The subtitle of Tish Jett’s new book, Forever Chic, lets us know that this endeavor will be an exploration of “Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style, and Substance.” As predicted, Tish (who has done many instructive articles for us on this very subject) breaks down how and why we can learn from Frenchwomen who are considered “alluring, mysterious, and seductive” and who are wedded to “living a beautiful life . . . about style, simplicity, intelligence, and generosity.”
Although this sounds simple enough, we know—if we are truly honest with ourselves—that these are not easy tasks. That’s why so many books and advice columns (just Google “Frenchwomen style” and see for yourself) are dedicated to the subject. And why so many of us give up on them and opt to carve out—often clumsily, and through trial and error—a blueprint of style for ourselves. Jett’s particular attempt, however, provides many useful tips to follow and to learn from.
The author herself is no stranger to global style nor the French way of living. A noted fashion journalist, Jett has worked for Women’s Wear Daily and W, served as the style editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and later became the last editor of American Elle. She’s also the force behind the popular blog, A Femme d’Un Certain Age. And how did she end up living in France? She found love, of course. What else?
Beauty, style, and weight advice apart (yes, Jett addresses the popular and much-written-about notion of why Frenchwomen don’t get fat . . . or facelifts), what is most compelling about the book is actually the part about that ever-elusive, constantly shifting, not easily defined quality, Substance. Jett notes, “Style without substance is unacceptable, largely because it’s boring, one-dimensional.” And so in the vein of practicing what one preaches, Forever Chic is more than tips and tricks on being our better physical and stylish selves—it is full of lessons on how to (YES!) be a better person. The book’s strength lies in its anecdotes and wisdom on how women—those of us caught up in 21st century over-complicated, over-scheduled, over-committed, over-everything lives—can be more present and committed to living a fuller life of kindness, generosity, openness, and adventure.
Yet, as whimsical as the book’s tone and subject might seem on the surface, Jett touches on some serious issues women grapple with everyday: invisibility (she tells us that Frenchwomen believe “no one is invisible”), putting everyone else first, relying on material things to bring happiness, falling victim to idealistic notions of beauty and body image, measuring ourselves by other women’s standards and accomplishments, and that nagging feeling of guilt when we say “No.”
“Non is a word every French-woman pronounces with ease, every day,” writes Jett. “Follow-up excuses and explanations are not required. When a French-woman says no, she is also saying yes to making herself one of her priorities. Taking care of herself on all fronts keeps her en forme. . . ”
Just recently our own Suzanne Russell wrote about learning that very lesson when she returned to summer school:
“For the first time in as long as I can remember, I put my own desires first and, without guilt or compromise, went off to summer school . . . I had no obligations except to take care of myself and check in with my family every once in a while. I learned how to put myself first, and I am trying to keep myself there.”
Yes, there is much to learn from the French dames. Jett doesn’t want you to simply take her word for it. She resorts to the experts, both historical figures and contemporary heroines. The book is full of quotes and quips from the Frenchwomen we applaud and adore for their charm. We’re reminded of Coco Chanel’s wit:
“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.”
But it’s not all about appearance, sensuality, or sexuality. Jett reminds us that “centuries before the modern concept of feminism arrived on French soil, Frenchwomen were masters of wresting power through influence, and much of their power grew out of their femininity, their poise, and, of course their intelligence. Take Marquise de Pompadour for example, Louis XV’s lover, mother of seven of his children, and his close confidante.
“Long after her failing health made physical relations impossible, the Marquise de Pompadour remained a vital part of Louis XV’s life. He turned to her for her gaiety, her ‘lightness,’ her counsel, and her trusted friendship. He found respite with her that he treasured throughout their nearly twenty-three years together.”
Of course, in some minor instances, we American women reserve the right to say “No, thanks” to the French. Jett writes, “A Frenchwoman knows her strengths, conceals her weaknesses, and almost never—except with her closest friend—talks about her fears, failures, or flaws.” Well, we American women might more be of the mind that this business of concealing is not often the healthiest—one must know when to find the courage to be vulnerable and when to shirk our desires to aspire to perfection. However, Jett asserts that “We Americans have a tendency to tell everyone everything too quickly in a relationship, perhaps in an attempt to be liked.” In fact, Jett’s aversion to that awful habit of TMI—too much information—might be spot-on.
What Jett’s Forever Chic illuminates, with much humor, wit, and candor, is that Frenchwomen’s greatest secret is figuring out what’s required to be a woman of substance. Looking good and exuding style might just be secondary benefits.