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On My Nightstand/French Style

February 6th, 2010

Leone’s Italian Cookbook — my Italian father sent to this me as a surprise gift in the mail. It has this great story in the beginning about how this Italian woman living in NYC dreamed of opening a restaurant but her husband didnt’ think it was appropriate. She was such a good cook, however, that he left one morning saying he was having some friends over from the opera that night and could she make dinner? Sure, she said. How many people? 50, he said. No problem.

Well, one of the diners was Caruso and by the end of the night (which was also her birthday) he had talked her husband into allowing (how archaic right?) to open a restaurant. The first one was in her living room. A few years later, after it had moved to a separate location of course, they were serving 6,000 dinners a night!

The Human Stain by Philip Roth — I glanced at the beginning of this and now am wondering if I have read it before. But it is one of those must reads at least once in your life so I’ll give it another glance before back to the library. (You would think a “must read” would leave more of an impression, though, right?)

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann — Another library book. It is falling apart and doesn’t look like it has been checked out since the 1940s. However, I am already caught up in the story, which so far is about a rambunctious makeshift family of kids who lived next door with their grandparents.

The Nautical Chart by Arturo Perez-Reverte — I adore this author and snatched this up at the thrift store last week.

Reading Lolita in Tehran — another thrift store buy I will wait to read.

Brava Valentine  by Adriana Trigiani — the only thing keeping me from devouring this is pretending it is not there. My bookclub meets next week and it will be my turn to introduce the book. I will probably start and finish it that day!

French Style by Veronique Vienne — I must say that despite different reviews on the French Chic board and the exorbitant cost of this out-of-print book, I loved this book, which got through interlibrary loan. For those who don’t have access to it from a library or who don’t want to spend $100 on a book they haven’t read, here are a summary of the parts I loved and copied down into my journal. One section has stuck with me for the past few days — the idea of discovering your silhouette. This has really made an impact on me and how I plan to dress. I’d be curious about your thoughts on these excerpts. Also, what do you think of the wardrobe “must haves” at the end. She includes black jeans (?) and a Hermes scarf.

EXCERPTS: This begins with some rules Vienne gave on how to dress like a French Woman. I paraphrased no. 2, it said something about wearing the wrong things like white shoes, satin gloves and plastic jewelry. I am a former journalist so if you see this … it usually means something was ommitted in the quote. I tried to do this whenever appropriate, but may have missed a few.

FRENCH STYLE

 

1. Don’t wear clothes that wear you. Do learn how to walk. When you enter a room, people should feel the undertow. Use the muscles in your hips and your thighs. The more calories you burn when you walk, the taller you look.  French Style flatters people, not their clothes.

2. Don’t add finishing touches … when you have all the “right” accessories, you look like a matron. French Style is improvisation.

3. Don’t expect your mirror or your scale t0 tell the truth. Do ask your friends for tips, advice and addresses. Expect your older sister to be brutally honest. Her candor can be more effective than a crash diet. French Style — people talk about it.

4. Don’t buy overpriced basics. Do go bargain hunting. Wear secondhand paint-splattered jeans, thrift shop T-shirts and authentically frayed-at-the-edge plaid shirts. French Style is good champagne, costly perfume and a great haircut.

5. Don’t go by the book. Do check the real fashion scene. Take public transportation. Watch kids and teens at the mall. Linger in restaurants or cafes. Notice how people walk, sit and talk. French Style is Street Smart.

6. Don’t look “expensive.” Do admit that you long for a rich husband, a millionare aunt, a generous trust fund, a country estate in Provence. But never forget your own worth and never wear clothes that you cannot afford. French Style is your most precious asset.

————————————————————-

To dress like a French Woman, don’t try to look like a model – try to be a role model. Think of the next generation; give them something to aspire to. Try to imagine yourself thorugh the eyes of those who don’t know you, as well as those who adore you. Think of looking your best as something you do for your own sake and for the sake of everyone around you …

The following will help you see yourself in the way others see you: Imagine walking down the street: the choice of a silhouette is your most important decision. Determine how you want to look from a distance. Ask yourself: who is this elegant woman coming toward me — and what is she wearing? A roomy jacket with slim pants? A sinuous and flowing dress? A tailored and slick suit? Trust that first impression it defines you.

(NOTE: HERE IS WHAT POPPED INTO MY MIND — the silhouette and style I want to define me, a stay-and-work-at-home mom):

the perfect jeans, the little heels, the casual but subtly sexy blouse, the casual tote, the nonchalance of it all

AND

with the unique jacket and messy hair — effortless elegance

(Now back to the book:)

What’s French? be different … lots of bracelets … black with navy … iron your T-shirt … understate … large loop earrings … cleavage … improvise …

Choose a role that matches your personality: like a good actress, put on a costume that fits your character and enhances the situation. Do you want to make an entrance? Wear a red suit. Do you want to be a team player? Wear a navy blazer. Do you want to be the belle of the ball? Wear a glamour dress.

Fashion is a language. Use it to communicate your intentions. Present a consistent image. Don’t change your style all the time. Take a lesson from men. Wear the same type of outfit all week long and select accessories that are unmistakably yours.

(NOTE: Check back at my blog and My French Corner’s blog on Monday — we are beginning a weeklong dual series called: “1 sweater 5 Ways” that will demonstrate this philosopy. Now, back to the book)

“I’ve got nothing to wear”

This timeless expression is the one and only fashion concept a woman every needs. Less is more. Spareness is the essence of style. …

To dress with flair, the French woman reads all about it in fahsion magazines — and then forgets it all. But beware. There is a difference between ignoring fashion altogether and choosing to disregard it. It’s the difference between cool and boring, crisp and bland, polished and dull. Remind yourself that you’ve got nothing to wear, but don’t dress negligently. Elminate superfluous and excessive detail. Get rid of the pretension. Simplify …

Learn to be surprising, not obvious. Dress as you normall would — and then take off a thing or two: remove your earrings and slick your hair back. Take off your jacket and throw a sweater over your shoulders. Remove the logo from your jeans … hide your hair under a hat, a scarf or a turban.

Le Shopping

Unlike the American woman who loves to save money, the French woman loves to spend it, but sparingly. She compares value, not price, and calls any purchase that delivers what it promises a bargain. She gets as much pleasure dropping some change on a cheap-and-chic necklace as she gets splurging on a costly luxury. Money well spent is money that buys a sense of worth. The more expensive items test her self-esteem more than her sense of style.

She reviews the contents of her closet and makes a wish list – but leaves the list on the kitchen table. If you can’t remember what you wrote down, you probably don’t need it.

… French women have created a new fashion aristocracy – timeless clothes that are a must for every wardrobe. More than simply basics, these purebred classics are carefully selected and treasured by their owners. They are always in style, never to become outmoded:

— the supreme black turtleneck
— the definitive raincoat
— the reliable pair of black jeans
— the essential Hermes scarf
— the oversize white T-shirt
— the must have red gloves

— the versatile, fringed cashmere muffler
— the single strand of pearls.

 

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  1. February 7th, 2010 at 09:06 | #1

    Thanks for the review of this hard to find book! I’ll have to see if it’s available at my library. I look forward to your posts on the grey sweater!

  2. Marsi
    February 7th, 2010 at 11:37 | #2

    Great post, Kristi. I’m with you: madly in love with this book. It’s one I like to re-read once or twice a year. The illustrations are so charming, too.

    What do I think of the Hermes “must have”? Meh. I can’t think of a time when I wore an Hermes and didn’t feel just a touch mumsy. I had about a half-dozen of them at one time and sold most of them (to FC members) five years ago and used the proceeds to shop in Paris. I still have a few left that I don’t know what to do with, so there they sit.

    My favorite scarves are NOT silk. Silk is cold, and one of the last places I want to be cold is my neck. I love tissueweight pashminas so much more than Hermes.

    I’ve been looking for a pair of black jeans for quite a while now. If I could find a pair, I’d get rid of all of my blue jeans because my preference would be to dress in black from head to toe.

    I don’t wear pearls either, though I have several strands of long pearls from my mother. They make me feel mumsy, too.

    I’ll be returning to working in an office (for the client I’ve freelanced for since 1994) sometime this year, and a NICE trenchcoat is on my little list of wardrobe items to buy.

  3. Marsi
    February 7th, 2010 at 11:39 | #3

    A GREAT book to get through interlibrary loan is called “Your Carriage, Madam,” which is a book on posture written in the 1940s. Out of print now, of course, but the information in it is invaluable. It will change the way you think about movement. Tim Gunn mentions it in his book, the title of which I can’t recall at the moment.

    • February 7th, 2010 at 11:51 | #4

      Just reserved it ILL. Thanks.
      I also wish I would have spent more time in Europe — never even thought of it in high school or college.I will encourage my children to do so.

  4. February 7th, 2010 at 11:45 | #5

    I think Hermes seem a little matronly to me as well, but so do most silky scarves … I am favoring big thick knit scarves lately. Although I have a few strands of pearls, same thing — they just don’t suit me. I’m saving them for my kids …
    Do you really want to dress in black from head to toe? Cool. I think that you are right, with the right pair of black jeans they would work. I’ve had bad luck with the black jeans I’ve tried lately … but if I found a perfect fitting pair, we’ll see.

  5. February 7th, 2010 at 13:36 | #6

    Thanks so much for the excerpts and your thoughts on French Style. I haven’t even been able to track it down through the library, for at least a look! I picked by Susan Sommers French Chic at a second hand bookstore years ago for about $8 (this book is inferior to French Style I have heard) and am hoping the same thing will happy with French Style one day! But until then, your fun post will keep me going. Thanks again.

  6. February 7th, 2010 at 15:16 | #7

    Kristi – I adored this post (and the one above it too)! Really like how you incorporated photos of your idea look and the role model idea to keep your style crystalized in your head.

    I recently considered buying a Hermes scarf, but decided against it. I only thought I wanted it because of the Hermes name, which isn’t a good reason for such a pricey (or any) purchase. However, I did buy two silk scarves from Talbots last week. I like them so much, I can’t decide whether to wear them or have them framed and put on my office wall as art. They’re online now. One is the “I Love You” scarf and the other has a park theme.

    I have red leather gloves. Why? I have have no idea. Never wear them.

    • February 8th, 2010 at 07:34 | #8

      Phyllis,
      That has been my rule of thumb with scarves — only buying ones I absolutely love, the colors, pattern, etc. That means I only own two because I’ve never fallen for any more than that! Also, I saw a woman coming out of the preschool the other day in complete winter black — pants, big overcoat, boots and even a black hat, but she had on red gloves and they Popped! It looked great.
      Jeanne, Thanks for commenting. Love your mother’s advice … perfect. Also, please feel free to comment on how your not a cent in lent is going once we kick off.
      Beth, Tine, Fiona, La, let us know if you take on this experiment yourself and if you get anythign out of it. I have been keeping a photo file on my computer of looks that work/looks that don’t. I must say the first day’s post is not my favorite so I created an “undecided” file I will go back to. I also realize my weight affects what I like and dislike about my clothes right now, as well.

  7. February 7th, 2010 at 22:10 | #9

    Kristi, thank you so very much for this post. I too am a “Catholic on a Budget” and this post really helps me. I am aiming for “not a cent for Lent” too. I wanted to read this book but did not want to shell out $100 for a book I haven’t even skimmed through. Your thorough post reminds me of all the lovely items in my wardrobe that I do have, and to wear them by God! My BF always reminds me to actually wear the items in my wardrobe – he says, “your best [items] are for wearing” and by doing this, my desire to shop to look for the perfect item is satisfied, as I remember that I might actually already OWN the perfect item!

    By luck and generous Mum and bf, I have a few high end handbags, and I find that these, plus my two posh-looking black patent leather Hush Puppies shoes and Franco Sarto knee boots [$250…in 2005!] really elevates my look. My Mum was raised in the Philippines, where she was taught the concept of always being “postura” – the Filipino equivalent of La Bella Figura! So she always makes the most of her wardrobe and says the most important items in a lady’s repetoire are rosy lipstick and blush, neat shoes and figure showcasing skirts! You do a great job with your wardrobe, and I love your skirt and sweater combinations.
    A bientot, Jeanne

  8. Patricia
    February 8th, 2010 at 02:28 | #10

    Kristi, thanks so much for this post. This book sounds so interesting, it’s a pity it’s not more available. I’m looking forward to this week’s series with A.!

  9. aaonce
    February 8th, 2010 at 21:37 | #11

    Thanks for your discussion on this book, I was wondering if it was worthy of the hype attributed to it. The author’s comment about “if you can’t remember something on your list, you don’t NEED it” is one I live by. I have heard of “The Human Stain”, perhaps I have read it as well. Can’t remember. Please share your impression of “Reading Lolita in Tehran”. Sounds interesting, by the title. Although it isn’t in line with this thread, I just finished watching the movie “The Lemon Tree”. It is a story about a Palestinian woman who is being forced to have lemon trees (given to her by her father) cut down by the Israeli government, because they are seen as a security threat. Not an overly heavy story, certainly interesting. Thought you may like it.
    Now, about the list: I love black jeans, but they are hard to find. As with anything, I have to really love something before it can find a home in my closet. I wear silk scarves in the spring and fall and pashminas in the fall/winter. So a Hermes scarf would have to be something I thought I couldn’t live with out–it would just really have to work for me. Pearls follow the same sentiment: they must be something that catches my eye and compliment what I already own. In general, single (and even double strands) don’t do much for me. I tend to like unusual designs or over sized pearls to keep a fussy appearance at bay. While I do dress “up” slightly, I don’t have an overly formal (or matronly style-quite the contrary). I agree with much of her list, except that a white t-shirt isn’t a must have-(never has been for me) and my gloves are black, but they are opera length cashmere. I do have a hot pink beret though that I seem to favor in the dead of winter. Besides Italian Chic, have you found a “must have/must read book for Italian Fashion?

    • February 9th, 2010 at 06:50 | #12

      Aaonce, thanks for the movie recommendation and insight into your wardrobe. I have not been able to find anything similar to French Style in the Italian genre and have been complaining about it for years!

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What is it about those Italian women? You know the ones I’m talking about: beautiful, sexy, dressed to the nines just to take the kids to the park. They have a certain something that is indefinable. It is in the way they dress, the way they prepare their meals, the way they spend their leisure time.

It is because they know the importance of la bella figura. Roughly translated from Italian, it means putting you best foot forward in everything you do. It means cutting a beautiful figura. The opposite of la bella figura is la brutta figura, which is what someone might say about the falling down drunken guy at the party or the super tackily dressed woman at church. It means ugly figure.

La bella figura is much more than your appearance. It goes much deeper than that. It is about how you act. It is about how you treat others. It is about how you care for yourself, your home and your family. Living a life in line with la bella figura doesn’t take money. In fact, it is more about how to have class without a lot of money.

Someone who exudes la bella figura will have clean, pressed clothes and be well groomed. They will not be rude or sloppy. Their fingernails will be impeccably groomed. Their hair shiny and clean and their shoes will be polished. They will not have stray threads hanging from their suit hems. They will not be driving a car in need of the car wash.

La bella figura means driving that 15 year old car and meticulously cleaning it and caring for it. It means keeping your belongings in good repair. It means taking time to clean your house and not cluttering it up with meaningless objects.

When you focus all your spare energy, time and money on the things that bring you the most amount of pleasure, then you are truly living a life in line with la bella figura. The best part about it is that you don’t have to be Italian to do so. You just have to think like an Italian.

Italian children are raised to present la bella figura in whatever they do. From the time they are small and are groomed perfectly to attend church or school, they know that appearances count. They count because it is the first thing people judge about you. That first impression does matter. Appearances are also important because when you take the time to look nice, you are showing that you care about yourself. When you care enough to look good, it shows you have good healthy self esteem. Nothing is more attractive than self confidence.

In addition, dressing nice also shows respect for others. If you invite people over for dinner and greet them in flip flops, baggy sweats and a stained shirt, it is really disrespectful to them. The same if you dress sloppy to go to church or even to the market. By dressing nicely and being well groomed, you show respect for everyone in your world.

Having la bella figura means presenting yourself in the best light possible in all your interactions.