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A specialist in eighteenth-century French literature and culture, Weber is a fashion historian and the author of "Queen of Fashion: What Marie-Antoinette Wore to the French Revolution." She is also[…]

Barnard professor Caroline Weber recalls an embarrassing moment on the French Metro that speaks volumes about the disparate relationship that American and French women have with fashion.

Question: How do French and American women approach style differently?

Caroline Weber: I can only really speak best to a distinction between American women and French women because I’ve lived in France a lot and that’s the world I am immersed in when I’m not living here in New York. And a lot of these differences will sound cliché, but I think they really hold true. The first and biggest difference that my French friends always point out to me is that French women shop less and better than American women. French women will buy something that's very high quality, one very nice little tailored black jacket, one very elegant little pair of ballerina flats. And an American, and I include myself unfortunately in this category, I like a nice tailored jacket and I like the beautiful little ballerina flats but I'll also pop into H&M and eight t-shirts in different colors just because they’re there and I can and they’re cheap and it might be fun to introduce them into my wardrobe someday. French women as a result have closets that are a lot less cluttered generally than their American counterparts.

French women also repeat what they wear a lot more. A French woman would much rather be seen in the same little black dress or the same little tailored blue jacket or the same pair of shoes over and over again and have that be her uniform and know that she looks great and that it’s perfectly fitted to her body, and that it’s the highest quality. I think there is an American mentality of reckless consumerism, which is – and I remember the first year I was a Professor I was guilty of this. My first year as a Professor, it was 1998 and I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and I decided that I would never wear the same outfit to class twice. In part because I was paranoid that my students would notice and that it would become distracting, but in fact, the opposite was true and my student wrote comments about favorite outfits, favorite pairs of shoes on my teacher evaluations at the end of term. And that was a little embarrassing, but what that showed was a very American approach which is that more is always better. That different is always better.

I think a second difference that again is stereotyped, but I have found it to be true between American and French women is that French women will spend much more money on what they’re wearing underneath their clothes than on their clothes themselves. And French friends spend so much money on beautiful lingerie. Whenever I am in Paris I try to splurge and buy one of two pieces, but my mentality is always, ‘well, nobody, or maybe one person is going to see it besides me if I’m lucky.’ And otherwise I would like to be seen by as many people as possible in my very chic outerwear, but French women have that real cult of sensuality, that real cult of seduction that’s very much in their blood I think, and that translate into a much bigger lingerie industry, or much bigger lingerie sales over there. It means that, if you are in Paris, for instance, and your luggage is lost and you think, ‘Oh, I’ll just go into some kind of K-mart-esque department store to buy cheap cotton underwear, even a pair of cheap cotton underwear is like $50 in the Paris equivalent of K-Mart because everything that you put on as an undergarment is viewed as worthy and is viewed as a kind of special luxury. So, you can’t have cheap underwear, ratty underwear, cheap old bras, that doesn’t really exist.

And then I would say the third thing, and this is where maybe I am more in favor of the American aspect of things than the French aspect of things is I've noticed at least then there is a much stronger culture of conformity in France than there is in America at the level of female dress. Most of the American women that I know are willing to experiment to a greater or lesser degree and are willing to wear something a little wacky or are willing to wear bright red shoes, or a hot pink sweater. In France it is very, very, very still implicitly codified, I mean kind of like a Court of Versailles. I remember one day I had bought this beautiful hot pink Louis Vuitton cape at a second-hand store somewhere in Paris and I had to ride the Metro to get back to my apartment on the Left Bank. And I was proudly wearing my – I had thrown it on because it was heavy in the bag, and I was wearing this beautiful hot pink cape from the 60’s, and I got on the Metro and within five minutes I was incredibly uncomfortable because every other woman on the train was wearing either a navy blue, a tan, or a dark green quilted barn jacket. They were all wearing the barn jacket. And they all looked great, and they all had the little Hermes scarf, or Hermes equivalent scarp tied around their necks, and they all had the neat little skirt. But it was astonishing both how homogenous the rest of the crowd was and how much was a sore thumb I stuck out at that moment.

So, in that sense, I am more comfortable in America because there is a lot more room for innovation and experimentation here than there is in France where it really is a culture of conformity and judgment and you really are a freak if you’re not falling into line with what everybody else is wearing at a particular moment. 

Recorded on October 13, 2009