Paris fashion tops Seattle's, but the reason might surprise you

Parisian style is remarkably practical and monochromatic, featuring low-heeled boots, casual jackets, and short skirts.

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Comfort and style combined: Fashion for Parisian women is surprisingly sensible.

Parisian style is remarkably practical and monochromatic, featuring low-heeled boots, casual jackets, and short skirts.

On an early fall flight to Paris I read Anna Wintour’s comments in Vogue magazine about skirt length. She declared it a fresh fashion moment, proven by her recent trip to London where all the fashionable women were wearing slim skirts nearly long enough to graze ankles.

Parisians didn't get the memo. We arrived on the first day of fall, and women young and old were strutting the streets in boots, tights, and definitely short skirts — when they weren’t wearing snug jeans and leather biker jackets, or wrapping long sweaters over boots and leggings.

I'd never been to Paris before, and spent as much time checking out fashion as the awe-inspiring art and architecture. It was all so gloriously, intensely urban, from the grand buildings to the rush of smokers, chatting on their cell phones, hanging out at cafes and clogging the streets at all hours. I felt like a whirling dervish, spinning around to take in what people were wearing as well as all the tiny cars, stylish bikes, fabulous flower shops….well, if you've been to Paris you know the list of wonders and beauties is a long one.

Parisians, men and women, are sleekly stylish in their everyday dress. But scratch the surface of pretty scarves, glossy boots, and enviable purses, and you see that they dress more practically, and I’d guess more frugally, than we Seattleites.

I've lived in Seattle all my life, so I say this fondly and guiltily: Here we dress down most days in comfortable jeans, fleece, and sneakers. When we do dress up, you can tell we put a lot of effort into it. Parisian women dress simply and beautifully every day, and I’d guess they have far fewer clothes than we do.

For Parisian women, it's all about hair, jackets and shoes. The 60-ish proprietor of the boulangerie where I drank dark and delicious coffee every morning had expertly colored blond hair worn slightly unkempt around her shoulders. This undone hair looked great with her black leather jacket and gray wool pencil skirt. Younger women wear their hair mostly long, loose and casual, although obviously salon polished. Some even were wearing side ponytails. Really.

Women in Paris aren’t jumping in and out of cars, for they mostly walk or ride the subway or the loaner bikes that line the streets. So footwear is low-heeled and comfortable, though you’d never know it. They rarely resort to sneakers, grounding their looks with sophisticated little ballet flats or tall walking boots. And because everyone sits out at sidewalk cafes, even in October, jackets top off most outfits. They’re usually short and chic, mostly leather, but also dark cotton or tweed, often belted. Oh, and sunglasses. Even on the chilly, cloudy days of early autumn, hip sunglasses are part of everyone’s ensemble, men and women alike.

Clothes were mostly gray, beige, and black, except for scarves and purses in brighter shades. Interest was created with texture and shape, not pattern or color. And the clothes fit beautifully; people didn’t do baggy, sloppy, or wrinkled. My guess is because women own fewer, simpler clothes they can afford to have them beautifully tailored. And with sleek, timeless lines and monochromatic colors, it’s possible to wear the same clothes most days and over many years. When I admired a knee-length camel-colored cardigan the young woman at our hotel desk was wearing, she said she'd bought it at H&M 10 years ago ... surely she couldn't have been old enough for that?

Men pretty much wore a uniform, and it was a good one. Rarely did I see a sport coat — even young men wore snug, dark suits, in black or dark gray. Shirts are white, ties narrow and dark. The suits are impeccably cut, with slim pants worn a little short (to my eye). The jackets are single breasted and cut slightly slimmer and shorter than jackets here. Guys looked sophisticated and relaxed, despite the flashy, pointed shoes that livened up the dark suits.

I did spot several women actually wearing those hideous drop-crotch pants I didn’t believe existed outside of fashion magazines. Stilettos and haute couture seemed mostly confined to Paris’s classy fashion district, with streets like the rue Montaigne and the Place Vendome lined in high-end designer boutiques.

Whether high fashion or everyday, women looked expertly and effortlessly pulled together, yet they expressed individuality with the toss of a scarf, the addition of an orange or red purse, even a vividly colored case for their ubiquitous cell phones. Fashion seemed more about personal expression than perfectionism. Striding on cobblestone streets, over ancient bridges, jumping on and off the subway, women of all ages looked comfortable in their skin and in their clothes.

Maybe the beauty of the city itself holds the people who live there to a higher standard. Or maybe Parisians dress with a little edge because of all those sidewalk cafes where everyone hangs out and watches the parade of people passing by. Do you think it’d give our fashion sense a little boost if we turn the chairs in Seattle cafes to face out toward the street as they do in Paris?


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.