How I love a hat. Sadly, I look ridiculous in most of them. It takes a special person to wear a hat well and, while they are increasingly rare these days, no one does it better than the French.

Like so many other things, hats are not always hats in France. If you refer to your baseball cap as a chapeau, you will quickly be corrected: Vous voulez dire une casquette? A ski hat is un bonnet (not even a toque, as we Canucks call it!). Just to keep us on our toes, a chef’s hat in French is called une toque (pronounced: tuck), a term that can also refer to the master chefs themselves, like the late Monsieur Paul.

There is a delightful generic term for hats in French: un couvre-chef. I have no idea where it comes from, but it makes perfect poetic sense: ‘couvre’ is cover and ‘chef’ in this sense is your head.

So let’s look at a few examples. With the passing of Karl Lagerfeld this week, it seems somehow fitting to start by tipping my hat to the great house of Chanel.

* Side note: it may be just me and advancing age, but the first thing I want to know when someone dies is what they died of. The Kaiser of fashion, as he was known, was 85 and died in hospital after a ‘brief illness’. The iconic Chanel designer was known for keeping things private, and also being quite the health buff, but rumours are that it was pancreatic cancer.

Coco Chanel was a milliner in her early days, and was also often seen sporting a hat. I love the model’s expression in this pic – it looks like the grande dame may have been poking her with a pin!

Geneviève de Fontenay is the former head of the Miss France pageant and probably the Frenchwoman most famous for her hats.

Brigitte Macron must not like the way she looks in hats as she is never seen wearing them. Her husband, on the other hand, looks pretty good with a lid. The French president is seen here trying on a chechia, the traditional Tunisian version of the beret.

Speaking of which, the beret so often depicted in movies about France is rarely seen here. Perhaps the indigenous population of beret-wearing, baguette-toting Frenchmen have all retired to a remote village in the south of France, a place where accordion music plays on every street corner.

Pablo Picasso, who lived in the south of France, wore his beret well.

Those remote country villages may be patrolled by gendarmes who wear the traditional képi, as made famous by Louis de Funès in Le Gendarme de St. Tropez.

On a more serious note, we should not forget the kippa (nor confuse it with the képi as I often do), also called a yarmulke. The traditional cap worn by Jewish men has been in the news this week along with the frightening resurgence of anti-Semitic acts in France. I am horrified to see this happening, don’t understand it and can’t explain it.

The expression in the title of this post, ‘Chapeau!’ or ‘chapeau bas’, means to tip one’s hat in admiration or congratulate someone for a good performance. As can be seen in this photo from The Avengers, a television series known rather verbosely in France as ‘Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir’ (bowler hat and leather boots).

I do love a bowler hat.

Hats off to you for reading this far!

Do you have a favourite hat?

Fautes de goût

Bad taste or literally, ‘mistakes in taste’ is the phrase most often used by the French fashion police. Mostly they are undercover. Outside of a few people magazines and reality TV shows, French style rules for what to wear are largely unspoken. But believe me, you know they’re there.

On the street you will observe a certain uniformity in the way people dress, what could even be described as a uniform. Skinny legs, close-fitting waists and nary a panty line. Belts and buckles and laces and earrings. It’s all standard issue.

Brigitte Macron, France’s best-dressed first lady, has the unanimous admiration of her compatriots for rising to every occasion sans faute de goût.

At the office, creativity in putting together an outfit tends to be limited to a small detail, an accessory or an unusual cut. To avoid fashion blunders, flashy colours are a no-no, heels are de rigueur, no mixing of patterns and stripes! It is like an army in military drab.

Quintessentially Parisian style maven Ines de la Fressange advises people to dare to make fashion faux pas. Yet she herself is impeccably classic in her uniform below.

Brazilian-born Cristina Cordula is queen of les Reines du Shopping, a French reality TV show in which the female candidates compete to buy a new outfit on a set budget and model it for each other to see who will qualify as shopping queen. Wrongly pairing neckline with jacket, heels to hem height or mixing too many colours and textures will earn the dreaded ‘faute de goût!’

The way I look at it, the only real mistake you can make in what you wear is to forget who you are. Be true to your own style. Wear what feels good for you, be that in ‘good’ taste or not.

Sometimes I will try to dress to fit an idea that is not mine, say with a few more accessories than usual. Because I’ve seen it on someone else and thought it looked good. So I try it on, check in the mirror and it looks okay. Then I walk around for two minutes and change. Because it’s not me.

Ultimately I opt for what makes me feel good. Which means comfortable and confident. Although I avoid going out in track pants or leggings unless I’m actually running. Exercising is one thing; going to the shops is another, even though styles have loosened up a lot in recent years and the line between street wear and exercise gear has blurred. Even in France.

As Gore Vidal said: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

What’s your style? Or do you not give a damn?

Cherchez la femme

dog_shoeAccording to my passport, I am French. Along with some vital statistics (sex: female; height: 157 cm; eyes: brown), it reveals a few home truths about me. Like the fact that I wasn’t born in this country.

My accent’s pretty fair. On a good day, I could probably pass as a native French speaker. Yet if I had any yen to be a spy, my career would be brief. A lacune (gap) in my vocabulary, a gender bender in grammar or hesitation over numbers would quickly reveal my secret: I’m not from here.

(Did you know that the French count on their fingers with the thumb first while we Anglos start with the index?)

But my cover would be blown before I even got that far. You see, I don’t look like a French woman.

In the words of my mother-in-law: “Tu n’as pas une tête pour être française.” Indeed. Neither my head nor any other part of my anatomy fits the mold of la femme française. Too pale, too heavy. Not fine of bone or tanned of skin.

I don’t dress like a Frenchwoman either. Mostly because French clothes don’t tend to fit me well (they are made for a narrower, longer frame); also, I can’t stand feeling cramped and constrained in my clothing. For me, it’s comfort first, elegance second. That means no tight waists, torturous heels or lacey underpinnings. I’m a white cotton kinda girl. By French standards, I am frumpy.

A Frenchwoman will wear a thong as a badge of femininity, regardless of how uncomfortable it is or whether her derrière is truly worthy of display. And, after all, pourquoi pas? It’s just not for me.

Once you get past the how-do-you do’s, I don’t really sound like a French woman. It’s not just mistakes in the language – it’s more a manner of speaking. I am simply too direct. In the time-honored tradition learned at my father’s knee, I tend to call a spade a spade. And I ask a lot of questions. Frenchwomen are generally much more discreet. Not to mention soft spoken. And perhaps not quite as fond as I am of foul language.

I also enjoy alcohol more than the average Frenchwoman. Not just wine but a fair bit of beer. Preferring hops to champagne bubbles is a pretty good clue I’m not pure souche.

And here is the ultimate giveaway: I can’t (read won’t) use an iron. Except for emergency touch-ups involving wrinkles deeper than the ones on my face.

My mother-in-law (who, by the way, has not discovered Google translate or this blog) once informed me that she would be incapable of sleeping on sheets that hadn’t been ironed. Hmph. Wonder how she manages a full night’s sleep on ours?

Frenchwomen are raised to wield an iron. The majority of households don’t possess clothes dryers, so ironing is how they finish drying their clothes. It also ensures the pristine, crisp appearance for which they are renowned.

It seems that every week brings a new tome promising the beauty and lifestyle secrets of the illusive Frenchwoman. Here’s the latest for those who want to know how to look chic. But frankly, I’m a little tired of reading about how Frenchwomen don’t get fat. (Apparently I’m not alone – according to this editorial from Vanity Fair.)

The fact is, it’s a lot of work being a Frenchwoman. Most of the ones I know do work, rather hard, whether at home or at an outside job, in most cases both. With very little help from les messieurs.

And that’s another reason I’m not a real Frenchwoman*. Ours is an equal-opportunity household.

* With apologies to certain French female friends who are every bit as much of an exception to the rules as yours truly!