By Bénédicte Mahé

At Work, by Michelle Schwartzbauer

Michelle Schwartzbauer

Those of you who know me recognize that I am not a very fashionable girl. I do not take bold risks when it comes to clothes, I do not shop that often, (sadly) and I do not have a silhouette that allows me to wear everything I see in magazines.

When I lived in the USA, I had the feeling that people really had “office clothes” which often were in opposition to what they wore in their free time. These clothes were very corporate and indistinguishable: black pants, black shoes… Frankly, I found office clothes a little boring. In France, I feel that we are a bit less corporate, but more importantly, freer to choose our clothing. Of course, a lot of businesses like banks or governmental institutions have a more formal dress code, but nothing is said as to how you should dress exactly—unless you are in a position that requires a uniform.

I think men have it easier than women do. It is much simpler when they want to dress formally: a pair of pants, a shirt, a tie, sometimes a vest, and voilà! I will admit that men have it slightly harder during summer, since they have to adapt their dress code to summery fabrics but still have to wear pants, shirt, a tie, and vest. But the difficulty for us women is that we have too much choice (is that even a real problem?). What is considered suitable for work or not? How can we show our individuality, while still dressing appropriately for our work, and age? I have not have yet found an answer.

When I began to look for internships and was invited to interviews, I was nervous about dressing for the job. For example, I had an interview at a bank’s private foundation so I had to look more chic than when I interviewed for a theater’s communication agency, which was a bit more casual. It was exciting, though, because it meant doing some shopping! I bought a pair of nice pumps with high heels (well, 10 cm), a black vest (yes, it is true that we do not wear so many colors as you do in America) and three blouses. The result? I felt professional, but also felt that someone 20 years older than me could have easily worn the same thing (this does not mean that women in their 40s do not dress well; on the contrary, but being 24 does make me want to dress like a 24-year-old). Therefore, I was in a quandary (yes, quandary, let’s use real vocabulary in this article).

I am not a fashion advisor. I can only speak about what works for me and will not be able to give advice on what will work for your job/age/body type. But I found a solution by wearing my usual skirts. I have three favorite skirts, which may be a bit short for work in the US: (I am talking more than 5 centimeters above the knee) two by the French brand Naf-Naf, and one by Urban Outfitters (I bought my ultimate favorite in Madison, WI, on sale for $10). When it was la mi-saison (not winter, but not yet spring), I wore them with black tights and pumps, but when it began to be more summery, I wore them without tights but with flats (I still have to be appropriate). I wear them with a shirt—long or short sleeves depending on the season, which I tuck into the skirt. To look more professional I add a vest. I have lots of fun with skirts’ patterns so I try to be more low-key on the rest. I also love to wear dresses.

Since I am not able to renew my garderobe every week, I have off-days. Like today, for example, I wore black linen pants (H&M) with wedges (Geox—super comfy), a white t-shirt with a pink dog painted on it (Comptoir des Cotonniers) and a short suit jacket with ¾ sleeves. I do not feel particularly age appropriate—except maybe for the tee. This is why you should also accessorize or do your hair in a way that reminds people that you may be a working woman but you can also be very up-to-date with what is fashionable at your age. I must admit that in America, you take hair and make-up much more seriously than we do in France. In America, I was once amazed to see a girl wearing pajama pants at school while having her hair and make-up perfectly done (there’s no way the pajama pants—with or without UGGs—would happen in France outside your apartment; let us be clear about that right now). For example, I could easily wear headbands to work, or let my hair down and wear colorful nail polish: today I am wearing a mint color (not that many people have professionally manicured hands or pedicured feet because it costs a lot more here—and not a lot of people have a French manicure). As long as it is applied well, I am pretty confident I could wear every nail color I wanted to, even at the bank.

Thanks to the Internet and fashion blogs, where bloggers draw inspiration from one another, and to brands which go international, I feel there are not so many differences now in career wear between France and America.

Bénédicte Mahé photo - cropped DuplicateBénédicte Mahé has studied abroad many times, speaks four languages and earned a Master of Management of cultural goods and activities, as well as a Master’s degree in intercultural communications and cooperation. She works in communication and international projects management. Among her interests are drinking tea, cooking (with or without success), reading, traveling, and—of course—shopping. She started her blog Tribulations Bretonnes in 2010 and has been updating it (more or less regularly) since then.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Beauty Confessions from a Globe-trotting Parisienne. Parisienne Bénédicte Mahé shares a French woman’s approach to beauty and makeup; and how the relationship Americans have with beauty is very different from that of the French. Including her list of Beauty Resources in Paris and a vocabulary of French to English translations. (French)

Ballet Flats in Paris: And God made Repetto, by Barbara Redmond who shares what she got from a pair of flats purchased in a ballet store in Paris; a feline, natural style from the toes up, a simple pair of shoes that transformed her whole look. Including the vimeos “Pas de Deux Coda,” by Opening Ceremony and “Repetto,” by Repetto, Paris. (French)

How to spend your money even if you do not need to: the French biannual sales, by French woman Bénédicte Mahé who writes about the exquisite uniqueness of French sales that last for weeks each year and offer incredible sales.  These sales take place over five weeks during the late summer and for two weeks during the winter, and thus demands from shoppers: when to buy and what to wait for during sale season?

Scarves à la Françoise: The lingua Franca for stylish women, by Barbara Redmond who shares her experience trying on scarves and tying them at the home of her French friend in Lyon. Arriving at the famous silk manufacture in Lyon, André Claude Canova, Barbara and her friend gently tapped on the window even though the shop was closed. The shop girl let them and they all enjoyed hours of playfully draping, twisting and knotting scarves and shawls. An experience spurred by the ubiquitous nature of women and scarves: our common language.

French Lingerie: Mysterious and flirty, by Barbara Redmond who shares her experience searching for the perfect lingerie in Paris boutiques and her “fitting” with the shop keeper, Madame, in a curtained room stripped to bare at Sabbia Rosa. Including a French to English vocabulary lesson for buying lingerie and a directory of Barbara’s favorite lingerie shops in Paris. (French)

How to find a (suitable) place in Paris, and other miscellaneous information, by French woman from Brittany, Bénédicte Mahé, who is in her mastère-spécialisé final trimester doing an internship in Paris. Bénédicte shares with students how to find a place in Paris. (French)

Text copyright ©2012 Bénédicte Mahé. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.