democracy of trade, is the new, the simple, the cheap, the common, the commercial, the immediate, and, all too often, the ugly, so any human product that those elements fail conspicuously to involve or to explain, any creature, or even any feature, not turned out to pattern, any form of suggested rarity, subtlety, ancientry, or other pleasant perversity, prepares for us a recognition akin to rapture. These lonely ecstasies of the truly open sense make up often, in the hustling, bustling desert, for such “sinkings” of the starved stomach as have led one too often to have to tighten one’s aesthetic waistband.“
Consequently, aesthetics play a large part in the idea of style, the je-ne-sais-quoi, the most unlikely personal and unique combination, the one-of-a-kind work of art bearing the artist’s signature, singularity, the non-duplicable, are all elements of style that will be given little consideration in the mass production rationale where process and norms are guarantors of quality, and not like this is still the case in France (phew!) ! Today’s special, the plat du jour, or the chef’s signature dish depends on exceptionally fresh local produce and the mood of the day! Style does matter, it is a matter of style in fact.