French Style for American Women

Today I heard about fashion and the influence it has had recently on professional women dressing more modestly.  One woman who understands how women choose their clothes and can discuss fashion and style is fashion consultant Marie-Therese Norris.

Marie-Therese and I connected through the Internet a few years ago. I found her blog http://thefrenchtouch-m-t.blogspot.com  and when I emailed her to exchange links unlike others who gave me the brush-off (their loss) because my blog was too diverse for their taste, she was receptive and open. I liked her immediately and after a few rounds of long emails where we shared a gift of smart gab, I also saw her shining wit and humor.

In my series of creative women, I created a list of intriguing clothes questions and was met with intelligent answers.

We both share a love of opera. Before we launch into our interview about style, fashion, and your business would you like to share how and why opera has influenced your cultural life?

Those of you who follow my Blog know that The French Touch is about my take on style after 60 and leading a gracious lifestyle at any age. For me, opera is an essential element of that gracious lifestyle. It is one of the great passions of my life. I grew up surrounded by opera singers and musicians, many of whom made their living in the world of opera. I, too, studied ballet, piano, and voice, but as much as I adore the ballet and symphonic music, opera is the art form that brings it all together. It is the complete art form. Someone once asked me what was my favorite instrument and I replied “the human voice.”

My opera-singer mother (Mme Mère) was my first fashion and style icon. In her youth, she had modeled Lilly Daché hats. I can still remember the huge steamer trunks in our basement filled with the beaded evening gowns and wraps she wore to the opera and when singing in recitals. I inherited her love of hats and learned from her the importance of fine fabrics, the perfect fit and that little detail that adds a certain je ne sais quoi.

As for those huge steamer trunks, well they are now in my basement filled with a lifetime’s worth of opera programs.

What wonderful images you’ve conjured up for us. For those who readers who haven’t had the pleasure of reading your Blog, The French Touch (http://thefrenchtouch-m-t.blogspot.com) or don’t know your work as an Image Consultant, can you share your background?

Following graduate work in French Literature, I spent many years teaching French to adults and offering cross-cultural training for executives through several national and international language institutes. For years friends had been asking for my advice on clothes, make-up, and healthy eating. At the grocery store one day, I ran into one of my students who exclaimed, “Oh my God, you even look put together at the supermarket. It must be genetic.” I assured her that anyone could do it if they knew how.

As a result of that conversation, I developed a workshop entitled “Finding Your Inner Parisienne,” which became very popular. From there, I joined the AICI (Association of Image Consultants International), took courses, and in 2006 launched my business “French Touch Image Consulting.”

It sounds as if you’ve done many things professionally. How do they contribute to the person you are today?

I have had more than a few professional incarnations in my life and have learned so much from each experience. Everything we do, have done and have experienced, forms the fabric of our lives – the rough spots, the smooth patches and everything in between. I wouldn’t change a moment of it, especially my failures from which I learned even more than from my successes.

Which came first the blog or the consulting?

My consulting business came first. I started blogging as an adjunct to my business and before long I realized that it was not only good for business but a great creative outlet and continues to be so for me. It was also a great way to reach out to women all over the world. The blogosphere is an amazing place to share information and you never know who will benefit.

My Blog and I have evolved over time, and I’m delighted to be a small part of that information network.

So why do you not post videos of yourself on your blog? Are you camera shy?

I have never done videos of myself and I rarely post pictures of myself, except if absolutely necessary. For example, during my recent trip to Bayreuth, Germany, for an opera festival, I posted pictures of myself in the outfits I wore at the request of quite a few readers, including you, Linda, who wanted to see them.

The truth is that I am, indeed, camera shy and always have been. I freeze the moment a camera is pointed at me, which means that I am never satisfied with the results.

The other reason I don’t do it is that the blogging world is full of people who do nothing but post pictures of themselves in various outfits, which is fine and often very helpful, but unless you are very clever with your clothes, your backgrounds, and your camera, after a while I think readers get bored looking at the same person over and over again no matter what she’s wearing. So, I made the decision early on to do as little of that as possible.

My Blog is more about what I have to say than “what I wore today.”

There is a definite element of French in both your response and your style. Would you like to explain that? The differences do you see between American versus French women style?

As the American-born child of a French father and French-American mother, I learned early on how to incorporate the best of French culture into my American way of life, and style is a very important element of French culture, particularly for the French woman. Having spent a lifetime observing her, I believe the essence of the French woman’s style is her femininity, which she nurtures all her life, to the delight of the French man, I might add. It underpins everything she is, does and wears. Her individual version of it may be classic or quirky, but she owns it, she works it and she will go to the grave with it. She truly enjoys being a woman. For her, it is a privilege and she makes the most it.

Another interesting thing I have observed is the American pursuit of perfection – the perfect body, the perfect face. The current craze for the perfect set of glow-in-the-dark white teeth is a great example. The French are comfortable with and sometimes prefer, a little imperfection. I always say that the French woman gets right to the brink of perfection and then takes two steps back.

I have a crooked mouth. Actually, it’s my upper lip and it’s only noticeable when I speak. I always felt a bit self-conscious about it. The night my husband and I met, he spotted me literally “across a crowded room” or rather he spotted that crooked upper lip. He thought it was adorable and knew he had to get to know the girl with “the turned up lip,” as he called it. 41 years later he still thinks it’s adorable. Sometimes imperfection can be so much more interesting. Just ask model Cindy Crawford who was told to remove the mole on her face, which, luckily, she decided not to do.

Imperfections give us individuality. With the current saturation with French style and with bloggers, what distinguishes your message?

That’s a difficult question to answer, but I think having grown up with a foot in both cultures which gives me a certain perspective that may not be available to the American or French expat who suddenly finds herself living in a new culture as an adult and decides to blog about it.

To understand French style you have to understand the French woman and how to decode her style signals, and that takes time and a discerning eye.

If someone doesn’t know their style is and they come to you, what do you start with?

Style can be such a confusing and vague term. You know it when you see it, but how do you define it? A style is about how you put yourself together, how you mix patterns and colors and how you add your own twist to a simple, classic outfit. Start with the classics and go from there, I always say.

For me, fashion has always been a place to start, not an end in itself. You take your cues from fashion and from there you develop your individual sense of style. Unlike fashion trends that come and go, style endures and is within the reach of any woman’s pocketbook.

I always start with a comprehensive evaluation of the whole woman, top to bottom. She needs to understand her body before she can dress it to advantage. I also need to know what’s going on in her life. Why did she seek out my services? Is she in a transition period? Would she like to be? This is all crucial information I need before I can help her rethink how she dresses.

Then we start with a list of Wardrobe Basics that should be in every well-dressed woman’s closet. From there we work on adding pieces that help her develop her own style that works for her and fits into her life. It’s a process.

What is the biggest lesson you practice creatively as a Consultant?

Remember that discerning eye I talked about? Like any good image consultant, I can look at a woman and know immediately what she’s doing right, what she’s doing wrong and how to fix it. Actually, that’s the easy part.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned in working with clients is to ask the right questions and listen to their answers. As I mentioned earlier, women often seek out my services during a time of transition or emotional upheaval – death, divorce, new career, etc. I always keep a box of tissues handy.

With today’s consumers turning to fast fashion, instead of boutiques, do people care about projecting an image?

Sadly, I think people care less about the image they project these days than they once did, particularly in this country. Remember the old saying “clothes make the man?” Sadly, that ship has sailed taking most of the well-dressed men with it.

What troubles me, even more, is that women are falling into that same sloppy, *it’s comfortable” trap. The average American woman’s closet contains a few dress-up outfits, jeans, tee shirts, sweats, yoga pants, which she lives in, and a bunch of mismatched pieces she rarely wears. I should know; I’ve sorted through many a client’s closets. The excuses are legitimate and predictable. “I don’t have time to shop.” “I hate to shop.” “I’m too busy to put together an outfit.” “I just grab and go.”

Women are the keepers of the culture. We set the tone by example. “Fast fashion,” as you term it like fast food always leaves you unsatisfied in the end.

How do your style principles apply in everyday life? Define your personal style.

Mastering the fine art of casual chic is the best thing you can do for your look on a daily basis. This is where the French woman excels. A wardrobe built around a collection of casual chic pieces that can be dressed up or down at a moment’s notice can get you through almost anything. These pieces form the backbone of the well-dressed woman’s wardrobe.

My personal style has changed a bit over the years as my lifestyle has changed. While still built around classic wardrobe basics, over the last decade or so I have added more separates that give me the flexibility to mix and match, which I love to do.

I would probably define my style as classic with an edge.   That “edge” is essential to a woman my age if she wants to avoid the dreaded frump factor.

8 Comments

  1. First of all you are so pretty you belong in front of the camera. I love the idea of French woman take two steps back from perfection. Also the white teeth. I think the Euopeans are a little more relaxed then the American craze for size zero perfection. interesting hearing about your fascination with Opera. I went through an Opera fascination at one time.

  2. What a fascinating interview! I so agree with you on the current state of how people dress in the U.S. They wear t-shirts everywhere! How sad.

  3. Hello Renee,

    As a reminder this is the interviewer Linda’s opinion, not Mare-Therese. I find yoga pants and athleisure wear the most offensive. To look as if your going to the Gym when you are not boggles my mind. I also can’t understand why someone would want to be head to toe in black when living in a hot climate! The emphasis on comfort is so pervasive it’s been taken to the extreme. Yet, I find jeans and a tee with a ballet flat very comfortable and more presentable.
    Anyway my 2 cents. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Dear Linda,
    Just wanted to leave a little note letting everyone know how very much I enjoyed our interview. I’ve been interviewed in the past, but your questions were definitely thought-provoking and it all felt like a lovely chat between friends. Thanks so much for the opportunity to reach out to your wonderful readers.

    Cheers, M-T

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