French Dressing

Early 20th century French style captured by photographers les Frères Séeberger, Paris, 1991

They invented haute cuisine and haute couture, the stethoscope and the parachute, aspirin, pasteurisation and photography; theirs is the home of Cartesian geometry and Rococo architecture, birthplace of the Montgolfier brothers (hot air balloons) and the Lumiere brothers (movies). Less well-known, perhaps even than the Bretons’ invention of the bagpipes, is the fact we have the French to thank for holidays – and therefore, quite naturally, the holiday wardrobe.

French holiday style has long inhabited our fashion consciousness

Whether it’s Brigitte Bardot in a gingham sundress, Jane Birkin in espadrilles with a wicker basket over her arm or Jeanne Moreau in white piqué on the Baie des Anges, French holiday style has long since inhabited our fashion consciousness as the high-water mark of dressing for leisure. Partly this can be attributed to the glory of these beauties’ settings: the hundreds of miles of ravishing coastline, sun-bleached dunes and salt flats; the rolling green hills and rivers of la France profonde; the wedding-cake glamour of Riviera hotels. Monet celebrated the white cliffs of the Norman resort of Étretat 140 years ago; French photographer brothers the Frères Séeberger immortalised the look of the French haute-bourgeoisie at play in the early years of the twentieth century, following their glamorous, well-heeled prey from the sands of Biarritz to the casinos and beach clubs of the Cote-d’Azur and the racecourses and luxurious villas of the Normandy coast. Mademoiselle Chanel opened her first boutique not in Paris but in the resort of Deauville, in 1909, and she launched it not with cocktail wear but the Breton stripe and the beach pyjama.

Coco Chanel championing relaxed French summer chic
Brigitte Bardot’s gingham wedding dress caused an overnight shortage of the fabric when she married actor Jacques Charrier in 1959
Jane Birkin championing relaxed French summer chic

Yet the idea of the holiday as not exclusively the preserve of the wealthy was in fact born in strike-battered Paris in the summer of 1936, when the left-wing alliance known as the Front Populaire, headed by Leon Blum, passed reforms to working conditions including two-week paid holidays for workers. Until that date working men and women were paid by the hour every fifteen days and rested only on Sundays, when they might at most take the train half an hour out of Paris, dressed to the nines, to spend the afternoon at a guingette or riverside bar, eating, drinking and dancing. With paid holiday began a great French love affair: the phenomenon known as les grandes vacances1 that bloomed into a mass exodus from towns and cities for the month of August and went on to be celebrated throughout the culture – most especially on film.

We all have our cherished version of Gallic beachwear

There’s Monsieur Hulot and his holiday, there are the all-singing, all-dancing movies of Jacques Demy, from Les Demoiselles de Rochefort to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and there are the two best-known of French photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, who took as their focus the French at play on their annual break – picturing men in shirtsleeves on riverbanks or families piling into cars and trains bearing canoe paddles and deckchairs. Almost every film made by French director Eric Rohmer seems to have featured not only holidays but also, specifically, fantastically chic and cutting-edge French girls on holiday, in outfits from teeny-weeny bikinis to beatnik black accessorised with gold jewellery to white sawn-off jeans when white jeans were no more than a twinkle in fashion’s eye. And Cannes, after all, would not be Cannes without the film festival’s fashion parade, one starlet after another posing on the rocks in a fetching two-piece.

We all have our cherished version of Gallic beachwear, and every summer there’s a whole range of designers producing theirs. There are stripes from Chanel to Dior and gingham Bardot frocks from the bijou Parisian label Fifi Chachnil, there are ric-rac trimmed towelling mini dresses from Spanish Instagram phenomenon La Veste – and there’s no secret to the phenomenon’s timeless appeal. It can be mixed and matched – a Breton with a taffeta skirt, beach pyjamas and emeralds – it suits every shape and passes in all company. Perhaps most of all, the fashion of the grandes vacances recalls a more innocent time, the golden age that was in its heyday in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when future conflicts were inconceivable and French beaches once again were for love and sandcastles, not war.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

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Arts & Culture, July 2023, Style Maven

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