Like all English women (probably women everywhere) I was raised with the certainty that French women were the most stylish, and that if I could only get them to stop scowling at me, they would share the secret. At 16 I fell madly in love with Paris, and on the basis that even the concièrges would look like Audrey Hepburn in Charade went to live there three years later. Big mistake. The concièrges did not look like Audrey Hepburn in Charade. In fact, no one looked like Audrey Hepburn in Charade. This is probably because Hepburn was a woman of Dutch/Anglo-Irish heritage working in America. The real French looked like Japanese tourists with bad Burberry habits. I realise now, of course, that upping sticks to Paris at 19 was as misconceived a plan as entering Celebrity Big Brother to disseminate one’s political beliefs about Saddam Hussein. No one should take up residence in Paris before the age of 40 — it is such an innately bourgeois city that you cannot truly appreciate it (nor it you) until you are sufficiently established and well heeled to acquire your own Burberry habit, plus an Hermès Birkin, after which le snottiness extraordinaire, which all the best Parisian sales assistants go to sales-assistant school to master, becomes easier to quell.I must say this is a relief to read, especially after having read all those articles about French women and their inborn ability to tie a scarf. Who wears a scarf nowadays? Yet article after article about chic Parisiennes never fails to mention this Gallic scarf-tying ability along with their "investing" in "important" pieces.
Burberry has been reborn as a very chic commodity. French dress sense has not. Like so much in France, it dwells in a glorious past. It still consists, as it did 25 years ago, of sensible skirts, sensible, air-hostess shoes, bulky jackets, chunky unattractive gold jewellery, numerous “tasteful” standbys such as a tan leather belt, a silk scarf knotted at the throat, a black trouser suit that doesn’t waste its time being shapely and (ye gods) the padded velvet hair band, plus any number of “serviceable” objects such as the quilted shapeless jacket and those nasty nylon handbags that the rest of us moved on from long ago. For the rich there are also bulky fur coats and helmet hair. When even Claire Chazal, a newsreader and French insititution, features so highly on the fashion radar, you know this is a nation with risk issues.
But Armstrong reminds us that dressing sensibly can only take you so far. As the great Diana Vreeland said: "I'm a great believer in vulgarity. We all need a splash of bad taste. No taste is what I'm against."