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What I’ve Learned (and Unlearned) About ‘French Girl Style’ After 11 Years in Paris

I felt my husband’s eyes on me as I walked into the dining room for our ninth anniversary celebration dinner, in a way he hadn’t looked at me in years past. I sat before him, comfortable in a breezy Sézane dress with camel-colored sandals (also Sézane), a straw basket bag from Jamini, and a denim jacket from Comptoirs des Cotonniers that’s going on five years. He looked lovingly across the table, took my hand and said: “You’ve really changed since we’ve been together.” See, when we met 11 years ago, I barely had a clue who I was, let alone how to dress confidently or in a way that fit my body—and here I was, more at ease in my own skin than I’ve ever been, more than a decade later.

I arrived in Paris the summer of my twenty-first birthday. I brought with me two absurdly large suitcases packed with plenty of jean shorts, printed capri pants that hugged every curve, boot-cut jeans (the only pair I loved, that I considered confidence-boosting), a couple of late-nineties-era ankle-length skirts (from Delia’s), skin-tight colored tees, flowy tanks, running sneakers for everyday wear, several pairs of flip-flops that I rotated like accessories, and chunky earrings that made me feel dressed up no matter what I was wearing. I was an amalgam of various stores at the local mall and catalogs that landed in my parent’s mailbox. Like many other children of that era, I spent the bulk of my earnings from my various retail jobs at the likes of Express, The Limited, American Eagle, Forever 21, J.Crew (always the sale rack), and Modcloth. At the time I thought this fit my personality: outgoing, fun, and a bit nonconformist insofar as I was unwilling to be part of any one crowd. Or maybe I was trying to be different because I felt different.

Whatever was driving this penchant for vibrant colors, funky patterns, and fast fashion—which spanned the spectrum of too tight and too leggy to too cutesy—did not last long upon arriving in Paris. Unlike the other students that were a part of my study-abroad program that year, I wasn’t inculcated to believe pervasive myths about the Parisienne (that she is a superior being of ineffable elegance and femininity who instinctively knows what flatters her body, wears little makeup save for a ruby red lip or a smoky eye, and lives in ballet flats), nor did I expect my experience around them to unlock something in myself. I was there to speak French like a Parisian, bathe in the city’s history, assess whether I could envision living there after graduation and hopefully go on a few dates. I got what I expected, down to the Parisian boyfriend who became my husband. But I also began suffering from a near-crippling self-consciousness that would last long after I was married.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Lindsey Tramuta

The author, early into her life in Paris.

Back at my ninth anniversary dinner, I knew that my husband’s remark referred not merely to my appearance (the French-brand-heavy outfit, the barely brushed hair, the glossed lips) but rather to everything that’s inextricably connected to my sense of self as a 32-year-old woman—of someone who feels at ease in a city that doesn’t go easy on outsiders, no matter how long they’ve been adopted insiders. He went on to say that I have a confidence and style that finally seemed wholly my own. At the time he didn’t realize that he had extended one of the kindest observations he could have given me (far more thoughtful than platitudes about how nice I looked that evening). I thanked him and promptly ordered a glass of wine to celebrate not only our romantic evolution, but also this moment of sartorial contentment and personal satisfaction. After a decade of dalliances with different styles—both high and low—in an endless effort to get a firmer grip on my identity and understand how fashion may or may not inform that journey, it was a symbolic milestone worth marking with bubbles.

For many, style is an extension of themselves. It conveys their interests and their ascription to social, religious, or cultural groups. It also makes them easy to classify, to check neatly into boxes and assign worth based on appearances alone, which is something Parisians do almost unwittingly, a result of cultural conditioning that’s hard to shake off. For the first several years after my move, I was seen by neighbors, coworkers, and French friends strictly as une americaine—an expat, unthreatening but foreign all the same. And my clothing, the way it fit me and the way I carried myself while wearing it, locked that reality in place.

PHOTO: Christian Vierig

Model and author Caroline de Maigret at Paris Fashion Week.

But I am American—why shouldn’t I look it? It’s tempting to call it a generalization, but France unequivocally has a culture that encourages blending in, discretion, and low risk. They may be loud with their mouths, but when it comes to fashion, they’re far more understated. Uninhibited, anything-goes looks may be welcome (and now normalized) in cities like London and New York, but I knew that if I wanted to adapt quickly to this new city, I’d need to look more like a local.

Despite the many efforts to codify Parisian style, both in France (see: 2014’s How to be Parisian Wherever You Are) and abroad (read: the countless articles claiming to show you how to live your life like a “French girl”), a “local look” doesn’t exist solely in one form. It can’t be limited to Repetto-skinny-jean-wearing waifs in fitted blazers, or to the garçonne, perfected by Caroline de Maigret, with its loose-fit blouse and jeans, leather perfecto jacket, and shiny loafers. There are also Left Bank preps, the Right Bank bohemians, the nonchalant rockers, the flowery girl-next-door types, and the universally recognizable hipsters. Connecting them is a veneer of haphazard grooming, a calculated attempt to give the impression that their ensemble was hastily thrown together. I know because I’ve seen them all—on the streets or in the companies I’ve worked for—and tried their looks on for size. If style is a mask for our inner selves, then I slipped many of them on during my twenties.

PHOTO: Christian Vierig

A Paris Fashion Week attendee wearing a striped (marinière) shirt.

Throughout this formative decade, I dabbled in pieces from Zara (though I rarely left the dressing room in a state other than pure crisis—was it because of the poor lighting, or because I could never pull their jeans up above my calves? I’m still unsure) to Zadig & Voltaire, Mango, Kookai, and Maje; each so ubiquitous I couldn’t help but wander inside. I forced my feet into ballet flats, the de rigueur shoe before sneakers, loafers, and espadrilles took over years later, despite always finding them terribly uncomfortable. Never mind that I disliked almost all of it and never kept anything for longer than a calendar year—the pieces were all either poorly made, awkwardly cut, or simply not right for me from the beginning. I ignored the latter, given how concerned I was with my pursuit of unleashing the Parisienne in me. It wasn’t until I took a step back from my closet in 2011, just after beginning a new job, and realized nothing I owned felt like Lindsey.

I gave up shopping in Paris for a time; instead, I’d use trips home to Philadelphia and New York and work jaunts to London to pick up pieces from brands that felt more familiar and less aimed at a size-zero frame. Frustrated though I may have been, I had still learned a few things from my first five years of observing and engaging with locals, and I took these lessons with me in my shopping ventures abroad, namely: color isn’t verboten, it should simply be incorporated tastefully into an outfit, usually with accessories; go with what fits your body and skin tone, not what you wish you could be wearing; mix high and low—investment (and durable) items like handbags, shoes, pants, and jackets with more affordable tops and trend-driven add-ons.

There may not be a rulebook, but I saw this play out with everyone from my mother-in-law to my young, hip GP and my former boss. I interpreted all of this to mean that a Parisian woman does not see fashion as the ultimate expression of herself but rather as complementary to her mind, her talents, her opinions, and therefore it doesn’t need to be outlandish. What is compelling is how pieces are worn and the ways they’re lived in.

PHOTO: Christian Vierig

Photographer and author Garance Doré during Paris Fashion Week.

Abroad, I found myself drawn to labels like Madewell (which doesn’t have a presence in Paris…yet) for its earthy-toned Bohemian aesthetic and jeans that actually flattered my body; Banana Republic for its well-cut chinos and oversize sweaters that I wore over tees or button-ups; and, later, Everlane for its affordable but luxe staples and ethos of transparency, which appealed to my growing concern about where my goods were coming from and how they were produced. (To this day, my navy silk blouse from Everlane has yielded more compliments from Parisians than anything else I’ve worn.)

But I wouldn’t feel so out of my element with the retail options in Paris for long. Several years ago, trainers made their way from the runways of Chanel, Louis Vuitton (remember these?), and Isabel Marant (remember those?) into popular streetwear, meaning one of the more American aspects of my existing wardrobe could finally be brought out of the closet for daily wear.

PHOTO: Christian Vierig

Model Cindy Bruna during Paris Fashion Week Men’s.

Today, Parisians of all ages sport New Balance, Nike, Reebok, Vans, Veja, and Adidas revivals for day or night. Casualwear (which is the antithesis of the Sandro-Maje-B&sh sultry-girl aesthetic) spoke to me. And thanks to Instagram, which exposed shoppers to everything from Scandi minimalism to L.A. surf culture, there’s a wider diversity in styles seen across Paris. The most-trotted-out images of the Parisian woman, in all her marinière-skinny-jean glory, can still be found, but they now sit alongside women showing off their latest acquisitions—in athleisure, outdoor gear, 1960s-vintage, celebrity-endorsed fashions, African wax apparel, or label-less pieces they’ve unearthed from their travels around the world. Style, in many ways, has gone the way of many aspects of Parisian life: It is now informed by outside influence.

Feeling that shift toward greater openness helped relieve me from the weight of the Parisian élan. But if there’s a source of inspiration for my current style (which my best friend describes as modern Parisian with American roots, mixed with things I’ve picked up in my travels—“never overdone but not drab, either, it’s light, low-key bougie…. New York Times subscriber meets Afar reader”), it’s the Parisian women that I’ve worked or spent time with who introduced me to shops, designers, and artisans that have become fixtures of my wardrobe. Before, my style was about being different, if only slightly—but by dint of being foreign, no matter how French I become in mindset or on paper, I’m different enough. Now my aim is comfort, confidence, and quality.

PHOTO: Instagram/@lostncheeseland

The author in present day.

My allegiances are with brands or designers that satisfy those needs, and in many cases they happen to be European or European in spirit: Madewell (which I still love); French brands with a focus on wearable pieces that will still be hot years down the road, like Kitsuné, Sézane, Leon & Harper, Rivieras, Comptoirs des Cotonniers, Veja, and Saint James; Everlane, BLK DNM, Samsøe & Samsøe (for perfectly fitted trousers), and, as of very recently, Beija Flor, which makes the most comfortable jeans I’ve ever worn. I’ve traded chunky jewelry for studs and delicate chains I can wear with everything. I invest instead of spending thoughtlessly. I no longer chase after trends.

It took me nearly a decade, but I’m finally unapologetic about who I am and what I wear—a gift that came with turning 30, a pivotal point for many women. For me that meant self-assurance and an unwillingness to put up with any of the trivial neuroses (see above) that plagued my twenties. That comfort comes with time, Inès de la Fressange has said, after years of practice and trial and error. It’s why Brigitte Macron consistently wears tailored jackets and Lou Doillon is rarely seen without an oversize blazer and boots. They know what works for them. And it feels damn good to be able to say the same for myself.

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東京 University Of Tokyo. Creative Writer & Thinker. Music fanatic. I love my dog. Born & bred in Japan but frequent Los Angeles. Beauty & Fashion is my genre

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