April 29, 2022 | OPINION | By Katey Grealish | Illustration by Kira Schulist
As summer months and study abroad semesters draw near, many students will want to refresh their wardrobes. I predict many will draw inspiration from the trendy “French Girl” look, with its perfectly crisp button-downs, elegant, flowy dresses, and a pair of jeans that fits just right. Reminiscent of days spent reading in the sun, lounging on a picnic blanket, and biking down streets lined with smoke-filled cafes, this aesthetic is perfect for those looking to exude elegance and ease through their style.
The French Girl is a lifestyle of leisure embodied in fashion, reliant on the belief that something is naturally elegant (and naturally better) about French femininity. Her draw makes sense. She is effortlessly cool, stylish, and intelligent. She is also white, straight, generationally wealthy, and thin. By explaining the French Girl’s popularity as the inevitable result of inherent French coolness and femininity, we fail to understand how she is really a product of conscious efforts to advance economic and social interests.
The French Girl as we know her today got her start in the 1920s. Hoping to attract more customers, the designer Coco Chanel drew on styles from popular leisure to create an image of the fashionable, modern woman. Her project clearly succeeded because today’s consumers still want to look like the “French Girl.” Glossy writer Jessica Schiffer interviewed Charlotte Austin, editor at the fashion marketplace Lyst. Today, “emails and editorial articles on ‘how to get the French girl look’ consistently sell product,” Austin says.
The French Girl is a marketing tactic designed to sell merchandise. She is not necessarily an actual person you can become, despite companies often relying on this notion to sell you their $200 white blouse. The French Girl’s unattainability is particularly noticeable after you consider the social messages she promotes.
Author Anne Pfeiffer said it best: “the shirt borrowed from her boyfriend, which tells us that she’s straight; the bedhead, suitable only for certain hair textures; the vintage designer bag, ‘found rummaging through grandmother’s closet,’ in a show of generational wealth”. The French Girl reinforces harmful social constructs, namely the idea that white, wealthy, straight women are the standard of beauty.
Lauren Collins’ account of Pfeiffer’s deconstruction of the French Girl left out one more beauty standard: thinness. Rarely is the French Girl fat or even a regular size. She is almost always tall and lithe. She leaves out any woman not of that size, and she alienates those of racial backgrounds where other body types are more the norm.
By declaring thin, white women the standard of beauty, the French Girl others women of color. Luckily, this characteristic is starting to change as women of all sizes claim the French Girl aesthetic and share their looks online.
The French Girl is not based on a real person you can become. She is a manufactured identity intended on selling clothing and perpetuating harmful norms. As you plan out what clothes you will wear this summer or what items to pack for your study abroad, I advise you to consider the societal context that shaped the trends you pull from. The French Girl exemplifies why we need to undertake this task as consumers.
This does not mean you need to halt and reinvent your style if you realize its problematic origins. I often find influence in the French Girl aesthetic myself. What you should do is commit to better understanding where your style comes from. Recently, I’ve spent time reflecting on why the French Girl appeals to me and what implicit biases may lie in that. I’ve embraced the realization that the joy is not in becoming another person, but rather in taking inspiration from a source I like, acknowledging the limitations of that, and building my own individual style.