Monday, 2 April 2012

PARISIENNES A Celebration of French Women

 Divided by theme into chapters, this light-hearted and nostalgic romp through 20th-century Paris creates a beautiful history of the world’s most romantic city and its exceptional women. This collection of one hundred and thirty duotone photographs captures the essence of the Parisian femme fatale. All of the great French photographers from the late 1930s through the 1960s are featured, including Robert Doisneau, Brassaï, Willy Ronis, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Edouard Boubat, Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, Sabine Weiss, and many more. The photographs reveal Parisian women and all of their glorious facets: from the love-struck waif strolling along the banks of the Seine to the belles of the neighborhood balls flushed from their raucous dance moves, from no-nonsense career girls to flirty neighbors. Chanel-clad locals and runway models alike showcase the glamour of the fashion and haute-couture world with inimitable style. One chapter pays homage to the courageous women who battled for justice in World War II, the Resistance, the Liberation, and the revolts of May 1968, including role models such as philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir and journalist and playwright Marguerite Dumas. The Parisiennes featured here go to work, ride bikes, pose seductively, smile coyly, and are all devastatingly irresistible
PARISIENNES A Celebration of French Women
Carole Bouquet (Author), Madeleine Chapsal (Author), Marie Darrieussecq (Author), Catherine Millet (Author), Mireille Guiliano (Author)

Chic. Sophisticated. Elegant. Feminine. Stylish.

Everyone has an immediate, almost emotional response upon hearing the termParisienne. Try a word association game, and I challenge you to find anyone who doesn't automatically assign any of the above adjectives to the word. It's in our blood, in our water, this unswerving belief that the iconic Parisienne is above all chic sophisticated elegant feminine stylish thin joie de vivre elan intellectual haughty smooth....whew. We American women can't help but feel like Cinderella's dumpy, ugly stepsisters in comparison, especially when we're confronted with such breathtaking evidence as Catherine Deneuve (especially in her Belle du Jour days), Audrey Tautou and Marion Cotillard.

A big, fat photobook/coffee table tome published in late 2007 wants to change just that stereotype, though. Parisiennes: A Celebration of French Women, with an introduction by scholar and journalist Xaviere Gauthier and featuring brief, evocative essays by writers such as Dominique Mainard, Delphine de Vigan, and of course,Mireille Guiliano, has pages and pages and pages of illuminating photographs from renowned photographers such as Elise Hady, Robert Doisneau and Cecil Beaton. Each one captures a French woman (or women, as it were) at a particular moment of time in her life, and perhaps even in history, such as the Occupation of Paris or its Liberation.

The essays are required reading, especially that of Guiliano (whose writing never fails to make me hungry) and Gauthier. The latter especially creates a formidable, more complex view of the Parisienne, beyond the stereotype of the Hermes-scarf-wearing terror of the 16th arrondissement. Did you know, for example, that French women only received the right to vote in 1944? That working women were considered voleuses d'emploi ("female job stealers") by their male counterparts in the early 1900's? That during the Occupation, "of ten thousand uniformed agents belonging to the AFAT (the armed forces of the Resistance), only one, the chemist Jeanne Bohec succeeded -- by sheer determination -- in getting herself parachuted behind enemy lines, to serve as a sabotage instructor?" And that in 1942, the Vichy head of state Philippe Petain declared abortion "a crime against the State, punishable by death?" Gauthier offers up this fascinating, quick-and-dirty history of French women and their triumphs as well as failures in achieving equality. So much for the canard that French women are content being second-class citizens in their own country, a preposterous claim I've heard more than one Francophile make.

However, undoubtedly, the photographs make the book. These black and white images -- no trace of color among them, save for the figurative colors of joy, sadness, lust, hatred, love, and tenderness carved on the women's faces -- are impossible to simply glance over. They invite you to leap into them, right in the thick of their activity, as if the viewer were standing right there next to the tiny bistro table as the couple share cups of coffee and share intimacies in the middle of a bustling city. You're a voyeur at the next table as Simone de Beauvoir sits quietly in her favorite table at the Deux Magots, perhaps penning another of her famous letters to Sartre (or even better, adding another chapter to The Second Sex). You can almost smell the familiar scent of powder and feel the harsh glow of the stagelight on your bare skin as you peek into Catherine Anouilh's little dressing room at the Theatre de l'Odeon. No intimate moment is too personal to share in these very public pages, not even that enjoyed by a lone young woman in her bedroom, wearing nothing but her lingerie, as the photographer takes the shot from the open window. Naturally, that particular photo introduces the chapter entitled "Flirtation."

Parisienne women, for better or worse, have been ridiculed, worshipped, mocked, and endlessly imitated, sometimes by their own countrymen and women, most often by others who most likely hide their secret desire to be Parisienne behind the thin and cruel veil of stereotype and scorn. But the book demands the reader to reconsider this one-dimensional view of her. The chapters ("Love," "Motherhood," "Appetite," "Work and Play," "Out and About," "Rebellion," "Elegance," and "Flirtation") each offer fleeting glimpses of the many, many faces of the Parisian woman. Yes, there are a handful of photos here of stone-faced models with the latest Dior fashions draped on their reed-thin frames, and even very American Princess Grace of Monaco makes a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo, appropriately within the "Motherhood" chapter.

But more often than not, you're introduced to the anonymous Parisiennes, the student reading in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. The mother standing on the miniscule balcony of her apartment, pouring water over her children from a pitcher as they enjoy an outdoor splash in the tub. A 1920's secretary taking dictation from her hawk-nosed boss. An elegantly dressed woman, her shoes carefully placed beside her, taking a nap on two rickety chairs pushed together at the Jardin des Tuileries. And one of my personal favorites: a beautiful, unforgettable photo of six happy women waving in greeting to the photographer and smiling brightly at the lens: "The first Parisiennes to wear trousers, Place de la Concorde, Anonymous, 1933." You can almost feel history shift underneath their marching feet.

So many books published nowadays in English purport to share with us the "secrets of French chic," whatever they may be. This book prefers instead to reveal the many, many facets of French women and the crucial role they've played in history, not merely as fashion plates but as agents of their own destinies. They're mothers, students, writers, actors, shopgirls, flower sellers, activists, lovers, friends, confidantes, sisters. Sometimes, they'll even wear black socks over sandals. (I know, I was shocked, too.) They're lucky enough to have been born in a country that reveres women in their own right -- its checkered history granting women fundamental human rights notwithstanding -- and they know it, which may partially explain their serene self-confidence, the one trait I most admire in them and which I wish I could achieve myself.Parisiennes may not quite give away all the French woman's secrets of living an artful life, but the photographs and essays should provide wonderful food for thought, so to speak, when you need inspiration and more than yet another admonition about portion control, manicures and shopping.
by Marjorie in myinnerfrenchgirl.blogspot‏

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