When it comes to conundrums, French men’s fashion takes a lot of beating. While Paris has always been famous for its women’s haute couture, spearheaded by household names like Chanel, Dior or Cardin, menswear has tended to be something of a poor relation. Obviously, there are exceptions to this: every year, Parisian catwalks resound to the determined footsteps of young men clad in outlandish garments that no self-respecting corpse would be seen dead in. But this is art rather than practical day-wear. These are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Walk down a smart street on the rive droite, linger outside Cartier on the Rue de la Paix or Van Cleef & Arpels on the Place Vendôme and - if you don’t die of boredom first - you’ll see a succession of elegantly, and sometimes extravagantly clad ladies coming in and out of these porn palaces for the rich. Sometimes, they will be accompanied by a dapper husband or (this being Paris) a lover. He will often be smiling and devil-may-care on his way in, but considerably more sober, and poorer, coming out.
And he will frequently look very English. His shoes will be brogues, and unmistakably Church’s; his suit a restrained pinstripe set off with an Eton tie and matching pocket square. His cufflinks from Dunhill. And you may ask yourself: are Englishmen now trophy husbands for upper-class French ladies? Are you looking at David Cameron on a weekend package trip to Paris? No, this man is French. He eats garlic for breakfast and considers frog’s legs a perfectly acceptable use of an amphibian. He might well drive a Ferrari, but his heart lies with the Citroen 2CV. He will spend more time discussing his wine than drinking it. He is French through and through, but, for some reason, he does not appear to be.
And that’s because, like many well-heeled (quite literally) Frenchmen, he dresses in the English style, or sometimes a rough approximation thereof. This is called, with admirable Gallic precision, le style anglais. Exactly where this fascination with traditional English tailoring came from is something of a mystery. After all, the French are not exactly known as a nation of anglophiles. However, le style anglais is by no means a new phenomenon, dating back to the 1930s at the very least.
It might have something to do with craftsmanship. An appreciation of finesse. The best shirts in the world are made (or at least sold) in Jermyn Street; the best suits in Savile Row. True, the French do have more than adequate tailors themselves, but they do not have the tradition, the terroir. And terroir is very important for the French. It’s the difference between a Chateau Margaux and a bottle of plonk from the adjoining vineyard. Real English tailoring, from London, carries a lot of weight.
There is also the question of identifiers. Despite historical nods to concepts such as liberté, egalité and fraternité, France is a nation where identifiers matter. A lot.
Take the humble black leather jacket, for example. In most other Western countries – and let’s face it, you won’t see many in India – the leather jacket lost its image of being a symbol of teenage rebellion long ago. Not in France. In France, le blouson noir still represents delinquency on a sub-ASBO level, to the extent that the writer of this piece was once denied access to a Parisian nightclub for wearing one. I was, I hasten to add, well-dressed in all other respects. It was just that jacket.
So, in France, how you dress defines who you are far more than in most other countries. Women are allowed far more latitude, of course. They are expected to look pretty and dress elegantly, while men are expected to look manly, robust, reliable and trustworthy, whether they actually are or not. On the other hand, women can generally indulge themselves as they wish, which goes some way to explaining the existence of haute couture. If that focus had been on menswear instead, trendy French women would be wearing pearls and a twinset.
Naturally, clothing that conforms to the concept of le style anglais does not have to be made in England and more often than not it isn’t. Neither is it clothing that a corresponding Englishman would necessarily wear, unless he was an extra in Downton Abbey. In fact, a corresponding Englishman would be far more likely to wear an Italian suit or a Lacoste polo shirt and jeans than a Harris Tweed hacking jacket. Sadly, in imitating le style anglais, the French do tend to get it rather wrong – or not entirely 100% right anyway.
But, there again, that’s how cultural appropriation works. You borrow something from another culture, give it your own twist, and it becomes your own. In fact, it might be true to say that there is nothing more French than le style anglais.