Zut! How Fashionable Is Paris in the Summer?

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Street scene in Paris' Latin Quarter: Somewhat less fashionable than Americans have been led to expect

“A fashion that does not reach the streets is not a fashion.”
Coco Chanel

Street scene in Paris' Latin Quarter: Somewhat less fashionable than Americans have been led to expect
Street scene in Paris’ Latin Quarter:
Somewhat less fashionable than
Americans have been led to expect

PARIS—And Coco should know. So since I was in Paris on June 21, the longest day of the year and the first day of summer, I decided to take advantage of the extended light in the City of Light (or Lights, as sometimes it goes) and look at what the Parisians are wearing on the streets this season.

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Isn’t Paris considered the leading city of fashion? Doesn’t it follow that Parisians will be the most fashionable citizens not only of their country but also the world? In answer to those questions, I’ll first ask readers to look at what they have on at the moment. Shorts, maybe? A T-shirt, maybe? Running shoes, maybe? Apparel equivalent to those, maybe?

If so, that’s what Parisians are wearing—and I don’t mean just anyone walking around, like tourists from the States or elsewhere. I mean honest-to-God Parisians and their children. They dress like you and me. When not distinguishable by the language they’re speaking, they look like you and me. They may not add a baseball cap to their shorts and T-shirts (although I saw one tyke in a Gap baseball cap), but they look exactly like us.

I know this comes not only as news but also as a shock to people who have their vision of Paris as one unbroken fashion runway. They want to keep the myth going. Otherwise, why go to Paris? If Parisians don’t care about maintaining their image, why spend all that cash to visit? If Parisians don’t wear berets, why bother?

And they don’t wear berets. On this trip as on all trips I’ve taken in the last couple decades, I didn’t see one beret, other than in souvenir shops. Alors, non, I did see a beret. It was illustrated on a T-shirt worn by a tourist. The beret sat atop a happy face under which was a gag line, “Pardon My French.”

American designers are what many of the French like to wear. Want to look like a Parisian woman or man? Wear something designed by Tommy Hilfiger or Ralph Lauren, who happens to have the most Parisian store in town on Boulevard St. Germain. Frenchmen have taken to the Ralph Lauren polo shirt not with the discreet polo player logo but with the exaggerated version, the one that megaphones, “I’M WEARING RALPH LAUREN,” or, in the instance of the French, “J’APPORTE RALPH LAUREN.”

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Also popular for years are T-shirts with funny slogans, like “I’m Never Wrong, and I’m the Boss.” My favorite was a black T-shirt announcing “New York Fire Dept.” It was worn by one of the local scam artists.

(The scam is that he spots a tourist and suddenly bends down in front of the potential dupe, produces a ring he says he just picked up and will sell to the dupe for next to nothing. Don’t fall for it even if the scammer wears a T-shirt with a slogan in English.)

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Funny Face Louvre
Not a faithful representation of the
contemporary Parisian’s everyday look
Audry Hepburn in Funny Face, 1967

I’m not saying the French aren’t well dressed. Many of them are, although they, like people everywhere, can be divided between men and women who know how to dress and men and women who only know how to put on clothes.

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To be as fair as I could be while wandering all over Paris, I made certain I took a stroll down Avenue Montaigne, one of the areas where the famous couturiers have shops. I continued into the 16th arrondissement, which continues to be inhabited by wealthier Parisians, the kind who are watchful of what they wear. Yes, diners in the sidewalk chairs at L’Avenue on Avenue Montaigne looked chic, but none looked as if he or she had just stepped out of an adjacent window. At a corner near Pont de l’Alma, a woman in a white pants suit and studded white heels looking for a taxi didn’t stop traffic—or a single taxi—but still appeared smart.

I was talking about this to Gary Lee Kraut, who’s lived in Paris for some years, who founded the FranceRevisited website and likely knows as much or more about the town as any American living there. Since he’s watched the more recent French evolution, he has plenty to say about the reluctance tourists have to accept the discrepancy between the Paris that is and the Paris based on threadbare clichés.

From what people consulting with him ask about dressing in Paris and environs, Kraut can tell they’re unaware and, worse, are misled by those who are supposedly in the position to know. He’s learned that tourists check websites where implied authorities have their say, and what they advise isn’t up to the minute.

I looked into it and found this Yahoo comment, for instance, aimed at women about what to pack for a Paris trip in June 2013:

While Parisians are fashionable, they are also timeless.

About shoes, Cheryl Montgomery also wrote on Yahoo:

[R]unning shoes in Paris are for running—not walking around. If you’d like to wear running-type shoes when sightseeing, buy a pair of slim-profile sneakers from Puma or Converse.

Gérald Pestmal's temporary garment for the statue of Marie de Médicis in the Luxembourg Gardens / via
Gérald Pestmal’s temporary garment for the statue of Marie de Médicis in the Luxembourg Gardens / via

Parisians are not necessarily any more fashionable than people everywhere, nor are they timeless in any immediately recognizable way. Yes, if nondescript shorts and nondescript tops are timeless, then Parisians are timeless. As for running shoes, Kraut insists that in Paris running shoes are not only for running. I can corroborate that. I wouldn’t have even begun to count the Parisians just sauntering in running shoes—and throughout this column I’ve considered men, women and children speaking French with a Parisian accent to be Parisian.

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The best-dressed person I saw in Paris? I’d have to say she was in the Luxembourg Gardens, where I went to scope out what the locals wear on a summer Sunday. The gardens were built from 1615 to 1645 for Marie de Médicis, who is still prominently present in the park.

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She’s there as a statue currently under repair. While in that state, she’s shielded by a long, large conical robe made of many topless floppy white cones. The protective cover is the work not of a couturier but the artist Gérald Pestmal. He’s the one who’s garbed Marie de Médicis so she’s this Paris season’s fashion icon—as surely she intended to be for much of the 17th century.