In my last article, I explored some general answers to the eternal question: Why do French women d’un certain age tend to look better than the rest of us? For specifics, I turned to some of the friends and acquaintances I’ve known for 25 years.
One close friend, a painter, slips into her paint splattered jeans, equally decorated ballerina flats, a big shirt of her husband’s—and always, always eyeliner, mascara, and lip gloss. “I can’t be serious unless my eyes are done,” she once explained to me.
No French woman ever thinks, “I’ll just run out in this sloppy old jogging number, flip-flops and no makeup to buy a baguette, no one will notice.” She knows she is not invisible and she doesn’t care if she “doesn’t see anyone.” She has too much self-respect and self-esteem to be careless about her appearance. I know a woman who actually said she wouldn’t answer the door to the water-meter man if she hadn’t finished her makeup. “He’ll come back,” she said.
While we’re on the subject of fabricating a seemingly flawless façade, no French woman in her right mind would ask her husband or companion if he thought she had a large derriere or if he noticed she had gained weight. As one of my friends said, “Why would you point out anything negative, particularly if no one has noticed? It’s insane, non?”
Confidence is constructed over time and women of a certain age long ago built the foundation; they polish their image daily.
They firmly defined their style decades ago, what works for their figures and lifestyles. Therefore they have the solid fallback pieces ever at the ready. Of course they’ve handed over their minis to their daughters, granddaughters or nieces who are only too delighted with quality “vintage.” Their wardrobes, while reflecting their owners’ personalities, evolve with age. Skirts may (or may not) be slightly longer and not as figure hugging as they were, but the lengths still play around the knee and the pencil skirt remains the go-to favorite.
So what if the details become more important as we age? Does that make getting dressed and getting out there any less fun? Not for a French woman, it doesn’t. They do not see drudgery in dressing; it’s a pleasure. They love to primp and pamper their exteriors while always educating and expanding their intellects, their insatiable curiosity for life.
How many times have I heard women say they have no time for themselves? French women are as busy as we are. They carve out the time necessary to keep themselves looking and feeling en forme. Their wardrobes are well constructed and multi-functional. The pieces fall into place without hysteria. Their beauty regimes are simple, but efficacious. They spend serious money on their hair, which they consider an essential investment—thus no bad hair days, one less concern. No accessory or item of clothing goes back into the closet with a stain, a button missing, wrinkles. Details, details, details. Discipline, discipline, discipline.
Don’t think for an instant discipline is a dirty word. Discipline is liberating. Discipline means time is never wasted. My best friend, Anne-Françoise, mother of six, interior decorator, hostess extraordinaire, mistress of two large homes, told me she is lazy, which is why she is organized. “I could never accomplish anything if I lived in chaos,” she said.
Sometimes I open her linen closets and kitchen cabinets for inspiration. Everything is arranged not only logically, but also beautifully: pretty papers on shelves, lavender sachets snuggled among her crisp, ironed, ancient linen sheets.
We are all well aware of a French woman’s restraint on the food front. When she indulges, she either prepares in advance for a fête or repairs after the party. Either way, she keeps her weight within the range that makes her happiest.
But perhaps another area in her life where she shows remarkable restraint, while at the same time adding to her mystique, is in an assemblage of traits I’ve discovered and admire. She knows her strengths, hides her weaknesses and almost never—except with her closest friend—talks about her fears, failures or flaws.
As an American, I know we often tell everyone everything too quickly in a relationship, perhaps in an attempt to be liked. And sometimes we come to regret our indiscretions, our lack of discipline. French women are not overly concerned with being liked, and they know a soupçon of mystery is magic.
You can see I’m a fan of the species, and I have a few extraordinary friends who have taught me a great deal over the years.
I think if one were to ask me, “What is the single most important ‘lesson’ you have learned from your friendships and observations?” I would say: The smallest effort has major rewards, everything from setting a dining table with care—every day—to getting up, getting dressed, and getting out there to see what adventures the new day holds.
Simple pleasures make life rich. Age is irrelevant.
As Coco Chanel said: “I don’t understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little—if only out of politeness. And then, you never know, maybe that’s the day she has a date with destiny. And it’s best to be as pretty as possible for destiny.”